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Essay: The Power and Glory of Menopause
Pictures: Birgitte Nyborg, Mike Kollöffel / Netflix; Nicola Sturgeon, Manuel Vazquez/The Guardian
Nicola Sturgeon is not the first woman to lead a country. But it is telling that the only other cis woman leader that she can compare her experience of the menopause transition with is fictional. Because other than Sturgeon and Danish TV series Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg, you would think that being elected into office rendered female political leaders immune from a life transition that affects everyone who has ever had a uterus.
Last Tuesday was World Menopause Day. I had wanted to publish this essay then, to praise Sturgeon’s openness and lament the silence of too many others. But I decided to wait to see if any other woman political leader would develop ovaries of steel, prove me wrong, and add her voice to Sturgeon’s.
And so here we are, with only Sturgeon, the 52-year-old First Minister of Scotland in real life, and Birgitte Nyborg as her counterpart in drama, talking about hot flashes, anxiety, rage, insomnia and other ways that going through the menopausal transition is affecting them. But even in Borgen, that conversation is between Nyborg–former fictional prime minister and now fictional foreign minister and fictional leader of her fictional party–and her (fictional) doctor.
Sturgeon has been telling the whole, real world.
And her truth preceded and is braver even than Nyborg’s fiction. Before the fourth season of Borgen even began in June–showing us Nyborg in the very first episode rushing out of a meeting to recover from a hot flash in the bathroom–Sturgeon had discussed with writer and broadcaster Sam Baker what she would do were she to experience a hot flash (known as hot flush in the U.K.) during a work meeting.
“I would like to think I would be open about it. If you look around the world, there’s not been that many women leaders … I guess Angela Merkel must have gone through it when she was in office, Hillary Clinton … so if you’ve got that platform, then I would like to think I would use that positively, but I’m also a human being,” Sturgeon said in January on Baker’s The Shift, a podcast that “aims to tell the truth about being a woman post-40.” (Full disclosure: I’ve also had the pleasure of being a guest of this fantastic podcast.)
Sturgeon said she had not at that time yet experienced hot flashes at work, but that she was “definitely at the stage of feeling hotter overnight, not being able to sleep and all that sort of thing”.
“So I’ve got windows open in the depth of winter, my poor husband is shivering. I’ve thought to myself: what if that happens when I’m on my feet in parliament in the middle of First Minister’s questions? What would I do? That could happen any time. I’m not sure I will know the answer to that question until it happens,” she told Baker.
And then in June, Sturgeon opened #FlushFest22–a festival about all things menopause–with a conversation with broadcaster Kirsty Wark in which the First Minister said she had been on Hormone Replacement Therapy for the past four months.
“I think (it) has helped. I’ve not been as rage filled,” Sturgeon said, laughing. “I’m sleeping better. That’s the main difference it’s making.”
And, after Wark remarks that when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to say she dealt with the job on five hours sleep, that she was probably menopausal, Sturgeon again lamented the silence of the actual women who preceded her.
“This is one of the reasons why I’m talking about it…There are very few women who’ve been in top positions in politics, but of those who have been, if you think about Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Thatcher they must all have gone through this,” Sturgeon said. “And yet I can’t find anybody that has spoken about it and that would help me, I think, if I could go and hear or read somebody who had the same kind of anxieties that I have about the very public nature of the job.”
Let’s take a look at some of Sturgeon’s predecessors.
Indira Ghandi was 49 when she became India’s prime minister in 1966; Margaret Thatcher was 54 when she was elected prime minister of the U.K. in 1979; Angela Merkel was 51 when she became chancellor of Germany in 2005, to name just three. Their age during their term in office indicates they probably did indeed go through the menopause transition while leading their countries, but none of them, publicly at least, said anything about it.
A quick count on Wikipedia tells me there are 30 women presidents and prime ministers currently in office around the world. And whether they are perimenopausal or postmenopausal or still have a few years before they are in either stage, it is telling that none of them has publicly talked about menopause.
And I hold out little hope that the latest additions to that roster–Liz Truss in the U.K. and Giorgia Meloni in Italy–will shatter the silence.
Liz Truss, 47, was outlasted by a wilted lettuce and has vacated 10 Downing Street after just 44 days in office. And Meloni, 45, who campaigned on a manifesto straight out of Fascism Central–“God, homeland and family”-- is the head of the BROTHERS of Italy party for fuck’s sake. Neither the woman who has famously branded herself “I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian,” nor the “brothers” she represents are likely to take a feminist sledgehammer to the patriarchal silencing around menopause.
And so Nicola Sturgeon–who also shares with Wark how she handles brain fog and other impacts of perimenopause–has only Brigitte Nyborg to compare notes with.
Why would it require ovaries of steel or any other metaphors of courage, to talk about a life transition that will affect more than half the population?
Even those who were not heads of state have only just recently started talking about menopause.
In August 2020 on her eponymous podcast, former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, 58, described in surreal detail what it was like to go through a hot flash as she was about to climb out of Marine One.
“I'm dressed, I need to get out, walk into an event, and, literally, it was like somebody put a furnace in my core and turned it on high, and then everything started melting. And I thought, 'Well, this is crazy. I can't, I can't, I can't do this,'" Obama told her podcast guest, Dr. Sharon Malone, an expert in menopause care.
In September 2022, on the first episode of the docuseries Gutsy that she co-hosts with her daughter Chelsea, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about menopause with comedian Wanda Sykes, who has taken to calling her menopause belly Esther.
"After a certain age, we all seem to inherit these new things on our bodies," Hillary Clinton, 74, told PEOPLE magazine. "It was toward the end of (President Bill Clinton’s) second term, after I turned 50 in 1997, that I began to go through menopause, and it was something you didn't talk about in those days. My friends and I would talk about it or roll our eyes, but not publicly."
Hillary and Chelsea Clinton bowl with Wanda Sykes. COURTESY OF APPLE via PEOPLE
"That's why we really wanted to talk about it with Wanda, because it's a universal experience for us. Thank goodness we're getting into a time women's health — and especially now with all the challenges about reproductive health — are [sic] forcing this conversation out of the shadows and into the daylight," Clinton said.
Imagine if all the energy it takes to acquiesce to that shame around menopause and surrender to silence went into owning the power and the glory of this stage of our life. The patriarchy would quake in fear.
It’s not as if Nicola Sturgeon invented menopause. Michelle Obama described her husband, President Barack Obama, seeing it around him.
"Barack was surrounded by women in his cabinet, many going through menopause, and he could see it, he could see it in somebody, 'cause sweat would start pouring. And he's like, 'Well, what's going on?' And it's like, 'No, this is just how we live,' you know," she told Dr. Malone on the Michelle Obama Podcast. "He didn't fall apart because he found out there were several women in his staff that were going through menopause. It was just sort of like, 'Oh, well, turn the air conditioner on.'"
So clearly, menopause is an open secret wherever midlife cis women are. And remember it is shrouded in even more silence for trans, intersex, and nonbinary people.
I am glad that both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have spoken about their menopause transition. But where is everybody else?
In the U.S. alone, you know, by looking at their age, that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, 48, is going through the menopause transition. As is Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, 50.
I could go through a whole list of lawmakers, governors, and other women in prominent political positions around the world, but you get my gist.
Imagine if all the energy it takes to acquiesce to that shame around menopause and surrender to silence went into owning the power and the glory of this stage of our life.
The patriarchy would quake in fear.
These are cis women who wield a power that patriarchy understands. Patriarchy understands political power. But for the longest time it reserved that kind of power for cis men. And for the longest time, you had to mimic cis men in order to be allowed into those hallowed halls of political power. In many cases, you still do. The kind of power that patriarchy “allowed” women, was the power it bestowed on them–of youth, fertility, motherhood.
It is no coincidence that these women who–while not all dismantling patriarchy–wield power in the way patriarchy understands and allows for cis men–are doing so as they go through the menopause transition. But they are “losing” the power that patriarchy tolerates in cis women–youth and fertility.
For many reasons, women reach pinnacles of political power as they enter midlife–be it age requirements of certain political positions, more time because their children (if they have them) have grown, or simply because it takes years to accrue power and to make it up that ladder.
And it is at that moment, in midlife as they accrue the most political power, that cis women also go through the menopause transition.
That is no coincidence. Because we are finally able to seize a power that for too long we were told was off limits and it is the power of menopause–the power that menopause bestows–that propels us over those limits.
It is time for other “powerful” women in politics to also claim that power of menopause. It is time for us all to claim that power.
But the silence around it makes it seem like it is a liability. And they know it will be used as such, as is any difference between women and men used by patriarchy to disadvantage women. Nicola Sturgeon says as much to her interviewers.
In Borgen, we see Birgitte Nyborg go on one television news show after another, to be grilled by journalists trying to push her into a confession or a revelation that would potentially wreck her career. I wonder as I watch these sparring matches, if she were ever to say on these fictional TV shows what Nicola Sturgeon has said– “I am going through the menopause transition. I am taking HRT. I have ways of handling brain fog and you might see me go through a hot flash one of these days”-- if that would do it.
If the fictional Birgitte Nyborg of Borgen were to go on television and say what Nicola Sturgeon has said in real life, would it wreck her career?
And this is what makes Sturgeon brave, although it should not be brave to talk about your body doing exactly what it should be doing and to talk about it without shame. But it is also what makes Sturgeon powerful.
She has claimed a double form of power. She wields the power that patriarchy understands–political power–and she has claimed also the power of looking patriarchy in the eye and refusing to be shamed. She does not have children, she has “lost” the power that patriarchy tolerates in cis women and sill refuses to be vanquished.
For too long, women in politics have had to either hide all that makes them a cis woman or flaunt all that the patriarchy most values in a woman–youth, fertility, motherhood. Look at Giorgia Meloni’s “I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian.”
Nicola Sturgeon refuses that game and in so doing has signaled she is out of the bounds of patriarchal control. Surely that is what makes us menopausal folks so terrifying. And surely that is why we have been shamed into feeling we have “lost” something. So that we don’t recognize what we have gained.
Power. We have gained power.
“There is an upside to this stage in life where menopause can reduce women’s confidence but I think getting to this stage in life gives you another kind of confidence…‘eff it a little bit and say what you think and who cares what other people think.” Sturgeon told Wark. “There is a liberating element to all of this.”
It is time for other “powerful” women in politics to also claim that power of menopause. It is time for us all to claim that power.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. She is editing an anthology on menopause called Bloody Hell! And Other Stories: Adventures in Menopause from Across the Personal and Political Spectrum. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.
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