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Pause for thought | History today


French advertisement for Indhaméline hormone (detail), around 1930-40. Bridgeman Images.

Susan P. Matterns The slow moon is climbing begins with the example of 12th century Hoelun, the mother of Chinggis Khan, whose story in the The secret history of the Mongols. In exile and widowhood, Hoelun and her seven children survived by sneaking, planning revenge, and gathering support for the subsequent conquest of much of Asia by the Mongols. If the results of her influence were brutal, it was still important that her most important contributions come after the birth of her children. As Mattern notes, Hoelun's life and the offspring that followed made her one of the “most biologically successful women” in history.

The slow moon is climbing is much more than a story about how menopause was understood as "hormonal chaos". It is a sustainable argument about the nature of humanity and the way our societies are structured, a far-reaching account of the importance of menopause for human evolution. Why, Mattern asks, when most animals – even our closest relatives of mammals – reproduce into old age, have humans deviated from the biological requirement to give birth to offspring? Is it a detrimental by-product of natural selection – what scientists call an epiphenomenon? Or is it an adaptive trait that has somehow brought an evolutionary advantage? The menopause, Mattern argues, is the latter. If we take menopause seriously on such a large historical scale, we can not only improve our understanding of women and a phase in women's lives that is so often portrayed negatively. Instead, menopause becomes a critical part of a flexible reproductive strategy that works in both good and bad times, allowing people to reproduce quickly while still investing heavily in their offspring.

The tradition of considering menopause as a dangerous pathological condition is both a very recent development and “fundamentally wrong,” explains Mattern. There was no word for menopause in ancient Greek or Latin, and the transition to post-reproduction was not always seen as a problem, even within the classic humoral approaches to the body that had a lot to say about menstruation. It was the striking lack of menopause in sources in the 18th century that Barbara Duden conducted in her classic study Woman under the skin (1991) to explain that menopause was not "invented" either as a word or as a physiological concept.

Indeed, the social and cultural history of what we understand today as menopause is implicit in many of them The slow moon is climbing. In pre-industrial England, single women are seen as widows. While many of them were poor, Mattern said they were "the most liberated class of women". Through Samuel Tissot's correspondence, we meet Madame Viard d & # 39; Arnay, who complained about irregular periods and was convinced that she was suffering from too much blood. In 19th century England, Edward Tilt, author of the first full-menopause treatise in English, made notes about hundreds of women, including Mary S., who one night ran wildly mad and took three men with her, to hold on to them.

However, Mattern withdraws from the idea that menopause is just a modern medical invention and instead argues that it emerged during the late Renaissance as a critical, difficult time in life. Modern Western biomedicine "picked up the signal and amplified it". A decisive moment came in the early 20th century with the discovery of hormones and the isolation of estrogen in 1929, a development that shifted the menopause from the nervous to the endocrine system. The focus on estrogen led to the strong idea that a lost substance could be replaced; After spending the past decade researching the history of migraines, I am familiar with the following story. Menopause was associated with white women in suburbs who had time and money for doctors. It also became ripe for psychoanalytic models of grief and depression. Although hormone and estrogen replacement therapies have become extremely popular, concerns about chronic health problems have eroded their reputation as a miracle cure in the 21st century.

French advertisement for Indhaméline hormone, around 1930-40. Bridgeman Images.

The history of menopause looks very different elsewhere in the world. When trying to modernize traditional Chinese medicine, menopause syndrome was introduced in 1964. In the 1980s, anthropologist Yewoubdar Beyene, whose own Ethiopian education had taught her that menopause was a part of life to be welcomed, found that the women of Chichimilá In Yucatán, Mexico, believed that their periods ended as a whole Blood was used up to have children. For these women, menopause was associated with a feeling of relief and even rejuvenation.

The slow moon is climbing is really "great history" – an approach to the global human past that combines history with complex evolutionary biology, anthropology and ethnography. Mattern admits that her readers may be surprised that modern times appear only as “codas for a much deeper, darker, darker, and more significant past”.

Without denying that many women deal with the very real physical, medical, and emotional challenges that menopause can bring, she directs our attention from menopause to the possibilities that arise when women's bodies are under load to be exempt from bringing up children. Mattern's contributions from women after reproduction "have taken us so far and will lead us into the future we have".

Even Simone de Beauvoir, whose writings so clearly reflect her fear of aging, death, and sexual decline, admitted in her early 50s that she had crossed a line from which she found a greater sense of peace and zest for life in general. From my own perspective, I really like the idea of ​​channeling the energy of the Japanese aphid when I look at the years beyond life with young children Quadrartus yoshinomiyai – which becomes a "sticky bomb" in her life after reproduction, which can defend her colony – and plunges me into the fight.

The slow moon rises: the science, history and meaning of menopause
Susan P. Mattern
Princeton 466pp £ 25.99

Katherine Foxhall is the author of Migraines: a story (Johns Hopkins, 2019).

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