Womens Mid-Life Rites of Passage and "The Goddess of Hysterectomy"
Coulbrooke, Star, Western Folklore
We call it the change of life. It begins in mid-life, usually somewhere between 40 and 55, and can last for roughly a decade, its many and varied particularities appearing only in women. Menopause, whether naturally occurring or medically induced, is not a widely studied topic in the field of folklore, although I have found it to be a many-faceted folkloristic issue for research and discussion. Over the last five years, I've explored topics such as humor and menopause, late-life pregnancy and menopause, and the medicalization of menopause. Hysterectomy, one of the medical aspects, has become a surprisingly rich topic for change-of-life analysis, as more and more women move away from describing their mid-life transition as a wholly medical experience, and begin to define it through artistic expression, including the creation of healing rituals and rites of passage ceremonies.
What first intrigued me about the topic of menopause was the reluctance of insiders to divulge any details to outsiders about what they experienced, or were experiencing. The topic was definitely taboo in this country before the 1960s, and it is rare to find a reference to menopause in literature predating that era. Virginia Woolf wrote about it in her 1922 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, but "references to menstruation and menopause [were] edited out" (Showalter 1994:142). In 1953, Thomas Mann was criticized by reviewers and the public for "the subject of The Black Swan, the menopause in women" (1980:ix). Since the sixties, women's health issues have been increasingly popular in the publishing world, which might lead us to think that the reluctance to speak of menopause may be a generational thing. Baby boomers are supposedly more open about sex and reproductive issues, and have been known to speak candidly on any topic. However, menopause is about aging, and a folkloristic analysis might still turn up some trepidation on the part of "hip" fifty-ish women to discuss the changes their bodies are going through. Gail Sheehy, in The Silent Passage, her "New York Times Bestseller" book on menopause, says that most women are still not "liberated" enough to talk about "the last taboo" (1995:3), and she cites instances where women who have been through "the change" won't even discuss it with their own sisters or daughters (1995:34).
One place we do talk about menopause is on the Internet, where news groups and chat rooms seem to provide the anonymity women desire in order to search openly for information and support. On one site alone, scrolling down from www.deja.com to alt.support.menopause, I found 90,000 threads on everything from hot flashes to migraines, bleed-throughs to mood swings, hysterectomy to Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Those who don't have access to the Internet may have to rely on books, most of which are written by doctors and other people in the medical profession. They lack personal accounts of the event, the way women analyze it or not, and what they say about it aside from what the medical experts tell them. Because the medical establishment has treated menopause as an "illness" in the past (Coney 1994), suggesting that it can be "treated" by medication and surgery, the profession has been blamed for thwarting any open discussion or celebration of the natural and potentially exciting process. According to Susan Starr Sered, answers to the question of why we (the folk) don't talk about menopause are found in the continued "denigration of women's health and productive expertise," in our "male-oriented society," along with "institutionalized attacks on women's rituals" (1992:132).
Barbara Meyerhoff has suggested that women and others in Western industrialized societies should create their own rituals of passage, especially in situations of difficulty. Some of the examples she cites are menopause and surgery (1982:132). For women, the two are inextricably linked because hysterectomy causes immediate menopause if the ovaries are removed, and is said to hasten menopause otherwise. …