HRT radically improves women’s health, so we should fight for it
The power of the woman who has conquered menopause can be terrifying, or so found Ernest Hemingway when his old friend, the writer Gertrude Stein, dropped him from her artistic salons in Paris. “Since the menopause she lost all sense of taste. She could no longer tell a good painting from a bad one – it all went pftt,” he said, plaintively. “Gertrude’s ego grew positively monumental in size.”
Stein also had her hair cut short, by her lover Alice B. Toklas, in the style of a Roman emperor. “The haircut marked a turning point in all sorts of things,” said Toklas. Perhaps it was a sign, too, of hormonal change, as Stein’s testosterone grew dominant when her feminine oestrogen ebbed away. It was after menopause that Stein wrote her celebrated modernist work The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. One of Stein’s most famous lines is: “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” In his enormous huff Hemingway sent round a copy of his new book, Death in the Afternoon, to her, with the dedication: “A bitch is a bitch is a bitch is a bitch.”
There’s something disturbing about a strong post-menopausal woman, even to a man with big cojones like Hemingway. There’s a whiff of witch or wise woman. After the age of 50, women may no longer need men in the same way, or have to worry about fertility or parenting. Anger, honesty and sometimes creativity are unleashed.
Which brings us to the present-day UK and the headlines, television reports and outrage around the massive shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) around the country.
The protests are loud. A sleeping Amazonian army of Generation X women, who have fought for equality for the last 30 years, has woken. Women have realised the newer body-identical HRT is safer, and that it halts the sudden plunge – as oestrogen and progesterone disappear – into symptoms and decrepitude that previous generations just put up with.
While many people still think HRT is a “lifestyle drug”, that’s quite wrong. For the 14 per cent of us women in midlife who take it in the UK, it is a lifesaver. It keeps us in work, it alleviates the anxiety and depression that hit women in their forties in perimenopause, when suicide and divorce rates peak. It stops our joints creaking. It oils our brains. It lets us sleep. In my case, it prevents a return of the heart palpitations which come when my oestrogen levels are low. Going cold turkey without HRT is dangerous. Women who suddenly come off HRT are more prone to heart failure.
Women are being decimated by the menopause, yet when their hormones are restored, they make a comeback
Now, if other hormones like thyroxine or insulin had run out, the Department of Health would be racing to solve the problem. Recently, Covid-supremo Madelaine McTernan was appointed “HRT Tsar” (why not Tsarina?) to get women their hormones back. But frankly, the NHS and Department of Health could have spotted this coming when the first shortages started over two years ago. If they’d looked at the graph from their own HRT prescriptions, they would see a line rocketing upwards following a television programme, Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause, which I produced in May 2021.
HRT prescriptions have doubled in the last five years, but the men (and women) at the top put their heads in the sand and pretended it wasn’t happening. Or just did not care. The person charged with creating the NHS “menopause pathway” and improving the atrociously ill-informed website is a) a man, and b) not a doctor.
The supposed worthlessness of older women plays a part here, as so many are advised by an ill-educated medical profession to “keep calm and carry on”. But the survey we did with the Fawcett Society for our next Channel 4 documentary, Davina McCall: Sex, Mind and the Menopause, revealed that one in ten women quit their jobs during perimenopause and menopause, and 70 per cent suffer memory loss and brain fog, never mind hot flushes.
Women are literally being decimated by the menopause, yet when their hormones are restored, they make a comeback. Particularly when the HRT includes oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, which is – who knew? – the hormone women make in the largest quantity. For months, menopause specialists and campaigners have been talking to the big HRT manufacturers, most of whom source products from Europe, telling them the sky was about to fall as demand outpaced supply. But no-one in the NHS listened.