The History of Menopause, Back When It Wasn’t Discussed
Even as recently as the 19th century, menopause was much harder for women to deal with than it is today. Gail Sheehy, author of the classic adult life stages book Passages, has another book about menopause, called The Silent Passage (published in 1991.)
In it, she describes a time in which women’s lives changed dramatically during menopause since their primary role in life was generally viewed to be giving birth and raising children. The average woman’s life expectancy was only 48, so it was questionable whether she’d live to see menopause or not.
And this would be after bearing many children - the average during the Victorian era was eight children. The prevalent view in society was that once a woman had all of her children and raised them, her role and purpose in life were finished.
Lingering sentiment from that age is part of the reason that even women today still fear “the Change”…Because they sense that a major part of their lives - the childbearing years - are coming to a close.
In Victorian Women, by Marilyn Yalom, the author describes how obstetricians in the 19th century held onto the view that when women went through “the Change”, it “unhinged” their nervous system and somehow caused a loss of personal charm. This was probably based on apocryphal tales of women whose hormones were more severely altered than others.
Even highly educated and well-known female writers of the time didn’t mention menopause. On the rare occasions when they did, they revealed a shocking lack of knowledge about it.
But then starting in 1890, things began to change. During the next thirty years, middle-age began to become respectable for women.
Slowly, it dawned on women that there could be life - real, fulfilling, joyous life - after menopause. So they started having children earlier in their marriages…And then when they reached middle age, they began doing volunteer work in social movements such as the suffrage movement (the right for women to vote), charitable causes, and parades.
This change in attitudes was noticed by Cosmopolitan Magazine (now called Cosmo). They ran stories praising the women of the day in 1903, citing “distinctive charm, beauty, ripe views, disciplined intellect, cultivated and manifold gifts.”
Unfortunately, nothing good lasts forever, and during the 1920’s, despite all the freedoms of the Flapper Girls, attitudes about menopause started shifting back to the negative views held prior to 1890. And one of those views was that women only had two functions—reproduction or being sex objects.
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