Not surprisingly, many of the myths about menopause have been with us for centuries. Back in the day, lack of proper medical knowledge caused people to turn to various ways of trying to explain how the human body worked. A mix of religion and legend sprinkled with a touch of magic, the human body was subjected to crude explanations. Add in the erroneous but accepted beliefs about women and small wonder menopause was ridiculed and seriously misunderstood. Even though we have managed to gain much in knowledge, many negative attitudes towards menopause persist to this day.
Prior to the last 100 years or so, nobody really knew anything about hormones and how they worked. Instead, beliefs about women sprang out of misconceptions surrounding the monthly menstrual period. Some religious and pagan teachings considered the period to be a sign that a woman had a covenant with the Devil. Others saw it as nature’s way to rid women of the impurities associated with women’s bodies; the monthly bleeding would cleanse a woman when she was not doing her proper duty of bearing children.
As women ended the end of their reproductive years, coincidentally the end of most natural life expectancies, the end of the menstrual period was proof that a woman had indeed outlived her usefulness. By having children she had served her purpose, but now had nothing more to contribute to her husband’s namesake or to society as a whole. Fast forward to today, and we can see how the ideal image of a young, fertile woman still pervades many areas of our social consciousness despite numerous attempts at dispelling these old myths.
Menopause of 1812
According to some sources, the word ‘menopause’ was first used by the French physician de Gardanne. This small but important turn of events marked a change in medical and scientific understanding. Instead of pointing to bodily fluids to explain medical conditions, the new trend was to examine bodily organs. For women, this meant moving away from satanistic accusations. But it still did little to provide a solid understanding of the female anatomy.
Women’s organs were still their greatest undoing. When women were no longer producing children and still not generally living much beyond their 40s, women were still considered to be past their useful purpose as child bearers.
While human organs were examined in both men and women, women were again relegated to a sub-class based on nonsensical ideas that women’s organs made then naturally more emotional, unstable, and inferior to men. Men were strong; women were hysterical. In fact the word ‘hysterical’ itself developed in the early 1600s out of the Greek word for womb - ‘hystericus’ and hysteria was used to describe women when there was something wrong with the uterus. The solution was to remove the offending organs – the hysterectomy – and correct a woman’s health.
By the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, psychiatry was the latest way to describe human conditions. Not only were women doomed because of their internal organs, they were also doomed because of their neurotic tendencies. Women were the nurturers and the more delicate members of society that should focus their energies on the tasks of motherhood and marriage. Women (and men) who held any type of impure or deviant thought of sensuality or intercourse for any purpose other than procreation were considered immoral and naturally attuned to ‘wrong-thinking’ because they lacked proper moral judgement.
Estrogen at last
Not until around 1925 did modern science discover human hormonal make-up, and differentiate between estrogen and progesterone. Over the next few decades there would be increased discoveries of how to use estrogen to help deal with a variety of physical and emotional symptoms associated with menopause. These findings were the roots of the hormone replacement therapy treatments used today.
Attitudes lag behind science
But while science advanced, society attitudes towards menopause did not. As life expectancies lengthened, more women were living with and beyond menopause. Now there were generations of women going through ‘the change’ and coming out on the other side as less valued members of society. Women were relegated to ridicule at best and hostility at worst.
Right around the same time, women from the 1920s onward began to shed the many layers of clothing that once hid their feminine forms and brought about a new and unfair awareness of the ideal womanly image. Young and shapely women, still in their fertile years, were desired while older and wise women were cast aside as having nothing more to contribute to society.
Menopause still suffers, as do the women who undergo this natural process, from ignorance and misconceptions about women’s minds and bodies. Menopause in many of the more developed countries is seen as the end of a woman’s life; only now she will linger for several decades after her last period. It is astounding that in this day of modern medical advances, women are still bound to the menopausal shackles that developed out of myth several centuries ago.
Menopause, Your Doctor, and You