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Explained: A history of attitudes to menopause

The term menopause is relatively new, coined in 1821 by French physician Charles-Pierre-Louis de Gardanne. In those days, menopause was viewed as a medical problem. Have these attitudes been all wrong?

The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause by historian Susan Mattern.

The term menopause is relatively new, coined in 1821 by French physician Charles-Pierre-Louis de Gardanne. In those days, menopause was viewed as a medical problem. Have these attitudes been all wrong? Yes, historian Susan Mattern argues in her book.

The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause traces the evolution of perceptions of menopause. She writes: “Menopause only became a subject of medical interest in Europe in the eighteenth century, and its place in modern medicine rests on that recent foundation. For most of human history, people have seen menopause for what, as I argue, it really is: a developmental transition to an important stage of life; not a problem, but a solution.”

Stressing the importance of life beyond fertility, Mattern examines the “Grandmother Hypothesis” that argues for the importance of elders in the rearing of future generations, and provides other insights about menopause and the place of older people in society. The Slow Moon Climbs presents menopause as an essential life stage, and also as a key factor in the history of human flourishing. In its review of the book, the Financial Times takes note of Mattern’s “empowering” message: “We become non-reproductive so that we can do other things.”

“Because of a life cycle and reproductive strategy that included menopause, human populations could explode across a landscape in favourable circumstances, but also limit the number of dependent children competing for resources and maximise the number of adult providers to young consumers. Menopause is part and parcel of an extraordinary ability to cooperate that has been critical to humans’ success in the past and seems likely to be critical to our future as well,” Mattern writes.

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