The Change

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

THE CHANGE: WOMEN, AGING AND THE MENOPAUSE is Germaine Greer’s explanation of why our culture is still in the Dark Ages with regard to the changes taking place in a woman’s body once her reproductive cycle ends. As if on a crusade, Greer attempts to enlighten women and men on what has thus far been a natural and unavoidable stage of female growth traditionally met with fear and confusion. Greer draws on medical, historical, anthropological, literary, and cultural sources coupled with personal insights to build her case. She explores current treatments which have earned public attention such as hormone replacement therapy, as well as alternative and nonmedical approaches to relieving menopausal symptoms, such as hypnosis, aromatherapy, and herbal preparations.

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Much of Greer’s source material seems ironic in our modern times, as women were traditionally treated like objects whose usefulness ceased when their reproductive years closed. She proposes that today’s youth-driven society may not be prepared fully to transcend this archaic attitude, despite the youthfulness and accomplishments of such mature women as writers Karen Blixen, Colette, George Eliot, Willa Cather and Stevie Smith. Greer also cites the vitality of courtesans such as Louis XIV’s lover Madame de Maintenon, Henri II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers, and the seventeenth century Ninon de Lenclos, who influenced Parisian society for more than thirty years after her menopause.

Greer postulates that historic and literary images of crones, traditionally mythical or tribal wise women, should inspire today’s women as they near menopause. Women have been considered caretakers of occult knowledge throughout the centuries, growing more powerful as years pass, whereas modern women’s spirituality is most often subordinated to their need for male approval. She suggests women can change this for themselves by seeking the company of female peers while educating men that growing older brings freedom rather than loss.

Sources for Further Study

American Health. XI, October, 1992, p. 98.

Booklist. LXXXIX, September 1, 1992, p. 21.

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Library Journal. CXVII, September 15, 1992, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 18, 1992, p. 1.

New Statesman and Society. IV, October 11, 1991, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 11, 1992, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, November 2, 1992, p. 106.

Newsweek. CXX, November 16, 1992, p. 79.

Time. CXL, October 26, 1992, p. 80.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 25, 1991, p. 6.

The Washington Post. October 20, 1992, p. E2.

The Change

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2101

As medical science makes strides in the quest for human longevity, it is not surprising that the various stages of human physical and social life have come under scrutiny. The female reproductive system involves an intricate series of biological, psychological, and sociological events that are being studied more intimately than ever before, but only as they relate to the cycle of childbearing. Puberty and reproduction have thus far received the majority of attention paid to the normal female body by the scientific community. Now, as a result of the efforts of maturing female writers such as Germaine Greer, menopause—the catalytic event that marks the finite limits of the reproductive spectrum—is coming into sharper and more significant focus.

Greer’s groundbreaking 1970 book The Female Eunuch launched her career as an international literary celebrity. Her enthusiastic exhortations for women to enjoy their lives regardless of their relationships with men conveniently coincided with the onset of “the sexual revolution.” More than twenty years later, Greer is concerned with a different sort of sexual revolution, that of reclaiming one’s body when pregnancy becomes impossible, of aging with grace and honor, of giving up the possibility of reproduction without giving up one’s inner self.

Tribal ancestors revered their elders, male and female, as wise and experienced teachers whose gifts were appreciated by the community at large, but modern culture worships the innocence and elasticity of youth above all else. In women, this worship seems to encompass the physical and social adjustments taking place within the female anatomy between the onsets of puberty and menopause, from the first red spot of menstrual blood to the first hot flash. With this in mind, Greer believes that reverence for the female physiosocial experience should not turn to horror once the ovaries no longer release eggs each month. Most women do not shrivel up and fade away at the age of forty-five or fifty without society’s inadvertent but negative assistance.

With modern life spans, barring accidental death, averaging well beyond eighty years at the end of the twentieth century, a full one-third of a woman’s life remains before her at the point of menopause. Greer suggests that this transformation from childbearer to wise nurturer and teacher is pitifully neglected; it is time both women and men paid attention to its personal and societal value. Challenging the bondage of the stereotypical view of femininity, Greer calls for women to celebrate this critical passage, to see it as a return to innocence and freedom after suffering without choice the tyrannies of pregnancy and child rearing. “Women will have to devise their own rite of passage, a celebration of what could be regarded as the restoration of a woman to herself. The passionate, idealistic, energetic young individual who existed before menstruation can come on earth again if we let her.”

Greer also attributes the public’s newfound awareness of menopause as a public health issue to the growing desire for physical fitness among women of all ages. Although women have accepted that the body-and-mind-changing event of menopause is as unavoidable as death and taxes, they now want to know in advance how to transit its course with as little stress and discomfort as possible. “The increasing tendency of younger women to show an interest in menopause and to begin to ask for information about it is due in part to their growing awareness of their bodies and their understanding of the importance of being in good shape to handle whatever might be demanded of them. They exercised for efficient childbirth and they expect to be able to prepare for the stress of the climacteric.”

Unfortunately, the physical changes of menopause are interwoven with the natural aging of the body, a condition society still treats as taboo. “As far as the individual woman is concerned, the symptoms of aging do not need to be separated out from the symptoms of menopause, for she experiences them together. They are not simply concurrent, however; they interact.… One of the commoner reactions to menopause is resentment that it has come so soon, when in fact it has come in its due season.”

Greer reminds readers that the study of aging, ironically, has been spearheaded by and for men: “A woman who desires to remain vigorous for as long as possible, and take her leave quickly when she is too tired to go on, will not find much in gerontology that will help her devise a strategy.… The real impetus for the attack on aging came from the aging male elite, who wanted to enjoy the fruits of a lifetime’s accumulated power, namely the love and adulation of young women.”

Thus, the separation of menopausal symptoms from those associated with aging is especially difficult:

The changes associated with aging have been summarized as a continuous decrease at the rate of a per cent or so a year of basal metabolism, vital capacity, maximal breathing capacity, glomerular filtration rate, standard cell water and nerve-conduction velocity. These are biologically more precise ways of saying what ordinary people mean when they say that when people age they “slow down” and “dry up.”

She goes on to say that, conversely, the glands and connective tissues go through subtle changes and increase in their substance or function as one ages; for example, older people sweat less with a fluid less pungent than sweat manufactured by younger glands. These natural phenomena do not, however, cushion the impact of having passed the biological point of no return. Men can lose their hair or develop a hefty gut and still be considered virile; women who reach menopause sense death just around the corner.

The metaphor of death is particularly apropos in relation to menopause, as Greer says: “At menopause as never before, a woman comes face-to-face with her own mortality. A part of her is dying.… Nothing she can do will bring her ovaries back to life.” She suggests that the grief that seems to appear on the heels of menopausal symptoms can be reduced to a momentary stress if a woman so chooses: “At the turning point the descent into night is felt as rapid; only when the stress of the climacteric is over can the aging woman realize that autumn can be long, golden, milder and warmer than summer, and is the most productive season of the year.… When the fifty-year-old woman says to herself, ‘Now is the best time of all,’ she means it all the more because she knows it is not forever.” Greer goes on to say that “The human female is unique among living organisms on this earth because she can live twice the time of her reproductive span and more.… [H]aving served the species, [she] is the only one that can build a life of her own; it is too bitter a biological irony to think that she may not have the heart.”

The bulk of Greer’s exploration of the historical and contemporary treatment of the numerous physical and emotional changes experienced by women passing through menopause is devoted to detailing the biological symptoms and discussing the most prominent treatments. Although she is somewhat exhaustive and occasionally overly dry in her presentation, she makes cogent suggestions for alternatives that do not produce the drastic side effects that accompany Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), the medical establishment’s preferred solution for delaying or preventing the menopausal ravages of the female anatomy and psyche. Greer cites the permutations of contemporary eating and work habits that mark society’s progress as influencing “The Change” as well:

It would be interesting to learn if middle-aged women who habitually sit on the ground rather than in chairs ever display the characteristic fracture of the head of the femur that costs health authorities so many millions each year. When the facts that such women do not eat red meat and do eat yogurt and green vegetables and walk for tens of miles each day, usually carrying loads on their heads, are taken into account as well, we would be surprised to find dowagers’ humps among them.… Osteoporosis does have a genetic component, but it is also a disease of affluence.

It is affluent society that has thus far been lax in studying the complexities of the menopausal female. As today’s maturing women demonstrate en masse through their influence on the business and creative realms that a woman’s life is meant for more than just child rearing, their requests for medical assistance have begun to force the issue. It is no wonder that doctors faced with assertive female patients who want to experience menopause without it wreaking havoc on their lives try to fulfill their patients’ desires by recommending the practice of HRT. As Greer says,

Estrogen replacement, then, would seem to be turning the clock back for the menopausal woman by mimicking her earlier hormonal state, rather than helping her to accomplish the transition upon which her later health depends. What cannot easily be assessed is whether the use of exogenous steroids in the peri-menopause interferes with the establishment of the default system, in which estrogen secretion is taken over by the adrenal glands. Very few trials have so far attempted to establish the levels of the estrogen precursor, androstenedione, in the bloodstream throughout the climacteric, either with or without HRT, and the picture is far from clear.

In addition to Greer’s detailed examination of the physical effects of menopause and medical responses to its discomforts, she explores the treatment of female aging through literature and the lives of prominent women. Somewhat encouraging yet oddly distressing, because of their dependence on men, is her citation as role models of postmenopausal courtesans and mistresses of centuries past, who easily seduced and influenced kings and noblemen far younger than themselves. As for today’s role models, Greer finds women writers far more interesting than women in the media spotlight. Actresses and performers whose work demands an obsession with physical appearance and public presentation do not for the most part meet her criteria for positive, mature female images. Unfortunately, there are few mature or maturing scientists or political leaders, other than possibly the Queen Mother or Margaret Thatcher, who offer hope for younger women whose lives are more mundane than those of Joan Collins, Jane Fonda, and Helen Gurley Brown.

Greer’s case for aging gracefully, with or without the support of medical and cosmetic sciences, sums itself up toward the end of The Change, when she reminds readers of the historical and literary images of female elders. Seen as crones or witches, these women traditionally have been in touch with the earth through gardening and herbology. They found solace and inspiration in the company of female peers who also discovered a spiritual sense of themselves once they were released from male domination through physical reproduction. Ironically, women who were considered “crones” in centuries past often were ridiculed or reviled rather than revered. The Salem witch hunts are an example, as are the pagan religions of Western Europe, which were primarily matriarchal in nature and content.

It is in Greer’s final chapter, titled “Serenity and Power,” that her personal hope for maturing women of the future is revealed. She uses writer Karen Blixen, better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, who “took the art of aging to such heights of refine- ment,” as an example of what postmenopausal women can do when they so desire:

Karen Blixen used to say, “One must in this lower world love many things to know finally what one loves the best.…” It is simply not true that the aging heart forgets how to love or becomes incapable of love; indeed, it seems as if, at least in the case of these women of great psychic energy, only after they had ceased to be beset by the egotisms and hostilities of sexual passion did they discover of what bottomless and tireless love their hearts were capable.”

Thus it is through the love of humanity that comes through the acceptance of self, according to Greer, that women will continue to break through their “chrysalis of conditioning” and allow “the female woman finally to emerge.”

Sources for Further Study

American Health. XI, October, 1992, p. 98.

Booklist. LXXXIX, September 1, 1992, p. 21.

Library Journal. CXVII, September 15, 1992, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 18, 1992, p. 1.

New Statesman and Society. IV, October 11, 1991, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 11, 1992, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, November 2, 1992, p. 106.

Newsweek. CXX, November 16, 1992, p. 79.

Time. CXL, October 26, 1992, p. 80.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 25, 1991, p. 6.

The Washington Post. October 20, 1992, p. E2.

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