Wicked or Wise? Menopausal Women in Popular History
Rianna Price | Lancaster University
‘Her polluted and threatening nature was perhaps most convincingly embodied in the image of the old witch who upset the natural, social and divine orders simultaneously’(1)
Menopause is one of the last bastions of stigmatised female health in the contemporary world. Menopause is associated with, and intertwined with, ageing and becoming old. Ask any middle-aged persons facing menopause, and they will undoubtedly relay these tropes: loss of youth, beauty, vitality, and fertility. The loss of these is conflated with a loss of femininity, leaving women throughout history feeling cast aside after their childbearing years, unable to gain the sexual attention of their male counterparts. In order to combat these side effects, women often sought help to prolong their beauty, youth and fertility. Therefore, the complaints associated with menopause, from the early modern period up until today, have drawn the gaze and attention of the medical profession. Causes, concerns and cures reputed to alleviate the symptoms and pinpoint the reasons for difficult menopause dominated historical discourse.
Therefore, histories of menopause are often bound up in the medicalisation of menopause and menstruation - even now, women complain about the ‘symptoms’ of menopause, firmly suggesting that menopause is an illness that requires treating. However, Menopause was, and is, not just a natural life event, it is also a socially constructed process. Our understanding of modern menopause can benefit from an appreciation of how menopausal women have been viewed by society throughout history. Too often, older women were constructed as wicked witches, or wise women, with little in between.
In the medieval world, menopause was not always conceived of as something which only happened to women. Ageing and a decrease in fertility were anticipated for both men and women, and while the period of fertility was assumed to be shorter for women, there was little medical interest in the female perspective.
However, from the early modern period, this changed, and menopausal women became a cause for concern. Part of this was to do with Humoural Theory – which taught that the humours within a body had to be balanced for health. Menstruation was considered to be a cathartic experience, where the poisonous blood is expelled. When this bleeding ceased, the menopausal figure became tainted, polluted and a threat to the natural order. The health concerns which go alongside menopause were considered proof that the poisonous blood was no longer being shed and the body was out of balance.
The early modern world also ushered in more, slightly less rational, concerns: a common trope about the aged and menopausal woman was that of the witch. The symptoms of menopause which fed into this narrative was that of increased and continued sexual activity past child-bearing age. Nymphomania, an uncommon menopausal symptom and in contemporary discourse, might also be considered strange. Menopause supposedly heralds the end of sexual activity, as factors such as vaginal discomfort are common. However, women who did not discontinue their sexual engagement were accused of witchcraft. These women embodied that which ‘upset the natural, social and divine orders simultaneously’ and were accused of sexual intercourse with the Devil.
The menopausal woman was jealous; her beauty had faded, she could no longer have children and therefore her place in society and the natural or divine order had been usurped by younger women. Therefore, witches were often characterised as directing the ‘evil eye’ at those who possessed fertility, ‘causing impotence, barrenness, miscarriages and infant death.’ Not only were these women held responsible for their own lack of fertility, they were also responsible for the lack of fertility of other women.
The understanding of menopausal individuals as witches is directly linked to the later pathologisation of menopause. The menopausal woman as an embittered old hag who inflicts her resentment and jealousy on others, and the direct links made to the Devil, had serious moral overtones. These continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when gynaecology and obstetrics become ‘professionalised’. Although a move away from branding women as ‘witches’ because of their menopausal symptoms, there was intense moralising; Instead of viewing women past childbearing age as intensely jealous, they were understood to be ‘upholding a nurturing, calm, asexual ideal’, making them more of a benevolent, wise grandma figure than a bitter old hag. However, those women who underwent a painful or distressing menopause were still to blame, according to medical professionals at the time. Those women who had succumbed to ‘youthful indiscretions’ would be punished in later life by having increased and difficult menopause symptoms.
In the nineteenth century, urban upper-class women were castigated for not breastfeeding their children, eating spicy food, indulging in spirits and tobacco. This perceived ‘life of idleness’ was the root cause of their menopausal difficulties in later life. However, the rural woman was held up as an idyll, as she worked hard, looked after her own children and was, therefore, the pinnacle of ‘natural womanhood.’ Increased assertions from the medical profession mark a new phase where physicians were inserted into all aspects of life, especially for women. The medical profession at that point in time was male-dominated, and ‘women were to accept the physician’s authority and allow their lives to be regulated’, to assuage menopausal complaint. Women who had excitable pursuits, such as going to the opera, reading, dancing, or having sex were increasingly subject to the judgement of medical practitioners. In fact, professional advice included ‘banishing’ love from their hearts and abstaining from sex after the age of forty. Again, the possibility of women having pleasurable, non-procreative sex was seen as problematic, further tying women’s agency to their sexual propriety.
However, other forms of knowledge did exist. Throughout history, old wise women empirics, or the counsel of the ‘vetulae’ had drastic and popular remedies that women used. However, from the early modern period onwards, physicians banned women from attempting to see the vetuale, asserting that their remedies caused further harm. The history and medicalisation of menopause is a male-dominated affair, and very rarely are the voices of women heard in the archival record. Menopause was, and is, not just a natural life event, it is also a socially constructed process.(2) Gender, class, race, orientation and other myriad factors all contribute to our experiences of menopause.
Menopause has, in the last few centuries, undergone notable paradigmatic shifts. Although those who suffer are often ventriloquised by male professionals, the histories of menopause are crucial in understanding broader histories of gender, medicine, and society. The figure of the menopausal woman has ranged from the aging woman unable to produce, to the envious barren witch, to the indulgent and inappropriate urban woman or the asexual matriarch who dotes on her family. However, these conceptualisations exist even today. The predominant example of that found in the popular Netflix show, Big Mouth. One of the many hormone monsters available is the Menopause Banshee who, with her wild hair, red dress and mad cackle, certainly evokes the concept of the menopausal woman as witch. However, the Menopause Banshee actually embodies the positive aspects of menopause, the freedom from birth control and anxiety about pregnancy, as well as the ability to move into another phase of life, while still enjoying all the pleasures you have when young. Whether menopausal figures are wicked or wise, we should understand the histories of menopause before we are invited to the banshee’s ball, whenever that may be.
The research undertaken for this article would not have been possible without the Accelerating Business Collaboration project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and delivered in partnership with Menopause in the Workplace.
(1) Michael Stolberg, ‘A Woman's Hell? Medical Perceptions of Menopause in Preindustrial Europe’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 73:3 (1999), pp. 404-428.
(2) This article also recognises that menopause may not be a natural process for all and use this language to explore how menopause is perceived but recognise some may go through a medically or surgically induced menopause.
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Rianna Price is a current History PhD student at Lancaster University. Her research is on the legacy of colonial homophobia and medicine in post-war India. She is particularly interested in the intersections between the queer and psychiatric in the wider socio-cultural histories of India. She has recently published an article on her research in The Conversation.