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  • Writer's pictureNarelle

Menopause - Wandering wombs, witches and hysteria

Menopause is in every females destiny - at some stage, in some way, we will all stop menstruating.  Yet regardless of this universal experience, menopause over the centuries has been seen as everything from witchcraft, to insanity, to a loss of youth.  And along the way menopause has shifted from a natural life event to a hormone deficiency disaster.

How did that happen?

Of course it started with ancient medicine and the  case of the “Wandering Womb” - symptoms of menopause (and other things) were attributed to the uterus wandering around the body looking for semen. Now if it chanced to wander in the wrong direction it caused symptoms.  If it wandered to the throat it could cause such things as choking, or coughing and a loss of voice (I think women may not have had a voice to begin with).  If it wandered into the rib cage it could cause chest pain and difficulty breathing or suffocation.

Treatments for this wandering womb included vaginal fumigations (like a vaginal steam bath where you sit over a sealed jar of herbs heated up in a hole in the ground and a reed transfers smoke into your vagina), bitter potions, balms and pessaries made of wool - all used to bring the uterus back to its proper location.  The Greeks and Romans also prescribed donkey testicles or donkey penises - not sure that is any improvement.

Genital massage performed by a skilled physician or midwife was also a possibility and I think given a choice, the option most women would choose.

Medieval times  saw menopause as a curse.  The menopausal woman was tainted and polluted because her body was out of balance.  Just as men would sweat to rid themselves of impurities, women bled.  So menopause was a sign that poisonous blood was no longer being shed and therefore the body was out of balance.  The menopausal woman could also be a witch, particularly if she continued her sexual activity which upset social and divine orders.

Being barren made the menopausal woman bitter and twisted and she could direct her “evil eye” at those who were fertile causing all impotency, infertility, miscarriages and even infant death.  The menopausal woman was held accountable for her infertility and other women’s too.

Treatments during this time were to encourage vicarious menstruation or bleeding from other areas to rid the woman of the congestion.  This could be nose bleeds, blood letting from the anus, phlebotomies where they punctured a vein to let blood out or even leeches to the anus or ears - not sure how the ears are related to menopause but then again neither are donkey penises.

Or of course sweating would also help rid the body of impurities because just what every menopausal woman wants is more heat!

Then the Victorian era decided menopause was a crisis that had to be negotiated.  The womb was linked with the brain and because of the  “weaker female nervous system” as women lost their reproductive purposes they became unstable and insane.  Not to forget the high emphasis on morals that needed to be managed so severe or painful menopausal symptoms were punishment for early sexual indiscretion.

Menopause became medicalised and given all medical doctors were male, menopause became a male dominated affair.  It was diagnosed through symptoms such as hysteria, nymphomania (possibly because women were enjoying sex knowing it wouldn’t result in their 14th child), alcoholism (see the point above with the 14 kids) and kleptomania (again - supporting the 14 kids).

Menopause was known as “Climacteric insanity” and logically women were locked up in the insane asylum.

Treatments got a little better - Electrotherapy, Opium, Cannabis, the filtered juice of guinea pigs ovaries, a vaginal plug followed by ice injections when that was removed, leeches (again), arsenic, friction with stimulating embrocations (which is basically the application of chemical irritants to the area to redirect blood there) and orgasm (the only sensible one and the one most women would likely choose).

Come to the 21st Century and fortunately menopause was no longer viewed as tragic mental illness instead becoming an oestrogen deficiency disease.  Treatment became pharmaceutical with firstly bio-identical oestrogen pellets and then Premarin, oestrogen extracted from the urine of pregnant mares.  Tranquillisers were no longer needed because all women’s emotional complaints were abolished.  And the tragedy of menopause could finally be avoided as could the inevitable “living decay”.

Today hormone treatment is the number one treatment for menopausal symptoms.  Menopause is still seen as a disease, a disease of oestrogen deficiency eased only when you replace the missing hormones.

Women are still at the mercy of the biology - our wombs wandered, gave us the ability to lay curses, made us insane, mad or hysterical, and now we are oestrogen deficient.

Our uterus and ovaries are trouble makers.

Or is menopause just a natural life event that has been socially constructed and continues to be overly medicalised for commercial gains?

Maybe it is not a period of decay, decline, insanity or hysteria. Maybe it is not a deficiency.

Is it time to shift our views on menopause from deficiency to sufficiency, from disease to health, from affliction to opportunity? Naturopaths do just that treating menopause through supporting transition and minimising the symptoms so women can negotiate menopause with power and success.

Menopausal women can be strong, healthy and happy.

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