More than a debate about hormones

Wednesday, December 11, 1991

The Change: Women, ageing and the menopause
By Germaine Greer
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin. 1991.
440 pp., $35.00 (hb)
Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

This an account of the experience of the menopause and the meaning attached to it in western societies will be read by millions and heard about on talk-back shows by millions more. Twenty years after the publication of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer is still being listened to, by old fans and critics, and by a new, curious generation.

In this case, that's a wonderful thing. When was the last time the menopause made national television? Whether one agrees or disagrees with Greer, the fact that she has seized on this unglamorous, untalked about, euphemism-clogged topic and subjected it to 440 pages of feminist analysis is a service to womankind.

As with other bestselling feminist texts — Naomi Wolf's Beauty Myth is a recent example — women reading The Change can get the sense that they don't have to simply cope with existence in a sexist, ageist, oppressive society; they can move on to positive understanding, choice-making, self-respect: a state it is fashionable to call "empowerment".

Greer tells her readers they have the right to seek out the unusual rather than settle for the socially conventional. They have the right to tell certain people and institutions where to get off. They have the right, after what might have been 30 years of trying to stay respectable, to blow raspberries at the system.

Greer notes that it is often at menopause that women start behaving in ways considered odd by families and spouses. While Greer accepts that medical or psychiatric intervention might be appropriate in some cases, in others, she suggests, it is behaviour to be cheered, not worried about.

Menopause can cause major physical and emotional distress. Its negative symbolic meanings, built up over the centuries and exaggerated by a popular culture obsessed by youth and sexiness, adds to the stress.

If some women suddenly "go bush" to sort it all out, or decide to divorce the husband they've been putting up with for years, or stop seeing children they don't like, then these might be more rational responses, says Greer, than leadenly dosing oneself with pills and pretending nothing is happening.

Greer approaches her subject from every conceivable angle. She recounts anecdotes from personal experience and supplies titbits of information from centuries of western literature and history. She ranges over the experience of ageing in some non-western cultures (where older women are venerated rather than ridiculed or made invisible), and then turns her attention to a thorough inventory of drugs and treatments. She quotes Shakespeare on one page and descends to pure cattiness on the next. And it's all energetically, beautifully written. She is at her most savage when she unleashes herself on Hollywood, and that pathetic, desperate tribe of women who can see no alternative to eternal youthfulness. In the chapter called "The Hardy Perennials", Greer comments: "It has been said that if you are to fight age you have to decide between the face and the body. A cruder version says, 'It's either your bum or your face.' Jane Fonda (born 1937) has concentrated on her bum, with rather dire results for her face."

That might be cruel, but it's a legitimate reaction to the ideological wallop which says that women can stay terrific forever: slim, taut, face-lifted, silicon-implanted, anorexic and very, very anxious.

On the talk shows, the 30-second grab summary of the book presented by people who have probably not read it is that Greer is opposed to Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) as treatment for hormone-related distress. In fact, in passing, Greer relates that she might have opted for oestrogen supplements herself if she'd had more information when she needed it a few years before. She is not anti-HRT, but pro-information.

She subjects the available treatments to searing criticism, pointing out the absurdity of strategies not designed to ease the transition from one state to another, but to keep 60-year-old women in a state of "youthfulness" by mimicking the hormonal state of 30-year-olds.

She writes: "... women must collect their own case histories of HRT use and make their own analysis of the cost benefits and the risk benefits that will accrue to them if they accept it ... Only if women continue to refuse to be pressured into making do with what is at present available will the pharmaceutical multinationals be forced to continue trying to devise a series of hormone cocktails that will provide the desirable effects without the undesirable ones."

Then there's the pottiness. If it's a brand of pottiness that appeals, the sections on gardening and witchcraft will delight. If not, they'll irritate. And it's true that Greer is a wealthy, educated, privileged woman, and that the remedies she has been able to find for herself are not available for everybody. The world of women at work is all but absent. There's an emphasis on the heterosexual, married-with-children experience that might be found conservative.

Greer addresses her reader individual to individual. There is rarely a sense that she is speaking with or on behalf of a movement. The Change is not a place to look for political strategy.

It is a place to look for insight, information and a clawing-away at the oppressive edifice. And there is a generosity of spirit, a genuine sense of increasing detachment from the self in the positive sense, that you won't see if you settle for the two minute in-depth interview.

"If we continue to see our own age through the eyes of observers much younger", Greer writes, "we will find it impossible to understand the peculiar satisfactions of being older. If we can conquer our own lack of interest in ourselves and our kind, and turn to older women's writing about older women, we will find stated again and again the theme of joy." Germaine Greer has moved on. The Change proves that she still has interesting things to say, and the slightly anxious, hostile voice of the breakfast show announcer proves that we are still listening, whether he likes it or not.