Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Culture of Science

December 6
Judith Houck (Assistant Professor @ University of Wisconsin-Madison, in Medical History, Women's Studies, History of Science, Center of Women's Health and Women's Health Research)

"Menopause: The Social History of a Biological Process, or Why Scientists Should Care About History"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Judith began with a review of her current project on "The History of Menopause,1897-1980," in which she explores both the political and social implications of the process and, conversely, the various ways in which political and social forces influence its meaning. Defined as the transition to infertility, menopause takes its "texture" from its symptoms, of which three categories are fairly stable: menstrual irregularity, vasomotor changes (the constriction of blood vessels which result in hot flashes), and emotional and mental symptoms (irritability, depression, anxiety, nervousness, even--in the 19th c.--insanity). Juidth's project surveys medical views, popular perspectives (in the media), and women's own accounts of their experience of menopause. Two trajectories give a narrative force to her work: changing therapeutics (from reassurance through seditives to hormonal therapy) and the work of Robert Wilson, a Brooklyn gynecologist whose 1966 book Feminine Forever catalogued the horrors of menopause as a "deficiency disease" and promoted life-long estrogen replacement therapy as a strategy for keeping women "fully sexed throughout their lives." The revolution in hormone replacement therapy (which increased four-fold from 1963-1975, when it became linked to endrometric cancer) was also affected, in the three successive eras Judith is studying, by women's changing social roles: the rise of the new woman (the first cohort to receive college educations), the increasing presence of women in the work force, and the women's liberation movement. Judith offered a range of examples of ways in which menopause must always be understood not exclusively as a biological process, but against a larger cultural backdrop, in conjunction with a variety of social factors, as an interplay between the physiological and the political.

Why should scientists care about the history of menopause, of medicine, of science? Because history gives us a larger perspective on our smaller, more focused lines of inquiry; because it teaches us that bodily experience is not dependent on the body alone (so that good medical practice needs to involve understanding the patient as a person outside the examination room); because as our biological understanding increases it's important for scientists to realize that that perspective is always a partial one; because important differences between medical theory and medical practices need to be acknowledged; and finally, because scientists need to be reminded of what happens to science when it leaves the laboratory: social uses are made of scientific theory, which scientists themselves cannot control:

In the short discussion time remaining, we distinguished between scientific, medical, and social-economic forces (the treatment of menopause has been fueled by the need of the pharmaceutical industry to make money and is very much a class-bound story, focused on the concerns of middle- and upper-class women; it has not found its way into public health clinics). We also problematized the distinction between "natural" and "constructed" processes (through time, "different things are constructed as natural"); acknowledged that there is "no finite truth about the body," that there are repeated judgment calls on "what is biological," what socially constructed; about our understandings of the body. "What is treatable" determines what is "natural": the natural is itself "artifactual" and deeply politicized.

The final Brown Bag discussion of this semester will be held next Wednesday, December 11th, when Paul Grobstein will initiate a conversation about "Philosophies of Science: A View from the Brain."

Over the course of the semester, we have been discussing understanding in terms of a number of binaries: as "commodity" or "shared culture," as subjective or objective, embodied or transcendent, metonymic or metaphoric, individual or social, internally constructed or reflecting the external world. We have also been exploring the possibility that many interesting phenomenon occur without a blueprint or a planner, emerging as the consequence of relatively simple things interacting in relatively simple ways. Paul will suggest that the brain is an organized ant colony and that the binaries we've identified reflect fundamental principles of that organization. He will further suggest that the appearance of conflicts between binaries results from our attending to one or the other of the two parts of the brain, and that the apparent conflicts dissolve when one appreciates the play that goes on between them.

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