The Silent Archive: spoken testimonies of menopause
In January 2020, a group of women came together to record their lived experiences of menopause. I had recognised a void in the East Midlands Oral History Archive around the female mid-life stage and particularly an absence of narratives about the subject of menopause. The Silent Archive project was born to address this absence. It was an opportunity to create a time-capsule of contemporary stories of menopause for the archive. With a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), we launched in early 2020, but within months found ourselves in lockdown as the COVID pandemic raged around the world.
Menopause is ‘a time of transition’ for women.1 Here’s some facts and figures. It happens to all menstruating females and is caused by dropping levels of oestrogen in the female body. It can happened naturally or can be surgically induced by interventions such as hysterectomy.2 Women are said to have reached menopause when their periods have stopped for at least 12 months. The average age of natural menopause for women in the UK is between 50 and 51 years, with the onset of menopausal symptoms over the age of 45, known as the perimenopause.3 About three percent of women experience an early natural menopause before the age of 45, and around one percent of women experience a premature menopause before the age of 40.4
If we look through the lens of history, it’s interesting to see how older menopausal women have been portrayed throughout the centuries – and continue to be portrayed. The words witch, hag and crone have often been used in association with women at this life stage. It’s interesting to note that nearly all the victims of the witch trials in England in the 1560s were women over 50. Their bodies showed the physical changes that can be attributed to menopause: facial hair, fragile bones, wrinkled skin and thinning hair. Reaching fifty in those days was rare and this made these women even more vulnerable. One male witness who attended the witch trials in the 1560s described those accused as: women which be commonly old, lame, bleare-eyed, pale, fowle and full of wrinkles. Another witness notes that most of those accused were: pathetic, melancholic, hallucinating old women, whose age and sex made them a prey to diabolical fancies.
Historically then, menopausal women have been pushed to the fringes and stigmatised. The Victorians viewed women at menopause with distrust, diagnosing them with ‘climacteric insanity’ and hysteria and locking them up in asylums. Menopause was a term first used by French physician Charles-Pierre-Louis de Gardanne in 1821 and menopause has been defined as a medical event ever since in Western societies.5 Aside from the well-known symptoms of hot flushes and mood swings, over 30 other physical and mental symptoms of menopause have been recorded. Historically, these have been treated with everything from opium to acupuncture to toxic douches.
The 20th century saw the full medicalisation of menopause and controversy and confusion still surrounds Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) as a treatment for symptoms today. This medical model of menopause considers its biological symptoms and causes in isolation, not taking into account the wider life circumstances of a woman. It can also overlook how every woman’s experience of menopause is different.6
With this in mind I put out a call to diverse communities of women who were living with, had lived with, or expected to live with menopause, to participate in The Silent Archive project as researcher-narrators – both interviewers and interviewees. I was mindful that a growing number of women are engaging with menopause through initiatives such as the Menopause Café; conversations around the subject have been brought to wider recognition by celebrity ambassadors, such as Davina McCall and Mariella Frostrup.
Using oral history’s semi-structured interview techniques seemed an ideal way of exploring unheard female narratives, with its distinct grassroots associations and ability to empower women ‘who don’t have access to channels of communication to have their voices heard.’7
I was keen to explore not just the physical symptoms, but also the effects on quality of life, mental and emotional health, family and relationships, work, lifestyle, self-esteem and confidence.8 We had women’s centres in Nottingham and Leicester lined up as partners and safe spaces for this work to be carried out. Then lockdown struck.
My immediate response was to pause the project. After a short period of paralysis and reflection, I reshaped and adapted plans so that the project could continue in a new form. The NLHF’s response was to extend timelines and encourage innovation through online delivery methodologies. However, the Oral History Society (OHS), whose guidance shapes my oral history practice, took a more cautious approach, initially advising: ‘it is often difficult to build rapport from a distance, to be sensitive to mood changes, to provide non-verbal feedback, and to establish the relationship needed for a successful oral history interview.’ It also highlighted technical challenges of online interviewing.
I considered my own concerns for the project. Firstly, maintaining momentum and volunteer engagement with a project which had faced initial recruitment issues was important. There were challenges with this: I wanted to focus on menopause when the pandemic was the most prevalent story of the time. Despite this, and the concerns of the OHS with the practice of remote interviewing, I decided to continue the project, to adapt to the developing circumstances of pandemic and take the project online.
Pushing the boundaries of creative narrative inquiry
Unprecedented times offered an opportunity to stretch the definitions, to experiment and push boundaries around what constitutes oral history. I reframed my work as the collection and sharing of spoken testimonies rather than oral histories to reflect their more contemporary nature. Other oral historians took a similar approach at this time: some devised ‘ways for oral history inquiry to remain rigorous – while also creative – during a moment so heavy with grief and uncertainty’.9 For others, working at this time became a means of ‘working-out and processing … the historical moment … no matter what the mode … [to] demonstrate thoughtful individuals trying to work out the complexity of the moment by narrating personal experience … even if they do not conform to professional disciplinary categories.’10 There were negative implications of going online: in our evaluation of the project some felt the removal of face-to-face contact was ‘a huge loss.’
I aimed to make everything accessible as I could by encouraging the use of familiar devices – such as phones and laptops – to avoid online training and the intimidation of technology. And we lost at least one volunteer through digital exclusion.
I developed two new strands of narrative inquiry for the project. Facilitated conversations used Zoom to bring women together in existing friendship groups to chat informally about their menopause experiences. The ability to reach out virtually through these conversations helped to widen the diversity of voices contributing to the project both ethnically and geographically.
I also invited women to record their own personal responses to menopause through audio diaries. I issued monthly prompts over six months, asking for spontaneous verbal responses about: reaching mid-life; physical symptoms of menopause; impacts on relationships; end of year reflections; what I’d tell my younger self; and other women’s experiences – friends, mothers, grandmothers.
The resulting narratives offer an insight into menopause experiences, setting medicalised language alongside euphemism and colloquialism, metaphor and simile. They express confusion, frustration, fear, pain, relief, humour, revelation, resignation and joy.
The backdrop of COVID
The interviews which came out of the project, offer a light touch on the impacts of COVID. It is referenced as: something changing our understanding of normal’; ‘causing a lot of problems in the world’, making ‘life in England … a bit complicated at the moment’. For some it was an ominous, ever-present threat, ‘always in the background’, giving people ‘this underlying sense of anxiety, like that underlying feeling in your chest’. Set alongside menopause this seems to be exacerbated: ‘it’s screwed everybody up’ and ‘accelerated people’s awareness of … mortality.
A vital aspect of the project was realised through the wellbeing benefits for those who took part in talking and sharing narratives about menopause. Participant feedback at the end of the project indicated that there was a sense of shared identity between interviewers and interviewees through the lived experience of menopause. Participants felt connected – even though many had not met face-to-face — they felt part of a small community and that this was particularly beneficial to their mental wellbeing during the lockdown when people hadn’t been able to socialise.
As menopause is still unfolding for many of the interviewees, they can make sense of it as they share their stories. Acts of telling and retelling help people make meaning from their lived experiences. One participant reported that: ‘It raised profound issues about the silence around women’s midlife, something which needs to be visible, integral and be seen as important. The focus was hugely meaningful.’
Another respondent, who had suffered with severe depression during her menopause, felt that hearing other women’s experiences (‘rather than just the scant info provided by the medical profession’) enabled her to re-evaluate her own symptoms and experiences of menopause and gave her hope that her symptoms would improve.
Finally, participants felt that they had a sense of agency by being part of a process of seeking out and recording for a public archive: ‘It felt empowering to be part of that telling, and hopefully contributing to the drive towards helping women get through menopause rather than just assuming they’ll get on with it.’
Find out more about The Silent Archive on our website
1 Rodrigues, M. H. and Craneiro, M. (2020) ‘Peri and postmenopausal women in times of coronavirus pandemic.’ Women & Health, 60(10):1072. DOI:10.1080/03630242.2020.1784370
2 El Khoudary, S., Greendale, G., Crawford, S., Avis, N. F., Brooks, M. M., Thurston, R. C., Karvonen-Gutierrez, C., Waetjen, L. E. and Matthews, K. (2019) ‘The menopause transition and women’s health at midlife: a progress report from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN).’ Menopause, 26(10):1213-1227. DOI:10.1097/GME.0000000000001424.
3 Harlow, B. L. and Signorella, L. B. (2000) ‘Factors associated with early menopause.’ Maturitas, 35(1):3-9. DOI:10.1016/s0378-5122(00)00092-x.
4 Shuster, L. T., Rhodes, D., Gostout, B. S., Grossardt, B. R. and Rocca, W. A. (2010) ‘Premature menopause or early menopause: long-term health consequences.’ Maturitas, 65(2):161-6. DOI: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2009.08.003.
5 Moscucci, O. (1999) ‘Medicine, age and gender: the menopause in history.’ Journal of the British Medical Society, December: 149.
6 Chalouhi, S. (2017) ‘Menopause: a complex and controversial journey.’ Journal of the British Menopause Society, 23(3): 128. DOI:10.1177/20533691177113.
7 Armitage, S. H. and Gluck, S. B. (2006). ‘Reflections on Women’s Oral History: an exchange.’ In R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader (2nd ed.). Routledge. 73-82.
8 2 El Khoudary, S., Greendale, G., Crawford, S., et al. (2019).
9 Lee, A. P. and Springer, K. (2020). ‘Socially Engaged Oral History Pedagogy amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.’ The Oral History Review, 47:2, 227-239, DOI: 10.1080/00940798.2020.1793678.
10 Kelly, J. M. and Horan, J. 2021. ‘Archive as Pedagogy: Oral History and a Journal of the Plague Year.’ Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, 17(3): 237–246.