The Politics of Menopause

Older womanAbstract of “What Do These Women Want?” Feminist Responses to Feminine Forever, 1963-1980, by Judith Anne Houck. Bulletin of the History of Medicine – Volume 77, Number 1, Spring 2003, pp. 103-132

In 1963, Brooklyn gynecologist Robert A. Wilson and his wife, Thelma, published a paper in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society arguing that untreated menopause robbed women of their femininity and ruined the quality of their lives. Three years later, Robert Wilson published a best-selling book, Feminine Forever, in which he maintained that menopause was an estrogen-deficiency disease that should be treated with estrogen replacement therapy to prevent the otherwise inevitable “living decay.”

Between 1963 and 1980, feminists did not respond with one voice to Wilson’s ideas: at first, some embraced them as a boon for aging women, while others resisted regarding female aging as pathological. In 1975, studies linking ERT and endometrial cancer challenged the wisdom of routine hormone therapy; this shifted the tenor of the feminist discussion, but it did not create a consensus about the meaning of menopause or its treatment.

Nevertheless, the feminist discussion of menopause revealed a larger women’s health agenda—namely, the unyielding belief that women should retain control of their bodies and participate fully in the decision-making efforts regarding their health. By controlling their bodies, all women, whether feminist or not, could ultimately control their lives.

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