Woolfer Words: “Menopause”
I am occasionally on camera when a middle-aged word-nerd is called for, which means that I often end up in situations where strangers spend an hour touching my hair and face immediately after I get off the subway. During one of my last assignations in New York, I was sitting in the makeup chair when I had a hot flash. “Whoa,” I said, pulling away from the aesthetician’s brush and fanning myself. “You’re going to have to give me a lot of Kleenex, I’m having a hot flash.”
The makeup artist blanched. “Girl,” he said, brandishing a wad of tissues, “you are too young for the change.” I cackled as I blotted my face: the change? “You can call it ‘menopause,’” I said. “That is what it’s called.”
He shook his head in distaste. I told him he sounded like my grandmother, which he took as a compliment.
“Menopause” came into English in the 1800s, and is ultimately from the Greek words for “moon” and “stop.” The “-pause” in “menopause” does refer to a temporary stop, which seems both medically stupid and irredeemably cruel, as if we might, at 70, go through puberty again. When “menopause” first appeared in medical writing, it was deemed a unique enough event that it warranted a “the” in the literature, as if it were a newsworthy tragedy: The Great Midwestern Menopause of 1872. The onset of menses did not warrant the definite article. And why should it? Puberty was a slow beginning, after all, not some cataclysmic end.
Like most medical conditions that affect women, “the menopause” was seen not as a natural stage of life, but as a regrettable and malicious condition that triggered all manner of barely-manageable diseases. The Medical Advance of 1894 summarizes a highly touted article called “The Pathology of Menopause” with a 23-point list of all the problems associated with menopause, including cessation of menstruation, anemia, neuralgia, bronchitis, atrophy of the genitals, circulatory problems, indigestion, malnutrition, excessive sexual desire (which is, naturally, “indicative of disease”), “mental deviations,” “nervous troubles,” “unsettled and unstable nervous system,” “neuroses,” “innumerable reflex neuroses,” “and above all, neuroses.” “The menopause is a destructive process,” the writer helpfully notes.
Mental instability as a result of menopause seems to be the biggest worry among doctors of the 19th century. The Medical Society of London spent one of its 1883 meetings talking about how the onset of menopaused triggered insanity in women—that the symptoms women complained of were likely exaggerated, and this exaggeration itself was evidence of bats in the proverbial belfry. Of course, women’s mental health was so tied to their reproductive health that the most common female diagnosis of the era, “hysterics,” derives from the Greek word for “uterus.” There was no cure for hysterical menopausal women; the Medical Society of London notes that not even a hysterectomy will get rid of it.
Nervous women are a distraction at best and dangerous at worst, so quackery of all sorts was prescribed for menopausal women. “In gynecological practice, Peacock’s Bromides has a large field of utility,” one very official-looking advertisement assures, “particularly in cases of uterine congestion and nervous dysmenorrhea, and for the relief of the nervous excitement and irritability so frequently met during the menopause.” Peacock’s Bromides included all the “-ums” necessary for a healthy lady-bod: potassium, calcium, ammonium, sodium, and lithium. Other physicians called for treatment with arsenic, or “rest cures” to help soothe the savage she-beast. (Charlotte Perkins Stetson neé Gilman was prescribed a rest cure to treat post-partum depression. It inspired her to write “The Yellow Wallpaper.”)
Menopause was not openly discussed. It was a condition to be dissected in medical journals by surgeons and doctors (all men), or mentioned in advertisements as one of the many lamentable diseases that some snake oil magically cured. That’s not to say that women didn’t clamor for information about “the change.” Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters ran a syndicated medical advice column in the early 1900s that focused primarily on the health of children, and she happily went on at length about diarrhea and enemas for your little darlings. But when women wrote in with questions regarding their menses and menopause specifically, she’d respond curtly: see a doctor, buy my pamphlet called “The Hygiene of Women,” and follow the column rules, which noted that only questions of general interest would be answered.
The thing that began to normalize menopause was, ironically, the “men” in it. Whatever women have, men have to have it, too, and so “male menopause” became a thing. By the 1930s, it was common enough that newspaper psychiatrist George Crane was telling wives who wrote in asking for advice on hypercritical, philandering, moody middle-aged husbands to bear with the male menopause and do their best to reverse it by being pliant and adoring. Arsenic was not prescribed.
Synthetic estrogens were first used in the treatment of menopause in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which meant that suddenly women didn’t have to “suffer” anymore. As menopause became medicalized—it was now considered a condition caused by a deficiency—so did medicine’s interest in and understanding of it. The idea that menopause was an event that lasted only a year or two was changed as our endocrine knowledge expanded; “perimenopause” was coined in the 1960s to refer to that long run-up to the cessation of menses.
More importantly, as medicine gave women an opportunity to reckon with menopause on their terms, more women began to write and talk about it. Good Housekeeping ran a feature article by Maxine Davis called “The Menopause” in 1943; in 1949, Florence Edsall published “The Change: A Modern Woman’s Guide.” Time Magazine caught up with “Change of Life” in 1950. By then, “hot flash” had become fixed in the lexicon. Thirty years later, Erma Bombeck was making menopause jokes in your daily newspaper, right under Ann Landers telling husbands that menopause doesn’t cause frigidity, and right next to Dr. Paul Donahue advising that menopause is different for everyone. The era of squeamishness was over: “menopause” was for everyone.
Today, we scoff at our mothers and grandmothers who whispered about “the change,” and we discuss menopause so openly that we have a whole ancillary lexicon to go along with it: HRT, bioidenticals, transdermals, black cohosh, Kegels, to vitamin B or not vitamin B. To know the vocab is to be in the late-stage sisterhood. There is a kind of female intimacy and friendship that is unique to menopause, one that is shaped by absence, as if the end of our childbearing years opens up a space for us to let our guards down. Our bodies rebel, again—night sweats and vaginal dryness and insomnia—but instead of raging or hiding like we did at puberty, we just exist and give each other knowing looks when one of us suddenly unzips her coat and takes off her hat in Chicago, in January. The friends I have in menopause are true friends indeed, ones who check me for errant chin hairs and tell me when there’s a sale on retinol-based creams at CVS.
Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.