Photo by Nicky Lloyd

We can’t lose the word “woman”

Women face enough ignorance about their health without gender ideology making it worse

Artillery Row

I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards Sheffield Teaching Hospitals and the Jessop Wing in particular. A gynae-oncologist there saved my life in 2018 and continues to keep me alive, and I am hopeful it will stay that way. Every few months I attend a check-up; we laugh and swap stories. It is like visiting an old friend, who just happens also to be my greatest living heroine. She trades in wombs, and she does not treat men because they have nothing that she can treat. The gynae-oncology waiting room is full of female patients. Pretending you’re the opposite sex isn’t really an option when you could be facing death because you have a female reproductive system.

I am reluctant to criticise an institution that I feel so indebted towards, but this week I was shown a picture of a quite ludicrous advertisement placed in staff toilets in the hospital. It detailed ten different support and information sessions around menopause to be held on site. In the entire body of description of the sessions, one word was conspicuously and infuriatingly missing.

We do notice when you move us out of language and move into our spaces

It was, of course, the word “woman”. In today’s performatively “inclusive” times, the dreaded word “woman” is the one most frequently sacrificed at the altar of “gender identity”. This word strikes instant fear into the hearts of interviewed politicians and makes them eat their own heads, live on camera, in an attempt not to define it. It is the word to be scrubbed from public documents as often as possible after quiet lobbying by pressure groups like Stonewall, the word to be twisted and stretched out of all meaning as often as possible to allow men to slide into women’s spaces unnoticed. It is women who always notice. We do notice when you move us out of language and move into our spaces, and we assume that you think we are stupid when you do. The woman who sent me the picture of the posters was furious. She told me:

I work with a fairly large number of Muslim women, yet the only mention of them on the poster was in the term “cultural differences”. This is very vague and would be overlooked by many of those women. My initial reaction was to have a rage scream and put them all in the bin. I didn’t do either. I kept my mouth shut as I’m financially dependent on my job. I wouldn’t have dreamed of going to the LGBTNBQ++++ event even though I’m a lesbian as I would be too worried that I’d be asked my pronouns.

On Twitter several other women, many menopausal themselves, expressed dismay, disappointment and fury.

In 76 words describing the sessions from the “menopause friendly employer”, not one of the words was “woman”. Lots of other “categories” of people were overtly mentioned including men, partners, friends, transgender, non-binary and LGBT+ communities. The only sex which experiences menopause — women — was not explicitly named at all.

Menopause, sometimes called “the change”, is when a woman’s menstruation ceases because of a drop in hormones. It is caused by either her age, hysterectomy (removal of the womb) or oophorectomy (the removal of ovaries). Quite clearly, everything that leads to a human body entering the state of menopause would require that the body itself is female. Not all women menstruate, but only women menstruate. Not all women have wombs, but only women have wombs. Inclusivity, the insanely powerful buzz word, cannot become a destructive tool that excludes women, particularly with regard to the language about our bodies used in a healthcare setting.

Without a womb, there is no menopause. Yet the first session on Thursday, 7 September is titled “Menopause & transgender, non-binary, LGBT+ communities”. This could potentially have anyone and everyone attending. Lesbian and bisexual women experiencing heavy or intermittent bleeding, even torn vaginas as a result of thinning vaginal walls, will be expected to sit alongside and discuss this with curious men who assert they are women. The word “trans men” isn’t there. The language is vague and deeply unhelpful to women however they identify. Women who identify as men are still very well aware that they have a female body, and nothing will make it more obvious to them than going through menopause. Rather than asking women to understand why they have been erased via language choice, consider that cognitively it is possible for female people to understand realistic and factual information about female healthcare. They can put their “gender identity” to one side to access the healthcare information they need. Identity choices cannot be allowed to reverse the gains made in forcing society to recognise this female specific condition by using the word “woman”.

Most women would identify their way out of this experience if they could

It has long been necessary to be able to discuss how devastating the impact of menopause can be on women’s bodies and lives. Women have symptoms such as disturbed sleep, hot flushes, thinning skin and hair, vaginal dryness, mood changes and night sweats. There are other common and unpleasant symptoms, and some women find the “brain fog” that descends is almost unbearable. They feel like they are going mad and are constantly tired and irritable. Just one of those symptoms, the “hot flush” sounds fairly innocuous — just being a bit hot for a while. However, it is far more serious than the term suggests. It can feel like there is a furnace starting up in your chest area and rushing up through your body. A panic grips her, and a woman feels out of control. Every time it happens, it feels utterly overwhelming all over again. It is hugely embarrassing and happens without warning. A woman is drenched in sweat, and it drips from her face within seconds. It will do this if she is giving an important presentation to a room full of men in a board meeting, or whilst she is talking to friends in the pub. These life-changing symptoms can last for years.

Once it was a hushed secret between women of a certain age who simply struggled through it in misery, often alone and with no support. There was sometimes a sense of shame attached. Women were, and still are, regarded as “dried up” and “past it”; the value of their bodies are seen only in relation to their sexual attractiveness and fertility. “The change” was into a “hag” or “crone”. Whilst a gender identity is chosen, embraced and imposed on others, the fact is that many women feel they lose their identity as a woman when they go through menopause. This is a new identity imposed upon them, against their desire, by age and being female. Most women would probably identify their way out of this experience if they could. The benefit of not having a period once a month is the only advantage, and it isn’t nearly enough.

In recent years there has been a push to raise awareness around menopause and the difficulties and inequalities it brings for women, particularly, but not exclusively, in the workplace. Women have demanded recognition of the way it impacts their life in sometimes debilitating ways. They can be economically disadvantaged if it affects their ability to work or seek progress at work. Women’s family lives can be affected in quite serious ways, including various types of family conflict and the breakdown of relationships.

Despite the serious social implications for women, and indeed the wider society, of this condition that affects only women, they are expected to be mindful of the needs of everyone else. The societally required “inclusion” is enough to exclude explicit mention of them. On top of the indignity imposed unfairly upon them by nature, they should now be expected to worry about people who might feel excluded by the term “woman”. Frankly, which woman wants to be included in this hideous experience? Most women would rather not be. Most would rather be handed a free pass to the other side of menopause rather than a packet of HRT. That isn’t the reality about this aspect of being female, and there is no quick fix. We need to get real and deal in reality. We need to talk openly and honestly about female bodies and what happens to them when they change into differently-able female bodies. Menopausal women are angry anyway. Don’t poke a sweating, irritable bear.

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