Holy Hormones Honey! The following is a profound passage from the late Leonard Shlain’s book, Sex Time and Power. The book should be read by every woman. Shlain also contends, women essentially invented the concept of time due to their experience of menses. How different women’s lives would be with this type of understanding. Schlain’s theory is intertwined with my theory that I call “Female Mystique: The Three Phases of Eve.”
Sex Time and Power
How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution
Penguin Books 2003
Women experience three dramatic markers that trisect their lives.
- Menarche divides childhood from the period when a woman becomes a maiden.
- Childbirth begins her role as a mother.
- Menopause dramatically initiates the phase of her life ancients called the crone.
In classical-Greek mythology these three phases were represented by the triple goddess: Hebe, the vestal virgin; Hestia, the keeper of the hearth; and Hecate, the crone feared and respected for her sorcery and power. According to lore and custom, each distinct phase carried with it certain pleasures, duties and onerous consequences.
Before the Trinity became ‘three in-one-men,’the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost’, it was composed of ‘three-in-one-women.’ The three Graces, Fates, Furies and many other triple combinations suggest that trinities once marked the three phases of a woman’s life rather than the three spiritual male entities of Christianity.
Throughout history and continuing in many contemporary Third World cultures, the last phase of a woman’s life was and is recognized by both men and women as the one in which the crone attains freedom, power, and wisdom. Typically a crone is a respected member of the community of elders. In some societies, she is the undisputed leader. Younger members, both men and women, seek her counsel. Others value the crone’s forthrightness and valor, and nearly all fear her potency.
The accumulation of wisdom resulting from living a long life is a large part of the reason for the reverential attitude of the crone. Another major component contributing to her forcefulness, however, relates to the dramatic realignment of the serum concentrations of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone caused by her menopause. A woman’s change-of-life-symptoms result primarily from a steep drop in the ovarian production of estrogen and progesterone. Nearly unaffected by this over-the-hill drop in her feminine hormones is a menopausal women’s production of testosterone. The jarring recalibration of the percentages of these three crucial arbiters of personality leads to a sudden rise in a woman’s testosterone concentration relative to her rapidly declining circulating estrogen and progesterone levels.
Secondary masculine sexual characteristics marking a boy’s onset of puberty begin to make their appearance in menopausal women. A woman’s voice drops in vocal range, giving it an unmistakably huskier and breathier quality. Scalp hair grows coarser. The peach fuzz marking a boy’s first attempt to grow a mustache often appears on a postmenopausal woman’s upper lip. Facial hair becomes more visible in other locations.
The relative rise in her testosterone levels also brings about dramatic changes in a woman’s psyche. Sleep disturbances and strange sexual dreams often intrude. The indecision, pliability, and relative vagueness of purpose that often marks a woman’s youth are replaced by clearheaded assertiveness. Researchers have demonstrated in many different studies that the more testosterone an animal has, the farther away he or she is willing to roam and the more likely he or she will be to challenge/and or dominate a rival. In general, the menopausal jolt of testosterone focuses women on life goals, and fills them with a resolve that was often lacking earlier in their lives. (While there are surely many cultural factors influencing those trends, I wish to focus attention on the recalibration of a menopausal woman’s hormones as one that is rarely discussed.
Free from primary child-rearing duties and brimming with testosterone (relatively speaking), mature women re-enter a man’s world and begin to exert a wider influence on the welfare of society. Some older women, as if irrepressible, ascend to the pinnacle of power even in patriarchal societies. Men, in general, recognize that dealing with an older woman is very unlike interacting with a young woman, and not all the differences can be attributed to the acquisition of experience. The Blackfeet of the American West called grandmothers ‘manly hearted.’ The force of character and sagacity that have throughout history been attributed to older women are due in no small part to the sudden relative rise in their hormone aggression and dominance. Postmenopausal women become more virile. Germaine Greer described this stance as ‘peaceful potency.’
A husband, noting that his wife will no longer tolerate behaviors that she may have been willing to overlook in the past, does not always welcome these shifts in attitude. Not uncommonly, some are threatened by their mate’s new independence and they leave to seek out the company of younger, more adoring women. Or, conversely, a postmenopausal woman may get up the gumption to end an unhappy marriage, confident that she can manage just fine by herself or seek a new life with someone else. Women who were willing to submit to the onerous restrictions when they were younger suddenly discover they can no longer endure conventions that restrain them. Relative increases in testosterone boost a woman’s spatial awareness and augment her sense of direction. A wanderlust that she never had earlier in her life often seizes and she embarks on pilgrimages to distant places or travels to exotic locales, intent on seeing the world and having adventures. Her children often marvel at the change that has taken over her.
If one accepts that the changing relationship between estrogen and progesterone on the one hand, and testosterone on the other, plays a significant role in postmenopausal mental attitudes, then a disturbing question arises.
What is the true nature of the bargain a woman makes with Mother Nature when she intervenes to prevent nature from running its course? A woman can choose to roll back the clock by taking exogenous estrogen and progesterone in the forms of pills, patches or injections. This popular but radical subversion of the normal menopausal process, known as hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, can forestall or ameliorate many of the unwanted consequences of a woman’s changed life.
The key question, rarely asked: Is HRT a Mephistophelian bargain that trades assertiveness and power for youth and beauty? By artificially maintaining high levels of estrogen and/or progesterone, HRT nearly completely negates the benefits that relatively higher testosterone levels might bestow upon a woman. Not that postmenopausal women on HRT do not become more clearheaded and forceful, but the question is: Would women be even more clearheaded and forceful, if the full effect of their relative increase in testosterone was not mitigated by the introduction of HRT?
Current debate aswirl around HRT centers on whether or not it increases the risks of breast cancer or decreases the chances of cardiovascular disease. Long articles in women’s magazine discuss the pros and cons of HRT in relationship to bone density, libido, wrinkles and sex appeal. Often missing from these discussion is the not insubstantial price women pay to acquire what many women consider a near miraculous medical advance. Oscar Wilde’s novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray and the myth surrounding the tragic end of Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who sought the Fountain of Youth, are cautionary tales reminding us that there are no free lunches in the universe. Rare is the gift that does not come with a dark price.
I am not suggesting that woman should decide not to avail themselves of the advantages of HRT, but, rather, I would like to interject into the debate a factor that many experts often leave out of the equation. Patriarchy and misogyny overshadow the current structure of human societies and prevent many women from achieving their full potential as leaders. It cannot be known whether or not women would play an even greater role on the world’s sate if they were willing to forgo the visible and metabolic benefits they derive from HRT. What would be the result if, instead they embraced the power Mother Nature intended to give the, which unfortunately comes with what many women believe are certain undesirable side effects. Many men and women recognize the wry humor bu deep underlying truth in the T-shirt worn currently as a joke by post-menopausal women that has emblazoned on its front, “I am out of estrogen and I have a gun.”