My nana used to call it the ‘change of life’. It was a change alright. With menopause, many women like Nana went from feeling young and sexy to old almost overnight.
Not only did they lose their periods and premenstrual tension (something that should have been an enormous relief ), but many felt that they lost their femininity, too. With unpredictable hot sweats, grey pubic hair and dried-out vaginas, they often felt unattractive and useless.
What possible value did they have? Besides caring for their elderly husbands and doing free babysitting for the grandchildren? So when the 1980s rolled around and millions of women started taking the all-new hormone replacement therapy medication (HRT), the promised ‘elixir of youth’, things started looking up for menopausal women.
Not only were they free of hot flushes (and remarkably free of wrinkles, too), but they were simultaneously riding high on a feminist revolution. This came courtesy of the trailblazers who had fought for their access to universities and career jobs, and the contraception that meant they didn’t have to care for a dozen children.
Plus the hairdressers who allowed them to banish grey hair, and the lawyers who got them out of marriages they didn’t want to be in anymore. Not to mention the social security that meant being single wasn’t a one-way ticket to the poor house.
Menopause meant finally letting go of the angst and self-doubt that had plagued them as younger women, and being ready to enjoy the next phase of their lives, a bit calmer, a bit sexier and a bit more financially secure than their mothers had been at the same stage.
But, as in all good stories, there was a twist. This is the tale of how one misguided press release, from a study claiming to be something it wasn’t, triggered a feminist own-goal and saw the ‘elixir of youth’ rebranded as ‘a potentially deadly beauty treatment’ overnight. It was a moment that killed off a vital industry and led to an avalanche of suffering for millions of women.
The early termination, in 2002, of the Women’s Health Initiative independent science over misogyny and the profiteering of drug companies from women’s insecurities. The headlines blared that HRT was not the panacea for natural ageing but instead, they claimed, it caused breast cancer.
Overnight the use of HRT plummeted: women threw their pills in the bin; governments put out warnings; lawyers started suing; doctors refused to prescribe HRT and then lost the know-how to do it; and pharmaceutical companies rolled down the shutters on their women’s health divisions.
So, women were told that hot flushes and painful vaginas weren’t such terrible symptoms to endure. Suck it up, Princess, they were advised.
Menopause Societies around the world tried to protest . . . Stop. You’ve got it wrong. The WHI has been misinterpreted. But their voices were too soft and their messages came too late. Women had lost agency and had lost choice. By the time the next bomb exploded, in the form of a review published in the medical journal The Lancet, further emphasising the HRT–breast cancer link, the collective women’s health movement shrugged.
Here we go again!
How did all this happen?
I have worked in news rooms. I understand how tough it is to explain the findings of a study, when you have just an hour to digest the press release and script the results, next to nobody to interview and another story to be written at the same time. I don’t blame the journalists. But doctors let women down: from the authors of the WHI, who knew that the conclusion of the study and its accompanying press release were wrong, yet waited many years to set the record straight; to the peak bodies, who saw the study findings for what they were but were too timid to push back hard against the harmful messages, choosing instead to shout into their own tiny menopause echo-chambers.
Pharmaceutical companies let women down by being so easily beaten into submission, pulling up stumps and walking away from women’s health altogether.
But times, they are a-changing. Menopause seems to be having a little #MeToo moment. Finally, in the era of #TimesUp, women are standing up for themselves and each other. An unexpected side revolution has been the desire to take back the power around menopause.
Let’s all be a part of that movement.
The Carousel would like to thank Dr Ginni Mansberg for this extract of her book “The M Word How To Thrive In Menopause”. In part two, Ginni delves into some surprising statistics about menopause.