Why Menopause Representation Matters: ‘Women in Positions of Power Realize This Is Not Something to Be Secretive About’

Gloria Steinem as herself, Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, and Candice Bergen as Enid Frick in And Just Like That. (Craig Blakenhorn / Max)

Representation of menopause in popular culture matters. Among the ways menopause has been reflected on TV, the And Just Like That cast has tackled issues of aging, including a cameo by Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem this past week.

It was also the main theme of a Judy Blume film screening and panel Ms. recently co-hosted in New York City entitled “Menopause Needs Our Margaret”—a reference to Blume’s iconic book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

The event gathered the filmmakers behind the Judy Blume Forever documentary, Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, plus menopause advocates Stacy London, Sharon Malone, Omisade Burney-Scott, Tamsen Fadal and Susan McPherson, in conversation with Jennifer Weiss-Wolf.

Read on for highlights from our New York City event.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf: The Judy Blume Forever documentary captures something an entire generation of women has so much connectivity to.

Davina Pardo: I feel honored to have been entrusted with Judy’s story and to be part of this conversation about her impact, her legacy. She has an incredible body of work and it was life-changing and life-saving for so many people.

I think there is something cyclical about the work, because generations who grew up reading her are now in positions of power and are able to make these projects possible. 

Leah Wolchok and Davina Pardo, the directors of Judy Blume Forever, with Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. (Roxy Szal)

Leah Wolchok: I grit my teeth and make this embarrassed face when I am with women who love Judy and have this deep childhood connection to her books, because I did not. I know you’re wondering, then, why the hell are you up here, one of the directors of this documentary about this woman who is our hero?  I grew up in the South, in Jacksonville, Florida, in the ’80s. Anyone else here? Okay, well you were smart. You knew not to listen to everyone telling you that those books were naughty and inappropriate, and not for you, but I did not. I was shy. I was a good girl. I was flat-chested like Margaret.

Weiss-Wolf: I love that, actually. I love that you just shared that.

Wolchok: And I didn’t get my period until I was 16! But with what Davina said about who is now making the decisions—so many women who are now in positions of power are also going through menopause. I think this is the reason that the conversation can change—because we’re all here, at this moment, realizing this is not something to be secretive about.

Weiss-Wolf: We have obviously a pretty distinct generational focus tonight. We are Gen X here in the room. It is interesting because on the one hand, I recognize from the documentary, and I’ve heard Judy herself say, it’s not just one generation: the work is timeless, it is everybody. But it would be hard to overstate how important Judy Blume was to Gen X.

I quote from the New York Times: “We were girls who were told we were equal, but boys will be boys. We didn’t have a word for bullying. We didn’t have Google. If we were lucky, we had a rotary phone with a cord that stretched to our bedroom. Movies were in theaters, music was on a radio, and books were made of paper, and into this siloed world, walks Judy Blume, bearing the news of other tweens, also a term that hadn’t been coined yet, and we had so many questions, but we did not have the language to articulate it.”

Pardo: That piece made me cry. I think one thing about our generation is that we didn’t have other books that were such intimate first-person narratives with female protagonists—stories that were realistic with the mundane and often profound details of our lives.  

Wolchok: The essence of childhood doesn’t change. Judy was able to tap into that essence, and that’s why her books have resonated for so long. A librarian told us when the paperback of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret came out, and those Scholastic book fairs came around, she saw the kids flock to that book.

Weiss-Wolf: Ahhh, the book fair! The whole idea of agency when you could choose your own books.  

So, I’m going to ask a question about the moment we’re in now, too—where authoritarianism impulses in our own country are taking root, showing up as book bans, as regressive sex ed, as the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. And then there’s this gift that we’ve had Judy clapping back in real time, too. When Florida introduced its “Don’t Say Periods” law, Judy tweeted out, “Sorry, Margaret.” I was like, “Oh wow, here we have her right now going after DeSantis! Cool!”

As artists yourselves, as artists who’ve been in company with Judy Blume, what’s your message to all of us about our role in standing up to this?

Wolchok: I can talk about our role as artists in bringing valuable the stories to the screen but I want to start with just the activism piece because it’s something that’s always been an exciting part of making a documentary, that you can watch something and then be moved by it, and then be moved to action. 

I live in suburban New Jersey and a local group of parents tried to challenge several books, five of which are about queer or trans characters. The entire town and neighboring towns all got together and fought it. It was a small group of parents, as is usually the case, but unfortunately they are mobilizing into this national force. They target books by and about Black, brown and Indigenous people, and those books are being taken off the shelves in exactly the places where kids need to be finding themselves in a book, just in the way that probably all of you, all of us, found ourselves for the first time in Margaret.

So many women who are now in positions of power are also going through menopause. … We’re all here, at this moment, realizing this is not something to be secretive about.

Leah Wolchok

Weiss-Wolf: The piece that I’ll add here, as somebody who does menstrual advocacy, is that policies that have been very popular and well-supported across the country with bipartisan backing—things like free access to menstrual products in schools—have also turned into a “parental rights issue.”

Judy Blume and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf at the Judy Blume Forever premiere in New York City in April. (Courtesy)

Weiss-Wolf: Let’s pivot to menopause.

Dr. Sharon Malone: I am the prototypical person that Judy Blume would have been writing about. I was a preteen in 1970 when Margaret came out, and yet I never read the book because I never saw the book. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. I went to Catholic school, and trust me, anything that said “Are You There, God,” was off limits. And when it comes to book banning and really limiting access to information for girls in the Deep South, we have done that. We’ve limited access. We’ve rewritten history.

Now, I think that one of the things that really interests me about this conversation is that when it starts at periods and goes through our reproductive lives into menopause, we have to eliminate the stigma and the shame associated with our bodily functions. 

Oe of the other things that’s very important is that as we tell our stories, we don’t want to leave anyone out of that conversation, and so, we need Margaret, we need Maria, we need Moesha. We need everybody’s story to be told and represented.  

Omisade Burney-Scott: So, I really love what Sharon just said and I would add Moe and Maurice to that, as well. In The Black Girl’s Guide To Surviving Menopause, we focus on culture and mentorship work and specifically want to elevate the stories and experiences of Black women, trans, genderqueer and gender-expansive people. I’m realizing that folk who already exist at the margins are being pushed further to the margins as we begin to “normalize” the conversation about menopause.

I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when I was in the fourth grade, first, so that was in 1977, and then I read Forever. And I still saw Judy, a white women, as part of my own journey as a Black Southern girl.  

Stacy London: This people on this panel represent so many who are out there, amplifying, speaking every day about menopause. One thing that I think is important about menopause is not necessarily connecting it only to ageism—and, yes, that needs to be addressed—but the idea that menopause is on a continuum of what is going on with our bodies through our reproductive years, our entire lives, and all of that is under attack. 

Why did I get to 47 and not know that I wasn’t going crazy, that I was experiencing perimenopause? Why did I have a doctor who didn’t tell me? Why is that possible? The average doctor’s appointment is 11 minutes, and menopause requires more than 11 minutes to discuss! One doctor gave me some really great advice and said, “Listen, menopause is a life stage, it is a health issue, and it is something that you need to know about 360.” You must, must advocate for yourself as well. I think that’s where the revolution starts.

Malone: It is also not just one conversation. The conversations that I would have with my patients, I would start when they’re in their late 30s and early 40s, because it’s anticipatory guidance. You need to know what’s coming. I also want to encourage people to move on if you don’t feel like you’re being heard by your doctor. I also want to encourage people to take this conversation online.

Tamsen Fadal: I agree—online conversations and telehealth are about access, but also about what are we doing in the media, right? What are we saying, how are we saying it, what kind of characters are we seeing on television and in movies? If Margaret can exist, then Margaret’s mom can exist, right? Margaret’s grandmother too! These are the things that we need to really fight for, both in entertainment and in public policy.  

Jen, I want to ask you a question. You have succeeded in making menstruation go mainstream as policy. What do you see for menopause?

It starts at periods and goes through our reproductive lives into menopause. We have to eliminate the stigma and the shame associated with our bodily functions. 

Sharon Malone
Tamsen Fadal, Omisade Burney-Scott, Stacy London, Sharon Malone and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. (Courtesy)

Weiss-Wolf: Omi and I wrote a piece together a couple months ago about what happens when something goes “mainstream” or what happens when something becomes a matter of public policy and who the first people to be harmed are by notions of normal, by notions of average, by notions of utilitarianism.

So comparing that to the period movement, it has become more than just a legislative campaign, but also a social campaign and a storytelling campaign. What that looks like for menopause can actually be so much richer, I think, even than talking about 11- and 12-year-olds, because we have all these layers of our lives now. That’s kind of the reverse vision of ageism. 

What are the ripest policies? Sharon and I wrote about the need for federal research dollars, demanding that they be redirected to menopause. That actually ended up in a congressional bill. Workplace policy, too, is emerging—especially in England and Scotland; though I don’t believe that’s quite revolutionary enough, it certainly is important to recognize our contributions to the economy.

Burney-Scott: I just got back from the U.K., and you know, we look at the U.K. for all the amazing work they’re doing, and what they hit up against is what we often hit up against—and that is systemic oppression, right? Menopause is a physical, cultural and political experience, period, no matter where you live in the world.  

The reproductive justice movement will turn 30 next year—started by Black women to make sure that reproductive health work centered on a human rights framework. Those folks are now in their 50s and 60s, so have a movement that’s already in place that just needs to catch up with menopause too.

Melissa Murray: There’s a way in which this conversation links up to the anti-democracy agenda in this country; we need to understand how inextricably intertwined all of our fates are.

It strikes me that the origins of the reproductive rights movement in this country were really about access to knowledge—like whether Margaret Sanger could distribute information about contraception through the mail—and there’s a through-line here about whether and how individuals can have access to knowledge, what information can we consume, what disinformation are we subjected to. It threads together the banned books, reproductive rights—and the ability to make menopause a policy priority.

We’re at a moment where democracy is in crisis. How can we have this conversation about menopause policy until we can agree on what knowledge we want to have, what science we believe, and what expertise that we’re going to trust? So, that’s not a question. It’s an invitation!

Weiss-Wolf: Yes! And I think there’s something very specific about Gen X—that we are the generation to do this. Now is the time those who experienced Judy Blume-style information about periods are now in power to change the conversation about menopause and create more freedoms.

Up next:

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About and

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the executive director of Ms. partnerships and strategy. A lawyer, fierce advocate and frequent writer on issues of gender, feminism and politics in America, Weiss-Wolf has been dubbed the “architect of the U.S. campaign to squash the tampon tax” by Newsweek. She is the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, which was lauded by Gloria Steinem as “the beginning of liberation for us all,” and is a contributor to Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth. She is also the executive director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at NYU Law. Find her on Twitter: @jweisswolf.
Roxy Szal is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.