"What do these women want?": Feminist responses to Feminine Forever, 1963-1980

Bull Hist Med. 2003 Spring;77(1):103-32. doi: 10.1353/bhm.2003.0023.


In 1963, Brooklyn gynecologist Robert A. Wilson and his wife, Thelma, published a paper in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society arguing that untreated menopause robbed women of their femininity and ruined the quality of their lives. In 1966 Robert Wilson published a best-selling book, Feminine Forever, in which he maintained that menopause was an estrogen-deficiency disease that should be treated with estrogen replacement therapy to prevent the otherwise inevitable "living decay." This paper explores the issues raised by the convergence of Wilson's campaign and the emergence of the women's movement. Between 1963 and 1980, feminists did not respond with one voice to Wilson's ideas: at first, some embraced them as a boon for aging women, while others resisted regarding female aging as pathological. In 1975, studies linking ERT and endometrial cancer challenged the wisdom of routine hormone therapy; this shifted the tenor of the feminist discussion, but it did not create a consensus about the meaning of menopause or its treatment. Nevertheless, the feminist discussion of menopause revealed a larger women's health agenda-namely, the unyielding belief that women should retain control of their bodies and participate fully in the decision-making efforts regarding their health. By controlling their bodies, all women, whether feminist or not, could ultimately control their lives.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Estrogen Replacement Therapy / history*
  • Female
  • Feminism / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Menopause / psychology
  • Sociology
  • Women's Health*