To be labelled hormonal used to be an insult. Now women are reclaiming the role of oestrogen in their lives. Eva Wiseman reveals how a new generation is being empowered by their hormones
The grand plan, the plan to end the Second World War, was inspired by the docility of Paula Hitler. You dont hear much about Paula, do you, the lesser-known Hitler, who worked as a secretary while big brother Adolf was upstairs doing the Holocaust? But yes, inspired by Paula, British spies planned to end the war by making Adolf less aggressive. They intended to do this by smuggling oestrogen into his food, thereby turning him into a woman. Hitler had tasters, said Professor Brian Ford of Cardiff University, who discovered the plot, so there was no mileage to putting poison in his food because they would immediately fall victim to it. But, Sex hormones were a different matter.
Though the word hormone was first used in 1905, derived from the Greek meaning to arouse or excite, it was during that period leading into the war that the science of endocrinology developed. Hormones are the bodys chemical messengers; they trigger activity in the body and regulate the function of organs. But with knowledge of their effects came creeping politics. If hormones meant women were less inclined to start wars, did it also mean they were less capable of ambition? Less capable of being leaders? If hormones meant men were more aggressive, less nurturing, was equality an impossible dream?
Womens hormones sneak into our culture with a period-like regularity. In 1978 Gloria Steinem wrote in If Men Could Menstruate: Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps. The news, too, is littered with commentary. In 2012, CNN argued womens hormones play a significant role in their voting decisions, with single women more likely to vote for Obama and married women more likely to vote for Romney; it was removed after complaints. In 2015, a business survey confirmed that 54% of respondents thought a womans behaviour at work was dictated by her hormones.
A year later Novak Djokovic waded into a debate about equal pay in sport, explaining that women faced more challenges than men to succeed in tennis, including battling against hormones. In the Old Testament, God banters: When she is in heat, who can control her? He was talking about camels. There have been many, many more, all positing versions of the same idea that women are complete nightmares at certain times of the month. And the thing is, despite the outrage that these clumsy stories cause, some researchers would agree there are kernels of truth, or shadows of kernels, or kernels of kernels, buried within them.
Martie Haselton, professor of psychology at UCLA whose book, Hormonal, discusses the hidden intelligence of hormones, argues that, rather than oppressive and damaging, what weve learned about women and hormones is empowering. Rather than a simple story about women losing all rationality around their periods, she sees it as: The story of how our hormones guide us through uniquely female life experiences, from feeling desire and pleasure to choosing a mate, having a child (if we would like to), raising a child and transitioning to our post-reproductive years. Haselton is part of a new conversation that is emerging; she is a pioneering researcher pushing the politics of hormones in a new direction. Where once women were encouraged to combat the effects of hormones with the Pill and HRT, stamping down wobbly moods in order to be in control of their bodies, today their daughters are turning away from hormonal contraceptives in order to reclaim some autonomy over their bodies, with figures dropping by more than 13% between 2005 and 2015. Instead of using the Pill to prevent or plan pregnancy, theyre using their phones.