This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
Don’t try to tell this to a mother sitting in the bleachers during a four-hour swim meet; or enduring a birthday party involving toddlers and craft projects; or resting in an armchair on a peaceful evening, savoring the heft of a tiny body and the scent of an infant’s freshly washed hair. Interminable or sweetly languid though they may feel in the moment, the childbearing years are startlingly brief. Fertility, which typically ends in a woman’s mid-40s, occupies less than half of her adult life. And then, if she’s lucky, she has 30 or 40 years in which to do something else.
Most people don’t realize how unusual humans are, in the way that nonreproductive females (how shall I put this?) persist. Females of most other species can bear young until they die, and many do, or at best enjoy a brief respite from breeding before death. This is true not only of creatures you might expect, such as rabbits, but also of long-lived mammals such as Asian elephants, and of primates such as gorillas and chimps. The odd exceptions—the Japanese aphid, for example, enters a “glue bomb” stage after her reproductive phase, ready to immobilize a colony intruder—only prove the rule.
The mystery of why women go on and on and on after their procreative function has ceased has occupied some of the great minds of the ages. I am sorry to report that many of those minds have not been forward-thinking. “It is a well-known fact … that after women have lost their genital function their character often undergoes a peculiar alteration” and they become “quarrelsome, vexatious and overbearing,” Sigmund Freud pronounced. The male-dominated medical community of the mid-20th century was similarly dismissive. “The unpalatable truth must be faced that all postmenopausal women are castrates,” opined the gynecologist Robert Wilson, who elaborated on this theme in his 1966 best seller, Feminine Forever. The influential book, it later emerged, was backed by a pharmaceutical company eager to market hormone-replacement therapy.
Even the architects of the sexual revolution were fixated on fertility as a marker of femininity, an attitude that seems doubly unfair coming from the people who gave us the pill. “Once the ovaries stop, the very essence of being a woman stops,” wrote the psychiatrist David Reuben in 1969 in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, adding that the postmenopausal woman comes “as close as she can to being a man.” Or rather, “not really a man but no longer a functional woman.”
Little wonder that women writers have felt the need to weigh in over the centuries. A few took an upbeat approach. At the age of 41, having just given birth to her sixth child, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote her friend Susan B. Anthony in 1857 to say that their best activist years lay ahead. “We shall not be in our prime before fifty & after that we shall be good for twenty years at least.” Others were less sanguine. At 54, writing her memoir, Simone de Beauvoir gloomily prepared to say “goodbye to all those things I once enjoyed”; women, Freud had taught her, become miserable and sexless as they age. Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Helen Gurley Brown, Germaine Greer—all warily chronicled their maturity, as of course did the writer who invented the concept of “passage,” Gail Sheehy. Nora Ephron felt bad about her neck, and her anxiety spawned a best seller.
Even now it’s hard for a woman not to dread the consequences of moving out of youth. One of the wryest recent meditations is an episode of Inside Amy Schumer, in which the eponymous comedian happens upon three of her comedic icons—Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus—picnicking in a meadow. They are celebrating Louis-Dreyfus’s “last fuckable day,” as adjudicated by the media, Fey explains. Schumer, feigning astonishment, asks whether the media do this to men. The trio laughs and laughs.
Three new books about postmenopausal womanhood show that the conversation is changing. For the first time, The New York Times noted early this year, a sizable cohort of women is moving into the sixth and seventh decades of life with a surfeit of energy and workplace experience. Women are better educated than men. Many spend early middle age constrained by work-life challenges, like athletes training with ankle weights. Once the weights come off, they have the muscle to run. Literally: The 2020 slate of female presidential candidates is Exhibit A.
The landscape looks different due to the #MeToo movement as well. In some ways, it has divided women by generation, yet even older women who may regret a return to the idea of feminine fragility are overjoyed to see workplace predators toppled. The unseating of men like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer has opened the way for women like Christiane Amanpour and Gayle King to occupy top spots, where they exemplify what 60‑something really looks like: pretty freaking great.
The current conversation is also informed by evolutionary biology, which evaluates traits based on their reproductive purpose. Given that menopause is nonreproductive by definition, biologists consider it a “big evolutionary puzzle,” the novelist Darcey Steinke writes in her memoir, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life. According to the prevailing view, a human female possesses all the eggs she will have while still in the womb; the number promptly begins diminishing, and by her mid-40s, the remaining ova have deteriorated. To an evolutionary biologist, this is interesting and weird. To Steinke, it was miserable and hard. Her book is lyrical but a bit depressing, because she herself was depressed.
Some women experience few symptoms during menopause, but Steinke suffered nearly two awful years of hot flashes, acute episodes that were like “four-minute surprise anxiety attacks.” She sensed mortality stalking her: “For the first time, I feel I have a time stamp, an expiration date.” She writes vividly and a little wistfully about sex, mourning her lost desirability, as she sees it, and the waning of her own desire. She feels angry; she yells at her husband. “Early times of sexual frenzy seem almost impossible now.”
Every woman is of course entitled to—can’t escape—her own response to menopause. But Steinke’s melancholy reflections sound a bit retrograde, as if she can’t escape those insufferable doctors, the Wilsons and the Reubens, with their pompous pronouncements about the wreckage that remains when estrogen, like a tide, drains away. “Without hormones my femininity is fraying,” she writes. In a transitional state herself, she identifies with people who are transitioning out of their birth gender—not that the empathy brings much relief.
Steinke also identifies with one of the few other species that enjoy a long postmenopausal life: killer whales. In the ocean, nonreproductive females play an important role. With the wisdom of years, they guide their pod to the best salmon. Steinke kayaks in waters off the coast of Seattle, hoping to commune, and is rewarded with a magnificent breaching. “The wild matriarchs have given me hope,” she writes. “They are neither frail nor apprehensive, but in every way leaders of their communities.”
That menopause may enable a new role and stature for women is the central argument of The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause, by Susan Mattern. A historian at the University of Georgia, she steps away from the personal to consider “humanity’s massive primeval past.” Once upon a time, scientists assumed that women (and men) were designed to live to about 50, and that menopause was an accident, a by-product of medical progress. Yet even in primitive societies, it turns out, a portion of women lived well past middle age, which suggests that menopause is a feature, not a bug, of human evolution.
Mattern has her own audacious theory as to why: Menopause is a key to our success as a species. In humanity’s hunter-gatherer days, tribes needed a balance of producers and consumers—people who brought in food, and people who ate it. Most adults did both. Not so children, who remain dependent during the long period of brain development. Members who could bring in food for more than one person without adding to the population were crucial.
Enter the postmenopausal female. The anthropologist Kristen Hawkes studied a modern foraging tribe, the Hadza, and found that an energetic group of older women brought “more food into camp than any other age and sex category.” This paved the way for the Grandmother Hypothesis: Not only do older women serve as food producers, but they are providers of “allocare,” communal child care. In the Hadza and other tribes, Mattern writes, women “reach peak foraging productivity in their 50s and continue to produce a caloric surplus through old age.” She points out that tribes have been known to kill members who can’t contribute. If grandmothers aren’t murdered, she reasons, that is because they are useful.
Mattern makes the case that menopause probably emerged in humans when we diverged from chimpanzees millions of years ago. It gave Homo sapiens an advantage over other species of hominids such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, she proposes. Limiting childbearing to younger women, whose offspring could be cared for by older women, enabled the species to bounce back from an epidemic or a crisis: Those fertile women could reproduce quickly, but no woman could do so forever, sparing the tribe the risk of overpopulation. With the advent of farming, menopause still served an important purpose. The most prosperous time for a peasant family was postmenopausal, Mattern argues, when older children could help and the family no longer had new members to support. Nowadays, with fewer children and more resources, she brightly adds, “women past menopause, who historically used their energy surplus to help their families survive, can now use it in other ways.” While Steinke experienced menopause as a shutting-down, Mattern sees it as an opening-up.
Both views are true, as the New York Times columnist Gail Collins shows in No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, which spans the colonial era to the present. Her takeaway is that older women fare well when circumstances permit them to be productive: “If you’re important economically, you’re important.” Providing allocare is well and good, but “eras in which older women were able to earn money or increase their family assets were eras in which they were … popular,” Collins writes drily.
Tracing their shifting status, she observes that during the colonial period, women continued spinning, weaving, and the like into old age. Physically, of course, the stage could be hell—pelvic disorders, childbirth damage, rotting teeth. Older enslaved women were exiled and horribly neglected. Yet often, the only thing worse than being a woman was being a man: Male mortality was higher, and widowhood could be a blessing—widows, at least white ones, could own property (unlike married women). Then, as the country became more populated, men monopolized the jobs. Women had less of an economic purpose, and they lost status.
Collins highlights the great age of social reform in the mid-19th century as another period when older women enjoyed prestige, though less because they had economic power than because they wielded moral authority. Notably, they used that authority to make the case for, among other things, female clout well into later life. A standout among women’s-rights advocates, Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that women could occupy different spheres at different life stages, moving from narrow domestic concerns to community-minded platforms. Stanton, Collins writes, “believed that menopause had redirected all her ‘vital forces’ from her reproductive organs to her brain.” Vital she and Susan B. Anthony certainly were as they barnstormed the country, made speeches on tabletops, played cards with soldiers. Their age allowed them to “have adventures.” At the same time, one observer wrote, “stately Mrs. Stanton has secured much immunity by a comfortable look of motherliness.”
As the white-collar workplace expanded in the industrial era, women were shouldered out of it, eroding female social power across the age range. Older black women were a mainstay of early civil-rights struggles, but the contributions of activists such as Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune were sidelined, the credit given to younger men. And women’s return to the workforce during World War II gave way to postwar pressure to depart it, which delivered mixed results for older women. In the 1960s and ’70s, important strides were made thanks to female workers such as flight attendants, who filed class-action lawsuits protesting rules that obliged them to retire if they married or reached age 35. Yet as women’s earning potential grew along with their work span and sexual freedom, the more senior among them faced newly corrosive pressures.
It may not be a coincidence that Wilson, Reuben, and their ilk pushed the perils of “the menopause” during this era. The centrality of sexual liberty to the women’s movement arguably left second-wave feminists more vulnerable to insecurity about their bodies and looks. Susan Mattern proposes that the very concept of a menopausal syndrome was the invention of a culture that aimed to psychologically weaken women in a strong period of life—at a historical moment when female power was rising. “Dominant groups,” she observes, “can be very creative in inventing new ways of oppressing people.”
Yet I’m struck, reading these accounts, that Stanton intuited what remains true today: Women have a different life trajectory than men, and the place of menopause in it is liberating in a way that’s worth considering. To describe a passage of life, even a painful one, can itself be a form of empowerment. Men, too, feel loss and insecurity as they age, and perhaps could use a map of sorts themselves. Crossing the midlife point, many struggle to recalibrate professional ambition (as Arthur Brooks’s article in The Atlantic’s July issue revealed) and to build stronger social and intimate ties. Online-dating sites betray men’s own anxiety about physical decline (“My friends say I look much younger than 60!”) and suggest that many men are perfectly willing to date women across the age range. The sex books are right: Men aren’t as picky about women’s bodies as women fear. Men crave sex, but they also crave conversation, a partner with confidence and achievements. Even Simone de Beauvoir changed her mind. In The Coming of Age, a book about the experience of getting older, she wrote that she had crossed a “frontier” and found peace. She had also taken a younger lover. “It has been far less sombre,” she reported, “than I had foreseen.”