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Feminists Face Off in War Over Menopause

August 09, 1994|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The unpalatable truth must be faced that all post-menopausal women are castrates . . . . Our streets abound with them--walking stiffly in twos and threes, seeing little and observing less. It is not unusual to see an erect man of 75 vigorously striding along on a golf course, but never a woman of this age. . . .

Now, for the first time in history, women may share the promise of tomorrow as biological equals of men. Thanks to hormone therapy, they can be feminine forever.

--Dr. Robert A. Wilson

*

It has been 30 years since the original estrogen evangelist, Dr. Robert A. Wilson, brought us the breathtaking news: Menopause can be cured!

The "change of life," Wilson reported in his hot bestseller "Feminine Forever," was just another disease--not unlike diabetes or other hormone deficiencies. And like some other diseases, it could be treated, even prevented.

For the "tragedy of menopause"--and its 26 awesome symptoms from frigidity to suicide--the balding Brooklyn gynecologist fed his patients "youth pills" of pure estrogen.

Freed from the shackles of hormone deprivation, he predicted, aging women of the future would universally reclaim their sexuality, stand up straight, even play golf. . . .

Well, the future is here. But the legions of women taking hormones to "escape the horror of living decay," as Wilson put it, are not.

Welcome to the great menopause debate.

On one side, there are the "I Love My Menopause!" feminists who see "The Change" as the perfect time to celebrate the end of life as a sex object. "No longer am I a servant of the species!" crows one such believer.

With help from the New Agers and naturalists, they urge us to go with the flow, so to speak. Menopause is a breeze, they say--or can be with the right combination of vitamins, herbs, acupuncture and knees folded into chests.

In the biomedical camp are the Freudians, the drug companies, a good many doctors and other scientists who have seized the symptoms of ovarian shutdown as yet another opportunity for better living through chemistry.

Hormone replacement therapy, argue these guys--yes, most of them are guys--promises a veritable fountain of youth for over-the-hill gals. It is estimated that 15% to 20% of menopausal-age women are now using hormones.

What's a feminist with hot flashes to do?

"This is the natural childbirth crusade all over again," says Pam Cosby, director of an Indiana women's clinic. "We learned all the breathing and exercises so we wouldn't disappoint and then when we found out we needed drugs to get through it, we were devastated."

A former leader of New York City's National Organization for Women says she pored over stacks of medical literature before reluctantly deciding to begin a regimen of hormone supplements at age 52.

"I vowed I would not feel guilty about taking hormones, and I don't," she says. "But if you print my name, I'm through."

Fear of selling out the sisterhood is palpable in some parts of the women's movement these days.

With new bibles on how to do menopause from Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, women eager to be politically correct are feeling angry and confused.

A San Francisco author writing about her decision to go against the feminist party line recalls that she was prepared to feel bullied by the medical Establishment--"but not by those sworn to protect women from patronizing men."

Bay Area psychotherapist Alexandra Gotsch confessed recently to Menopause News that as a feminist, she thought that if middle-aged women became depressed, "it was because they have emotional problems which happen to coincide with menopause and are not caused by it."

All that changed, she wrote, "when my personal experience forced a reassessment."

*

In Friedan's book, "The Fountain of Age," the mother of the modern women's movement dismisses menopause as something that apparently happened to her, but not so as she would notice.

What did pique Friedan's attention as she charged into her research on aging, however, was the intensification of what she calls "a new brouhaha" about menopause.

"My own feelings of uneasiness and dismay increased," she wrote. "I didn't exactly suspect a new conspiracy against women, which was somehow co-opting us. But there seemed to be a suspicious coincidence of the demographic emergence of this incredible market--50 million women hitting menopausal age--with the revived definition of menopause as disease."

A few years ago, Greer began exhorting women to embrace age as "an art." Menopause, she promised, was a time to explore the freedom of being non-sexual.

"To be unwanted is also to be free," the author of the "The Female Eunuch" reassures us today.

According to the post-menopausal Greer, menopause brings one "back into the self you were before you became a tool of your sexual and reproductive destiny."

Talk about mood swings. In the fight for women's liberation, Greer was the spokeswoman for a generation of women who routinely fought the notion that they were prisoners of their bodies.

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