The founding of Women’s Voices for Change was a group effort from the start.  Almost 10 years ago, some 40 women gathered in the home of Laura Sillerman, a poet and tireless philanthropist, to hear Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen, Director of the New York Menopause Center, talk about menopause.  Her positive vision defied conventional wisdom.  The women she was coaching on how to manage their menopause were proactive. And they were coming out the other side of this passage to find a release of startling power, energy, and creativity. Menopause was a gateway to the most versatile and satisfying stages of their lives!

This vision resonated with women in that living room. Most were veterans of social movements past, whether they were anti-war activists or pioneering feminists.  “We acknowledged the need to change the perception of menopause,” recalls Faith Childs, a prominent New York literary agent and attorney.  She kept saying, “Hey,  we’ve done this before, we know how to raise awareness and change consciousness!”

A core group formed: Childs, Sillerman, Dr. Pat, and Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, an award-winning playwright and founder of Behind The Scenes @Tisch, a program that develops new works by writers at in the MFA program New York University. The four women were committed to starting a social movement to change the perception of menopause.

“We didn’t know exactly how,” admits Childs, laughing. “And we had no idea how much time it would take [10 to 15 hours a month, except in preparation for a gala, when it’s 20 hours a week], but we were in for the long run. In the naturally collaborative way that women like to work, the four eventually hit on the idea of an online magazine, Women’s Voices for Change. . Sillerman, who devotes many hours a month to finding first-rate poets, from Pulitzer prize winners  to a popular Filipina voice, developed a poetry site that is gaining devotees. Quietly effective, she is a ballast for the unplugged energy of Dr. Pat. Childs, given her  24 years of experience in the marketplace of ideas in Manhattan, can pigeonhole a writer who has a passion for almost any subject.  “The fun for all of us,” says Dr. Pat, “is the exhilaration of sharing a common purpose and having a platform to be creative and shine a light on inspirational women.”

 

CHERYL FLEMING Guests at April’s fund-raising luncheon at the Harmonie Club. (Photo by Cheryl Fleming)

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By now the organization has no trouble reaching out with an invitation to  raise funds to keep the online magazine growing.  Invitees write out a personal check for $250 to $1,000 for a workday luncheon and are treated to a candid dialogue between women who are models of reinvention. Last week, 200 working professional women, dressed as brightly as primroses, turned out for a luncheon at the Harmonie Club, courtesy of Hemmerdinger. Dr. Pat  welcomed the audience, many of whom were new faces to her, wearing the hat of her latest incarnation as a writer and publisher.

Preposterous though it seems today, Pat Allen used to be paralyzed by the prospect of public speaking. She propelled herself to do a lot of it until it became pleasurable—well, almost. The most writing she did was on patients’ charts. Over the years she has yearned to find a way to come out from behind her desk and speak to more women. “The website has allowed me to have a voice within a community of voices,” she says.

 -1(Photo by Cheryl Fleming)

This little site has grown up. It showcases the writing of women who are, as Dr. Pat writes, “smart, vital, versatile, killer funny and deadly serious, celebratory and sorrowing,” and not afraid to be honest narrators of their own experience. Professional editors have been hired, and, for the first time, the site’s veteran writers are being paid a modest fee. . “The source of its growth is Pat’s will,” insists Sillerman. “In six years [the site went live in 2006] she has carried us to increase our page views to over 2 million.” . Uppermost in Dr. Pat’s  mind, night and day for 30 years, has been her relationship with her patients. “The forties are the decade of greatest anguish,” she believes. Women begin to sense a momentous change coming on, but often feel embarrassed to discuss it. Or they cling to the fantasy of endless youth and report to Dr Pat, when their periods stop at 48, “Surprise! I must be pregnant!” . Dr. Pat was the medical adviser on my book The Silent Passage, which opened a national conversation on this taboo subject.  As I traveled the country making speeches and giving interviews, the false beliefs were often comical. . “Menopause,” gulped a male news anchor in Cleveland, “is that like—impotence?” “Um, no,” I mumbled lamely. Only later did I think of the right comeback: “Baldness: Is that like—Alzheimer’s?” . It was an early menopause, in her young forties, that brought Faith Childs to Dr. Allen. This normally take-charge businesswoman was on the way to accepting the existing fallacy.  “Women at this stage were moving toward some sort of terminus; your effective life was over,” she believed at the time.  “With childbearing in the rearview—the magic was gone and the rest was downhill.” . Dr. Allen turned her thinking around.  Even in her mid-fifties Childs was wearing size zeros and twos. She had to wrestle with herself about stepping forward to be counted as a menopausal woman.

 

From left: Gayfrid Steinberg; Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen; Dr. Wulf Utian, Founder of North American Menopause Society; Faith Childs: Laura Baudo Sillerman, and Elizabeth Hemmerdinger.

At the “Black Tie, No Tails” gala in 2005. From left: Gayfrid Steinberg; Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen; Dr. Wulf Utian, Founder of North American Menopause Society; Faith Childs: Laura Baudo Sillerman, and Elizabeth Hemmerdinger.

By 2005, Dr. Allen, Sillerman, and Childs were ready to launch the nonprofit organization Women’s Voices for Change with a very unusual formal gala.  Four hundred women came out in evening gowns—”Black Tie, No Tails,” read the invitation—and all the jewelry they could beg or borrow. We swanned around the Cipriani Ballroom sans male escorts, to celebrate women over 40. This was about owning up to being in a life stage customarily thought of as a social graveyard. The ribald former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, hosted the evening and Bette Midler got down and dirty as the entertainer.  Hundreds of pictures were taken. The media ate it up.

“It was a visual way of saying, ‘We are not what you think we are,’” recalls Dr. Pat. “What we really are is beautiful, powerful,  elegant, capable women who don’t need to define ourselves by being on the arm of a man.” . I was honored at that gala as the first Champion for Change. I  had to step into the spotlight to say, “I am a woman in the menopausal years, and proud of it.  Once you’re in, you’re in.  I welcome all the rest of you, now or in the future,  to the best stages of life.”  This was the hidden secret;  Fresh vitality and passion  are released in these years. . It meant a great deal to me to pass the torch to Dr. Pat to continue pursuing our mutual goal—to fire up seasoned women to continue to lead productive lives and to inspire them with personal stories of reinvention. . The driven Dr. Allen sees patients nonstop roughly 10 hours a day, permitting herself  a V-8 juice lunch at her desk. On nights and weekends, engaging with her site feels like a vacation. “After talking and emailing all day long, at night I get to step out of my role as Dr. Pat and call up 3,000 of my closest friends (online) and talk about my life.” We get a glimpse of the zany side of this complex woman laughing her way  through manic activity. .  “Christmas madness all around, and I invite the bishop to tea!” she wrote last December. “Who does such things?”  The perfectionist Pat Allen, of course, who in her wisdom suddenly decided that her aubergine hall was unforgivably dark, so she called her super to install new ceiling fixtures. Instead, a workman took down the 140-year-old glass chandelier over her glass dining room table.  The mixup ended with “The Husband,” who cannot tolerate disorder in his living space, “teetering on a stepladder next to an elderly porter with a tremor” while Pat held a tiny flashlight and watched the 100 baubles on the chandelier dance crazily as the antique was rehung. She wrote, “I chose to internalize my agitation and anxiety, and risked having a stroke instead of cursing at my super.” A swig of bourbon helped. She closed with  “Ah, and the bishop comes to tea on Saturday to discuss how we can find more time for our spiritual life . .  .
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Dr. Pat has built a devoted practice by giving her patients unhurried consultations. She investigates not only a patient’s physiological interior, but scans for a holistic picture of her life. When I say scan, she is  like a laser beam; there is no place to hide.  She uses her skills as natural  psychologist, marriage counselor, sex expert, and spiritual shepherd to tease out hidden problems and exhort women not to settle for the status quo.

Now gracefully negotiating her sixties,  Dr. Pat has kept her infinitesimal waist and raucous sense of humor. Far more important, she has carefully defined her third act.  Shifting her practice into concierge medicine, a more sensible business model,  also allows her the flexibility to check in on her online magazine a half dozen times a day. . Dr. Pat’s husband is a savvy editor of a successful for-profit financial website.  He pushed her to go for controversy. “You’ll get more traffic if you start a fight, it attracts viewers and media.” Dr. Pat wasn’t interested. “We recognize that we are a role model of what intelligent women’s conversations are—if there are disagreements, they are respectful and civil.” . Menopause is no longer the main story.  Many of the founders and contributors have moved beyond its impact. (Younger women can search in the medical archives for posts on every dimension of the menopausal passage. The subject will always be covered, as younger readers send in questions to help them navigate the early part of the new half of life.) . Redefining life after 40 is the current mission.  What’s next?  A new post goes up at least every 24 hours.  Finding  unique ways to express themselves creatively and collectively, the founders want to encourage younger women to look ahead and re-imagine themselves being free to flourish in their fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond. The site has expanded in both demographic directions. . “Our site is where younger women find the scouts from the decades ahead,” says Childs “—writers who can say, ‘Honey, when the last kid goes off to high school, you will have time to reinvent your life.  One way to prepare is to read Women’s Voices for Change every day, or  at least once or twice a week.’ ” . Here’s a glance at what readers find on Women’s Voices for Change: .

Medical Monday: “Dr. Pat Consults” is a regular feature; every week Dr. Pat reaches out to a medical specialist to get answers to questions ranging from breast cancer to stroke to menopausal migraines to macular degeneration. Naturally, after 31 years on the staff of Weill-Cornell Medical College, she is widely respected, but she is also a shameless flirt. She can coo and coax the experts on her medical advisory board to write for free. Dr. Joseph Safdieh, a top neurologist, fielded a query from a woman in menopausal hell whose gynecologist refused to give her hormone replacement because she has migraines. Dr. Safdieh fired back an erudite but accessible 750-word post.  He explained why the woman would be safe in asking her doctor for a transdermal patch of estrogen.

Wednesday Five:  This women-centered news digest spotlights not the headlines but the small stories, usually written by women, and invites conversation.

Dr. Hilda on Sex is a no-holds-barred column, appearing occasionally, about owning your own sexuality, admitting what you want, and learning about methods and toys that make sex more fun. It is a follow-up to “Sex Talk,” a series of extremely frank exchanges between Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Director of the Center for Sexual Health at Columbia University Medical Center, and Dr. Pat (findable in our medical archives).

Poetry Sunday is Laura Sillerman’s platform to give exposure to women poets. Readers who might not go into a bookstore looking for a volume of poetry can enjoy, in these finely etched words, a quiet meditation, a thought that will stay with us for a day, a month, maybe a lifetime.

The mix of writers includes Roz Warren, a comic librarian who posts witty commentaries on the absurdities of life; Alexandra McCarron, a nationally published film critic who never echoes anyone else’s views; Diane Vacca, who specializes in deeply researched stories on policy issues; Chris Lombardi on the news; Cecilia Ford, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice who writes our “Emotional Health” feature on Thursdays; Eleanore Wells, wry proclaimer of the joys of spinsterhood; and Ro Howe, our chef-in-chief whose special-occasion menus range from Easter luncheon to Oscar-night (elegant) snacking to a potluck Thanksgiving.

And Women’s Voices welcomes meditations on life’s transitions, too. Dr. Pat was able to keep vigil at the bedside of her 93-year-old mother two months ago. In Mrs. Yarberry’s rural Kentucky town, neither palliative care nor hospice was available.  Pat had found a team to care for her mother in the regional medical center and it was there that she was able to talk her home.  Shortly thereafter, Pat wrote movingly for the site.

“I whispered to her not to linger, because her work here had been done.”  Intimately familiar with the signs of those whose souls are leaving this life, Dr. Pat knew the right moment to make the calls to her husband and the sons and stepsons who loved their grandmother, to stand watch.

“She waited for them,” wrote Dr. Allen. Sorrowing with friends, through shared words, is yet another gift of an online  family.  A new ritual of healing.

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  • D. A. Wolf May 3, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    What a pleasure to read this story of so many diverse and dynamic voices in evolution. We are all the beneficiaries, and owe you great thanks.

    Reply
  • Agnes Krup May 3, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece on a great event, Gail. I, too, have been a longtime fan of yours — and was so honored that I got to sit with you at the luncheon!

    Reply
  • Leslie in Portland, Oregon May 2, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Congratulations and thank you, founders of and contributors to Women’s Voices for Change! I look forward to reading and using every edition!

    Reply
  • Roz Warren May 2, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Another fan of both Sheehy and WomensVoices checking in to say thanks for what both she and WomensVoices have done (and continue to do) to enhance our lives.

    Reply
  • Abigail S Congdon May 2, 2013 at 8:35 am

    BRAVA LADIES ALL!!!! And thank you very much! With admiration, Abigail.

    Reply
  • Andrea May 2, 2013 at 7:50 am

    I’ve been a fan of Gail Sheehy’s writings for years. This perfectly sums up everything that womens voices is and continues to be! And she sure does “get” our beloved Dr Pat!! Proud to be a voice!

    Reply