The History (and Stigma) Of Menopause

Stigma of menopause

Let’s look at the history (and stigma) of menopause. Have you noticed how often the word is swept under the carpet?

It’s a pretty ugly word – the Chinese term Second Spring is so much nicer!

Whatever you think of it menopause is a word that’s often misused. It’s used broadly whereas it’s more accurate to speak of:

  • Perimenopause – the lead up to menopause when we experience most of the signs.
  • Post-menopause – fertility and menstruation finish and we need to focus on different aspects of health.
  • Menopause – we only know we’ve experienced it in hindsight because by definition menopause occurs 12-months after our last period.

Even though it’s often touted as one of the last taboos we’re lucky to be experiencing it during the 21st Century.

The History of Menopause

We thought it would be interesting to take a walk through time. To discover how much has changed. Many of us like to think we live in an enlightened society. But guess what? It’s not that enlightened when it comes to menopause. While there is more talk and openness on the subject it’s still relatively quiet.

Even PubMed, a medical research tool, has noted there wasn’t a lot of research in the early days.

What Does The Word Menopause Mean?

A French physician, Dr Charles Negrier, coined the term menopause way back in 1821.

It means the ceasing of menstruation and is taken from the Greek words pausis (pause) and mēn (month).

The Change Of Life

Menopause is also commonly called ‘the change of life’. I’ve felt my life-changing so it’s an accurate description in my opinion. The ancient wisdom of  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda have a beautiful way of looking at ‘the change’. For example, I’ve already referred to ‘second spring’ – TCM’s term for menopause. They also recognise menstruation as heavenly waters and fertility as ripening the fruit. Beautiful! Ayurveda looks at a woman’s different life stages as the maiden, the mother and the crone (wise one).

Hysteria

Historically menopause has been less understood by the West (and still is in many ways). In the early days, Western medics often diagnosed menopausal women with ‘hysteria’ and sent them away to sanitariums. It can be a tough time mentally. Anyone who hasn’t had a smooth menopausal transition will vouch for that. However, I’m sure that didn’t help!

NB: The word hysteria originates from the Greek word for uterushystera (ὑστέρα). The Greeks believed the uterus moves through a woman’s body, eventually strangling her and inducing disease. Hysteria was believed to manifest in women with a variety of symptoms including anxiety, shortness of breath, fainting, insomnia, irritability, nervousness, as well as sexually forward behaviour. Source – Wikipedia

Can you see why I said we’re lucky to be living now? 😉

The 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, 1970s

Medical research amped up in the 19th Century so hopefully, they stopped locking us up. In the 1930s menopause was believed to be a disease of deficiency. By the ‘70s the medical fraternity was prescribing estrogen replacement therapy (HRT) touting it as our ‘freedom’.

Synthetic estrogen was developed in 1938, and Premarin (which famously comes from pregnant horse urine) in 1942. Premarin is used in HRT though I’m not sure if it still comes from pregnant horse urine! You’ll need to check that one with your doctor.

In the 1960s, a gynaecologist and his wife, Robert and Thelma Wilson, published a scientific article arguing that menopause robbed women of their femininity, ruined the quality of their lives. They recommended estrogen therapy. Dr Wilson then wrote a book, Feminine Forever, in which he called menopause an estrogen deficiency disease. The book became a best seller with feminists.

The International Menopause Society was founded in the 1970s and the first International Congress on Menopause was organised in Paris in 1976.

All in all, information is sketchy.

The Differences For Women Geographically

PubMed tells us the signs of meno differ geographically. For example, in the West, we’re very familiar with the term ‘hot flush’. A painful shoulder is common in Japan and eyesight issues in India. The onset of perimenopause occurs earlier on average in India than it does for Westerners and they don’t view it nearly as negatively as we do. This is a key point.

Negativity

In our world, there’s quite a lot of negativity around the subject of menopause. There is also a massive lack of knowledge and information. Even GPs get very little training in menopause which doesn’t help a woman’s cause.

I wonder if the negativity stems from ageism as we live in a society that worships youth over wisdom. Certainly, some of it might still stem from the fall-out of the hysteria/mental illness diagnoses of the past. Sometimes there can be a lingering vestige of fear around an area that endures for decades.

The Truth? It’s Normal

Perimenopause, menopause, post-menopause, change of life, midlife transition – whatever we want to call it – is a normal part of a woman’s life.

This means 50 per cent of the global population will experience it. Baby boomers are menopausal now. Even the oldest millennials have reached perimenopause.

There’s an awareness movement going on around the globe. Women’s voices are becoming louder as they champion recognition and arm themselves with education and research.

With that said, there’s still a long way to go. But the good news is inroads are being made, the conversations are opening up and women are insisting on being heard and providing learnings for each other.

Because – especially when it comes to menopause – knowledge is power.

That’s what we believe. It’s why we created this ‘library’.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your comments.

Scroll to Top