Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Labour’s ‘menopause action plan’ is an insult to women

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Only once have I been asked if I would like to be photographed with my head sticking out of a giant bleeding vagina, but the memory has stuck with me. It was at a book festival in Gothenburg and I was there to promote a Swedish translation of my book, Women Versus Feminism. Despite the language barrier, I was pretty certain the six-foot stand-in vulva was intended to promote period awareness. As a middle-aged woman, I felt I was already quite period-aware and so I politely declined the selfie.

Unfortunately, the vagina’s handlers were reluctant to accept this excuse. Not the middle-aged bit – that was self-evident. It was the ‘woman’ part of my lived experience they found troubling. The ‘awareness’ being raised by the model genitalia was that all genders menstruate – a message reinforced by an abundant supply of free tampons in the men’s toilets.

The menopause has become political

One bizarre feature of our heated debate about sex and gender identity is that at the very same time as it has become verboten to talk about women and girls as a sex, it is seemingly obligatory to discuss the bodily functions of people once known as females in graphic detail. From London’s vagina museum to period positivity campaigns, taboos are old fashioned and letting it all hang out is in. 

The menopause is the latest aspect of female biology to get its moment in the spotlight. Whereas ‘the change’ was once whispered about behind closed doors, it is now trendy thanks to celebs like Davina McCall, Mariella Frostrup and Gabby Logan. Hot flushes, brain fog, night sweats and vaginal dryness are all now content for soap operas, chat shows and newspaper columns. 

Off the back of this, the menopause has become political. MPs from all parties compete to demonstrate their awareness. In October 2021, the government got the upper hand by announcing cheaper Hormone Replacement Therapy. The following summer, Labour’s Carolyn Harris, Chair of the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Menopause, launched a ‘menopause revolution’ designed to ‘bring an end to women’s suffering’. Alas it did not. Just weeks later, Conservative Caroline Nokes called on the government to make menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. ‘Menopausal women have been mocked and maligned for too long,’ she announced.

Labour now wants to reclaim the menopausal moral high ground. The party has pledged that firms with more than 250 employees will have to publish menopause action plans. Suggestions for helping women experiencing menopause symptoms include paid time off for medical appointments, ‘working environments with temperature-controlled areas’, the right to work from home or to work flexible hours, uniform alterations and more breaks. Middle-aged women of Britain: truly, you have never had it so good.   

Maybe it’s my age, but I am not convinced that this long list of demands is really in the best interests of women like me. Some of these proposals are, frankly, patronising. Take ‘temperature-controlled areas’, for example. I’d hazard a guess that this means opening a window, or perhaps turning on a fan or ramping up the air conditioning. Not all women suffer with hot flushes but those that do know how to cool down without written policies. We were opening windows before workplace action plans were even invented. 

It gets worse. A few years back, Nottinghamshire Police’s menopause policy hit the headlines. Along with desk fans and extra showers, women were offered ‘crying rooms’. This is not just patronising, it is humiliating. Legally-mandated workplace action plans risk letting such ridiculous ideas flourish as employers think they must do something, no matter how inappropriate. 

Rather than being seen as experienced, competent and capable, older women risk coming to be viewed as a drain on resources. And rather than being seen as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses, middle-aged women come to be lumped together in one hormonal blob. Surely anyone with a clinical need should have the right to ask for more breaks and time off for medical appointments, not just women of a certain age. 

Labour’s menopause plans have been announced by Angela Rayner and Anneliese Dodds. Dodds declared they were a ‘vital step forward’ as the Conservatives ‘have vacated the field on supporting women’. Unfortunately for this faux-feminist double act, women have long memories. We know that they have both struggled repeatedly to define ‘woman’. We know that Labour MPs heckled Rosie Duffield and Miriam Cates when they argued against a male rapist being placed in a Scottish prison. We know it was left to Rishi Sunak to say that ‘biological sex really matters’.

Unable to talk about the importance of women’s sex-based rights, Labour now want to compensate by banging on about the menopause. With friends like these, middle-aged women have no need of enemies.