As a 47-year-old woman, it’s not surprising that I’m heartened by the increasing visibility and normalisation of menopause – whether I like it or not, that train is pulling into the station some time soon. But the litany of common problems – the brain fog, the sleeplessness, the pains and sweats – that sounds like a bad cosmic joke, that each new chapter of female life must open with a new swathe of physical inconvenience. Is nature itself a misogynist? No wonder most world religions contend that women are being punished for some original sin.
Who would want to be a girl? No matter how much my mum insisted slightly desperately that ‘being a girl is just as good as being a boy,’ it just didn’t ring true. How can it be as good? I’m doomed to be weaker, and fatter! I could be attacked, or raped. I have to deal with periods, I could get pregnant. If I ever want a child I’ll have to get pregnant. Women get paid less, taken less seriously, expected to shave their legs and wear make-up to look ‘normal’. Name me just one thing that is better for girls! See!
As a teenager I was grimly determined to compensate for my bad luck at the sex lottery, the cruel roulette that had put an X chromosome in the way of my human self-actualisation. On my grandparents’ farm I hefted haybales on my own, not one-between-two like mere aunties and mums. I wore trousers with my Venture Scouts uniform, and hauled a superabundance of sanitary products and painkillers on all-day hikes. At school I marched the other way whenever I saw creepy Mr Richards, who addressed all the girls while looking directly at their breasts. I tried, repeatedly, to explain to priapic teenage boys in pub car parks that I thought we were friends. At university I wore a bristling leather jacket and made it clear I could walk home on my own, thank you.
I was studying political philosophy, especially the development of post-Enlightenment concepts of the ‘political individual’, who could consent to mutual obligations rather than owing duty to a lord. Foundational thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau had banished women as a sex to the ‘private sphere’, on the basis that they were by nature too emotional, too unruly, to partake in public life (and, presumably, because otherwise there would be no-one to clean the houses and raise the children of the Great Men).
While writing my dissertation, I came across feminist political theorist Carole Pateman. Pateman’s thesis was that the Great Men didn’t just exclude women from political personhood out of prejudice and expediency. Rather, the individual they defined had specifically male characteristics which women could not share. Pateman wrote that “the body of the ‘individual’ is very different from women’s bodies. His body is tightly enclosed within boundaries, but women’s bodies are permeable, their contours change shape and they are subject to cyclical processes. All these differences are summed up in the natural bodily process of birth.” I thought this was reductive nonsense. What if women don’t want shifting contours and cyclical processes? What if they would like to reproduce (if at all) on an equal basis with men? It seemed a bit embarrassing that these middle-aged feminists were wanging on about some female birth-giving energy or whatever – wouldn’t it be better to stop framing all that icky, painful business as ‘female’, so that it didn’t hold individual women back from their potential? It seemed obvious to me that the solution was not, as Pateman recommended, to create two political actors, one of each sex, but to make sure the political individual was neutral, unsexed, to accommodate all shades of glorious human diversity.
As I moved through my 20s, though, my sex continued, stubbornly, to affect my life. I wasn’t doing feminine things – hell, I wasn’t even doing specifically female things like having periods or, god forbid, children. And yet I still had to think differently, act differently to men, to navigate my reality – the man who flashed at me as I walked home from the Tube station, or the one who found it funny to follow me along the dark road, didn’t seem to know or care what I felt about my boundaries, permeable or otherwise. I started to become less resentful of my own bad luck to be female, and more angry at how a supposedly liberal society treated female people in general.
The ‘ladette’ feminism of the 90s emphasised personal freedom and equity – individual women having the same choices and opportunities as men, without being judged to a different standard. But that liberal feminism didn’t explain to me the root cause of women’s mistreatment – even in Cool Britannia, there didn’t seem to be a choice I could make that would give me men’s freedoms, so how could more ‘choices’ help the women of Afghanistan, Somalia or Nepal?
It was radical (‘of the root’) feminist analysis that finally, to me, made sense of the global systematic oppression of female people. Drawing on Marxist thinking, radical feminism uses class analysis, where a class is a set of people (or things) that meet specific criteria. Importantly, something that is true of the class doesn’t need to be true of all the individual members of that class. For example, the class ‘homo sapiens’, defined as all living humans, has two eyes – it doesn’t tend to have two eyes, or generally have two eyes; it has two eyes. That doesn’t mean that all humans have two eyes, or that anyone with just one eye is not human, or that the purpose or destiny of humans is to have eyes. In all sexually dimorphic species, the female is defined as the kind of organism that produces large gametes (e.g. eggs). So it’s the class of female humans which gestates young and gives birth – that doesn’t mean all female humans give birth, or that anyone who doesn’t give birth isn’t female, or that giving birth is the purpose or destiny of female humans. But it does mean female humans as a class can be, and are, exploited and subordinated in patriarchal systems – regardless of any individual woman’s real or perceived personal characteristics or reproductive status. That’s precisely why there isn’t an opt-out, no matter how much I might have wanted one.
Class analysis allows you to see the wood for the trees and examine powerful structures in society without getting distracted by individual variations. It loses some value when the class is porous or can’t be clearly defined – that’s one of the reasons why I’m not a political Marxist or even a socialist (which I’m sure would disappoint my Great Uncle ‘Red’ Eddie, firebrand of the General Strike). My lefty interventionist liberalism reflects my optimism that no-one is fixed forever into a particular socio-economic category. We won’t need to liberate the labouring class if we can effectively abolish it – or at the very least provide means of escape. The same isn’t true of sex class – regardless of our identity, personality or social presentation, it’s not possible in humans to change the material condition of our sex. Glorious human diversity takes place within and across sex classes, and there is powerful intersectionality with other characteristics. But Pateman was right*, in that there’s no point unsexing the political individual when we can’t unsex ourselves.
Since there can be no escape from our sex, there has to be liberation of our sex, so that its exploitation doesn’t limit our humanity – structural change to remedy the oppression of women as a sex class. This starts with Marie Shear’s definition of feminism – the radical notion that women are people. That as a sex, we are a whole class of human people in our own right, not a variant or a sub-category (non-men), not a state of mind, and not a shifting collection of whichever individuals happen at a given time to have certain working organs or be manifesting particular bodily functions.
So this is the context for my own perspective on how we need, collectively, to re-imagine menopause. Yes, of course more awareness of symptoms and greater support for colleagues is wonderful. But we need to take on the challenge of how menopause (among other things) represents the fusion of female biology and female exploitation. Periods, pregnancy and menopause are the foundations for the ancient folk archetypes of the maiden, the mother and the crone. The trivialisation of menopause is intertwined with the invisibility of older women, and the contempt in which they are held in society as a whole. We need to understand and manage menopause as an integral part of female experience, not as another ineffable ordeal that women must fight against and overcome in order to entertain the hopeful fiction that they, too, might be fully human.
*I still disagree with aspects of Pateman’s thesis, but for more nuanced reasons that I don’t have space for here.
Cover photo with kind permission from the wonderful Jess De Wahls.