Sometimes it feels like the conversation around menopause is a new one, but it is not! Though menopause is still taboo in many circles, we at Bia think talking openly about it is an important part of changing the discourse to address the perspectives and needs of women of all ages. With this in mind, we thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at how activists have been thinking and talking and writing about menopause for the last two centuries.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement, which took place in the United States in the mid 1800s focused on winning the right to vote for women. Two key reformers of this movement were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. There are records that show these two women often discussed in great length the struggles and tribulations of menopause. Stanton was a strong believer that “menopause had directed all her ‘vital forces’ from her reproductive organs to her brain”, as Gail Collins writes in her book about “older women in American history”, No Stopping Us Now. Stanton continued to publish work throughout the later period of her life, most notably the Women’s Bible at the age of 80 years old. Though controversial in its publishing, this work would go on to be among the most critically acclaimed of her lengthy career. She constantly fought the notion that women were in decline after menopause. Instead she believed women would and should thrive in these later parts of life. Having had seven children by her mid-forties, she was a key believer that women would ‘not be in our prime before fifty.’
When thinking about feminist movements, the second-wave of feminism conjures up images of women protesting in the 1960s. With the movement, came a conversation about women’s reproductive health that was not previously addressed openly within the feminist movement. Germaine Greer, author of the Female Eunuch, wrote that menopause and the release of reproductive pressures gives women the ability to explore themselves, as ‘to be unwanted is also to be free’. This focus on female sexuality and desirability is a clear thread that runs throughout the bulk of literature written during this period. Today this thought can seem dated, as framing ourselves through the lens of men’s desires is not itself a necessarily desirable condition. And of course many women continue to lead sexually active and healthy lives through menopause and beyond, having their own desires!
Betty Friedan, American author of the Feminine Mystique, took a different approach. She was sceptical of market forces leading research into menopause and its treatment. She believed there was a “a suspicious coincidence of the demographic emergence of this incredible market--50 million women hitting menopausal age--with the revived definition of menopause as disease”. Friedan has throughout her career written about ‘the problem with no name’, arguing that the changes within women’s reproductive systems should not differentiate them from men. Her personal conclusions about menopause were that she found the whole experience rather inconsequential herself, which perhaps says just as much about her symptoms as her commitment to her ideals.
We must not forget that a large chunk of literature written around the women’s movements often discounts women of colour. Their perspectives are seldom included, despite how the causes of feminism and racism are intrinsically linked. Alice Walker, author of the Colour Purple was a champion of the Womanist movement, which sought to drive equality within the feminist cause. Like Stanton (from the suffragist movement mentioned above), she held a positive view while addressing the challenges facing many. ‘At menopause, a time of extremely high power and shapeshifting, we are told to behave as though nothing is happening,’ she writes in We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, a collection of poetry and prose documenting her experience of ‘the Pause’. She, like Greer and Friedan questions her changing femininity but does not think the experience makes her any less of a woman or a feminist.
Menopause has always infiltrated the feminist conversation, despite still being stigmatised in wider society. These women all experienced menopause, though certainly in different ways. The token slogan of the second-wave still rings true today, that ‘the personal is political’. Women’s experiences are still the subject of public conversation, yet the experience for individual women varies greatly. Talking about menopause and making sure women’s needs are addressed is still an important conversation today and it is a conversation that we are glad to be a part of.