Hot Flashes and Killer Whales: The Evolutionary Advantage of Menopause

The patriarchy thinks menopause is a problem. A new book is making waves with the argument that “the change” has value for our species and the women who go through it.
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For most female mammals, fertility doesn’t stop completely, just dwindles until they die. But orcas—the cetaceans known as “killer whales”—go through menopause and have a long post-reproductive life, like humans.

Photo by wildestanimal/Getty Images

It’s usual to say that women “start” menopause. But for Darcey Steinke, menopause was more like being engulfed:

“I wake, heart thwacking, as heat flows up from my stomach, courses behind my face, and radiates out through the top of my head. ... I throw off my covers and feel, in the first pocket of spooky quiet, that flames are burning from my inner organs up into my muscles toward the skin. I’d run away, but how does one flee one’s own body?”

Hot flashes, night sweats, and insomnia are well-known symptoms of the decrease in estrogen at menopause. Less discussed are the “auras” Steinke had before the flashes, an experience shared by many of the women she interviewed for her new book, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life. Some described a sudden feeling of foreboding or free fall before a hot flash. Steinke described a stillness and a sensation of being “outside continuous conventional reality.”

Rather than dismiss these moments of changed perception as just another symptom, Steinke allowed herself to consider them. She began keeping a record of her hot flashes—when they occurred and what they felt like. But she also began researching and writing about menopause as a threshold before the next phase of life—unknown, but anticipated.

The end result is her paradigm-shifting book. It’s a literary memoir that takes in anger, sex, marriage, gender transition, parenting, death, philosophy, spirituality and killer whales (yes, really) along the way. It’s lucid, lyrical, and sometimes funny. But unlike so much of popular culture, Steinke’s humor is never at the expense of women over 50.

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“I found flashes to be desperate, uncomfortable, sometimes even sublime, but never funny,” she writes. The book is getting quite a bit of media attention, and has helped create a space for talking and writing about menopause from a new perspective.

“There’s so little that’s good that’s written about it,” Steinke says of the menopause books on offer, which she says almost exclusively consist of advice on how to overcome symptoms with self-care, herbal remedies, or hormone therapy (otherwise known as “HT”). While she found Dr. Christiana Northrop’s bestseller The Wisdom of Menopause marginally helpful, something was still missing. “I wanted a more personal view,” she says. “I wanted to see myself reflected somewhere. And I could never find that.”

A great deal of advice from the menopause industry homes in on sex: whether menopausal women can still do it, and whether they’re still desirable enough that anybody would want to do it with them. Taking HT can delay or lessen symptoms like hot flashes, diminished libido, and the thinning of vaginal membrane, but that comes with a small increased risk of cancer.

Steinke doesn’t specifically advise on whether or not to medicate menopause, but she does take aim at the medical establishment’s long history of treating it like a nasty, shameful disease. Most dramatically, she writes about attending a conference in Amsterdam on vaginal cosmetic surgery, sponsored by vaginal laser resurfacing companies with names like “Smooth” and “Mona Lisa Touch.”

“That was a very dark place for me,” Steinke says. “I think it was the opening meeting where there were a lot of male doctors, and one started talking about the menopausal vagina and the problems with it. ‘It’s dry... it’s not pliable, it’s shrunk.’ I suddenly realized that’s how a penis might feel coming into a vagina, but not how it feels to have one. There might be a little dryness, but it’s not this big horror show. … Over and over again, I would hear the same thing: ‘How can we get it back in shape?’”

The conference is a glimpse of the most extreme patriarchal tinkering with femaleness, but what are the alternatives? In Flash Count Diary, Steinke speculates that there might be something of value on the other side of the hormonal withdrawal that is menopause:

“Some scientists say menopause is triggered when the number of viable eggs in the ovaries is too low; others admit they don’t know why egg maturation stops and hormones diminish. Without hormones, my body changes again, just as it did in adolescence when I was flooded with estrogen and began to menstruate. While menstruation still carries stigma in our culture—we are ‘on the rag’ and considered unstable because of fluctuating hormones—the fertile years of a woman’s life are also considered her most essential. Menopause, on the other hand, is disparaged, even considered shameful. No one proposes we eliminate childhood, adolescence, or adulthood from the female life cycle. Only menopause is considered something to be cured and reversed, done away with completely.”

The natural world offers unexpected sources of inspiration. After another sleepless night of hot flashes, Steinke reads an article about killer whales, one of the few mammals other than humans that go through menopause. For most female mammals, fertility doesn’t stop completely, just dwindles until they die. But orcas—the cetaceans known as “killer whales”—go through menopause and have a long post-reproductive life, like humans.

Research indicates that menopause had an evolutionary advantage for orcas.

Whale researchers know this thanks to the Southern Resident Orcas, an endangered group now numbering 75 living in the Salish Sea close to dense human populations in Canada and Washington state. Their location is convenient for research but not so good for the Southern Residents, a cluster of related pods, or families, with big, convoluted brains, and what researchers describe as a distinct “dialect” of whale calls and a “culture” of learned behavior. Orcas also have strong social relationships, and their pods are led by post-menopausal females.

Research indicates that menopause had an evolutionary advantage for orcas, because having post-reproductive females around to help with care and feeding increased the life chances of the young. In the study of human evolution, this is “the grandmother hypothesis”—the theory that post-menopausal women in hunter-gatherer societies were good for the group as a whole. Freed from the work of bearing their own children, they helped care for and feed their grandchildren, increasing the likelihood of their survival. The next generation carried their genes, and the menopause advantage was passed on. The wise historians of the world’s few remaining hunter-gatherer communities, Steinke says, are very old ladies who know from experience where to find food in times of scarcity, where that well was and where to dig, and what young couples need to do to get along.

In Flash Count Diary, the Southern Resident Orcas become Steinke’s long-distance menopause companions. From her study in Brooklyn, she livestreams an underwater whale research mic in the Salish Sea and listens for their vocalizations. She dreams about them.

If comparisons between women and orcas feel like overreach, consider that Steinke is not the first to make them. One of her beloved orcas, a 6-year-old female snatched in the great Puget Sound whale capture of 1970 and flown to Florida, was placed in a pool at Miami’s Seaquarium with a much older male. Her new owners cleverly named her “Lolita,” after the Nabokov novel about a pubescent girl held captive by her predatory stepfather.

Steinke’s fascination takes her from a protest at Lolita’s too-small pool in Florida to the Pacific Northwest, home to free female orcas, including the 100-year-old J2, or “Granny,” the Southern Residents’ post-menopausal matriarchal leader of the pod. There, on a kayaking trip, Steinke has the good luck to be approached by J2 and looks into the eye of a whale. It’s the culmination of her menopausal journey, a transcendent experience of wonder and mystery.

If that sounds a little woo-woo, be assured that the writer’s craft, buoyed by research, guides readers thoughtfully to her orca encounter. Steinke is aware that “what orcas and menopausal women have in common” is a tough elevator pitch. “The publishing industry was like: ‘Don’t talk too much about the orcas until way after the book comes out,’” she says with a laugh.

Steinke concedes her book is unusual. “This is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever written,” she says. But her choice to let the narrative go where her menopausal quest takes her opens up radical new possibilities for the reader. As it stands, there’s no way to know what menopause might be like when not viewed through our culture’s patriarchal lens. But Steinke would like to see a cultural reframing of menopause. Along with that, she’s considered a new name for the process—a rebranding, as it were.

“I have thought about this a lot, in part because I had to say ‘menopause’ so many times in my book,” Steinke says. “I have a list of words I could use medically. I looked up what it was called in other cultures.” But she says she still hasn’t found a term that feels right.

The thing about menopause, says Steinke, “is there’s real struggle, but there’s also real gain. It’s a paradox, like all good things in life—like parenting, like sex, like everything. There are bad parts, but there are good parts. The part that’s kind of lost right now is—maybe it means we can be more free.”