I vividly remember sensing the tell-tale wetness between my thighs that signalled the need to change my tampon. I remember how horrible it was if it happened in the middle of an important meeting. The dread of leaving a stain on my clothes, or worse, the chair – why must they be upholstered in cream? I remember the impossibility of concentrating as I obsessed over impending mortification. I knew that the meeting that would laugh at a fart would gasp in horror at a spreading red stain.
It’s been 13 wonderful years since I last had a period. I call this stage of life the sunny uplands of post menopause. It’s why I believe that, contrary to conventional wisdom, ageing is easier for women than men. Some things in our lives vastly improve – for blokes it’s all deficit. It’s amazing how much head space not bleeding every 28 days can free up.
However, women should not have to wait until middle age to feel so liberated. Removing the stigma and shame that accompanies menstruation and menopause would make everything, including paid work, much easier and so help them be much more productive.
That is why I am so delighted Australian unions are planning a campaign to introduce menstrual and menopausal leave for workers who need it.
I am delighted for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, because – at long last – it recognises the disproportionate price women pay for producing the next generation. When it comes to sexual reproduction, men get all the fun, while women do the work. And having children is not a lifestyle choice. Many of our leaders are currently agonising about what to do about ageing populations and low birthrates. They know what that does to the economy. Their solutions so far have often been authoritarian, such as restricting access to abortion and even contraception. Sorry gents (and they are almost all gents) but you should look to the unions. Making earning a living easier for women and anyone with a functioning uterus makes it much easier for them to decide to have children. Cheaper childcare and investing in public education would also help.
When I was working in an office back in the day, we kept our periods absolutely secret. When we went to the ladies, we concealed our sanitary protection carefully. We lived in dread of discovery and if we were experiencing pain or mood swings, we blamed anything – a late night, the flu, a hangover – rather than confess to it being “that time of the month”. If we got angry, often for very good reason, it was common to be accused of “being on your rags”. Our periods were seen as reasons we couldn’t be trusted with important work, because they sent us crazy. No, it was how we were forced to deal with them that did that, not the bodily functions themselves.
With up to 20% of women suffering debilitating period pain and 30% severe menopausal symptoms, suffering in silence has clearly not been a solution. All female stoicism has done is allow other people, including employers, to ignore the issue.
When I went out into the paid workforce in the late 70s, women were grudgingly allowed to participate, but only if we behaved like men in skirts. The message we received was that if we did insist on earning a living, we would have to change – not the workplace. Given Australian women remain No 1 in the world for educational participation and achievement according to the World Economic Forum, but have fallen to 70th for economic participation and achievement, change is more than overdue. Helping women to participate fully in the workplace is a no-brainer. It would not only help prevent more generations of women having to face poverty and homelessness as they age, but our economy would grow by an estimated $25bn.
Accepting that women need to be supported through the pain and difficulty that just comes with owning a uterus will at last recognise that women not only have as much right to be in the paid workforce as anyone else, but that we, as a society, need and value their contribution.
That’s why, while having more women in the boardroom and parliament is gratifying, I knew feminism was really making inroads when I saw menstruation and menopause being taken seriously. Women talking about their experiences and finally rejecting the shame that went along with their natural – and vitally important – bodily functions is revolutionary. The unspeakable is becoming the unremarkable, at last.
• Jane Caro is a novelist, writer and social commentator