‘We just have to get louder’: Why this royal wants to break taboos around women’s health

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It was by any measure a rare moment for a senior member of the Royal Family.

Sophie, Countess of Wessex, was online the other day, talking comfortably and candidly about her experience with menopause and the importance she sees in being open about such subjects, which are so often seen as taboo.

“I’ve always found that when we talk about women’s health, it’s actually preceded by talking about women’s problems or women’s issues, which immediately puts it into a negative light,” she said in the virtual chat as she took on the royal patronage for Wellbeing of Women, a U.K. women’s health charity.

“But armed with knowledge and choice, our lot would be so much better, and I think it is up to us to try and inform women about that knowledge, about those choices that they have, in a way that is bringing the subject out into the open.”

That, however, doesn’t always happen.

“We all talk about having babies, but nobody talks about periods, nobody talks about the menopause. Why not?” Sophie wondered.

WATCH | Sophie wants to bring women’s health out of the shadows:  

“It’s something that’s incredibly normal, but it is something that is very hidden and I think it’s time to say enough. We need to … bring this out onto the table.”

Sophie, 56, did just that, sharing her own experience with the brain fog that can be part of menopause transition, and recounting how she even lost her train of thought during a royal engagement.

“Your words just go, and you’re standing there going, ‘Hang on, I thought I was a reasonably intelligent person. What has just happened to me?'” she said. “It’s like somebody has just gone … and taken your brain out for however long before they pop it back in again, and you try and pick up the pieces and carry on.”

She suggested menopause should be a time of celebration of the fact women no longer have their periods. “It should be a liberation. It feels like it’s a shackle.”

Sophie emphasized a need she sees for educating young women about what happens in their bodies as they begin having periods, and equally importantly, about what will happen as those cycles come to an end about 40 years later. 

Sophie, whose royal work also includes support for women who are victims of conflict-related sexual violence, visited an informal tented settlement in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, in 2019. (Victoria Jones/Getty Images)

Sophie’s candour was praised by Dr. Jerilynn Prior, a professor of endocrinology at the University of British Columbia.

“She is very down to earth. I was very impressed,” Prior said over Zoom from her home in Vancouver. 

“What [Sophie’s recounting of her experience] does is say that women’s experiences matter. They’re not trivial, they’re not dismissable, they’re of some importance in the big, wide world.

“It says that women should know about their bodies, how they work and especially the really tight connection between how we feel about ourselves and our reproduction.”

Sophie is not the first high-profile woman to be open about menopause. Michelle Obama, wife of former U.S. president Barack Obama, has spoken candidly about hot flashes, and was praised for it. Celebrity talk show host Oprah Winfrey has written about how she discovered she was approaching menopause.

Prior, who runs the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research, welcomes the high-profile attention of women such as Sophie.

“I think it allows other women to see that it’s OK and it also allows men to see that it’s OK to talk about it. It’s like giving permission, because otherwise it’s a social no-no.”

But Prior also sees potential for more such interest.

“It needs not just Michelle Obama, but it needs hundreds of women leaders in business, in arts, in industry, in health, everywhere, speaking frankly, openly,” she said.

Sophie gave every indication she will continue to speak frankly and openly.

“We shouldn’t be leaving anybody behind on this and it’s not only the women and the young girls. It’s the men as well, and I really feel that this is a conversation that has to be opened up to everybody, even if they don’t want to listen. 

“We just have to get louder.”

Soft diplomacy in Scotland

Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, attend the official opening of a hospital in the Scottish town of Kirkwall on their recent visit to Scotland. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

The Scottish sojourn Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, undertook recently had all the hallmarks of their regular royal routines.

There were chats with children and charities, chances to see new technology and recall fond memories, including when they first met at St. Andrews two decades ago. 

There were even some lighter moments when they went land yachting, and when they hosted a drive-in screening of Cruella, where staff of the National Health Service joined them in the audience.

But underlying it all was a sense there might have been a little more at play, with two high-profile senior royals presenting a strong focus and face for the monarchy in Scotland at the same time as rumblings continue about another referendum on Scottish independence.

“In one sense, everything that the monarchy does is ‘soft diplomacy,’ but the monarchy is the one U.K.-wide institution which, despite recent travails, still commands broad support,” Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University in Wales, said via email.

“Part of the reason for this [is] the Queen’s mantra that the monarchy ‘must be seen to be believed.’ This applies to Scotland as much as it does to the rest of the U.K.”

William and Kate land yacht on the beach at St Andrews during their recent tour of Scotland. (Andrew Milligan/The Associated Press)

William made sure his affinity for Scotland was clear from the beginning of the trip. In a speech marking his debut as the Lord High Commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, he spoke of his strong attachment to the country.

He talked of how it is the source of some of his happiest memories, and some of the saddest.

“I was in Balmoral when I was told that my mother had died. Still in shock, I found sanctuary in the service at Crathie Kirk that very morning,” he said.

“And in the dark days of grief that followed, I found comfort and solace in the Scottish outdoors. As a result, the connection I feel to Scotland will forever run deep.”

But it was a meeting he had with one former politician that spawned considerable curiosity about what political undertones might be at play.

William and Kate met with former U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown, who recently launched a campaign to keep the union together.

Kate and William speak with young children as they meet fishermen and their families in Fife to hear about the work of fishing communities on the east coast of Scotland. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

Media reports after the meeting with Brown quoted Kensington Palace saying William met with a broad range of people during his time in Scotland, and was hearing community views on the subject of independence.

But still, politics looms large over the Royal Family and the monarchy’s relationship with Scotland. Sometimes it’s almost fanciful what observers try to read into the circumstances. 

Within hours of word spreading that Kate was pregnant with their second child in 2014, the U.K media were pondering what it might mean for the upcoming Scottish independence vote. (Ultimately, in that vote, Scots rejected independence by 55 to 45 per cent.)

That vote came after the Queen was reported making a remark that was widely seen as being against Scottish independence.

“It seems it’s no secret the Royal Family want to keep the kingdom united, perhaps as much for their own preservation,” Andrew Kerr, political correspondent for BBC Scotland, wrote on the BBC website.

“That said — the meeting between the prince and former PM could be more innocent. Gordon Brown campaigns on global health and education and has known Prince William for years.”

‘Politics is for politicians, not princes’

Still, there is also the generally held perception that the royals should — and generally do — keep their distance from politics.

“Politics is for politicians, not princes,” said Prescott. “It’s also the case that the [Scottish National Party] have suggested that the Queen would be head of state of an independent Scotland. In that sense, [the monarchy] has relatively little to gain by getting involved.”

However, a difficulty could emerge, Prescott added, if the U.K. government advised the Queen to get involved, something that could be seen as interference and might backfire, both for unionists and the monarchy itself.

A person opposed to Scottish independence holds a sticker depicting an image of Queen Elizabeth in Edinburgh a few days before the 2014 referendum. (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

“We saw a hint of this, when an idea was floated within the U.K. government that Prince Edward and Sophie could take up permanent residence in Scotland, and act in a Governor General-type role,” said Prescott.

“When this became public, the idea was dismissed by many, especially on the independence side of the argument. The idea could be seen as reducing the status of Scotland within the U.K., when the debate is about whether Scotland should enjoy independent nationhood, rather than its status within the union.”

A Canadian beacon for the Queen

Queen Elizabeth takes part in Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 1, 2010. Buckingham Palace says beacons will be lit in the capitals of Commonwealth countries in 2022 in honour of her 70 years as monarch. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A beacon will be lit in Ottawa next year to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne.

It will be among beacons lit in capitals of Commonwealth countries as part of celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022.

No other monarch has marked a Platinum Jubilee. Many of the plans Buckingham Palace has announced to mark the occasion are similar to those that have unfolded during celebrations of other significant milestones for the Queen — when she was honoured for 50 or 60 years of her reign. (The beacons in Commonwealth countries, however, will be new.)

The focal point of the celebration next year in Britain will be the Platinum Jubilee holiday weekend from June 2 to 5.

Another Platinum Jubilee initiative in the U.K. encourages people to plant trees in honour of the Queen.

A spokesperson said the Queen’s Green Canopy campaign said it “encourages the sustainable planting of trees everywhere, and people in Commonwealth countries and around the world are welcome to undertake their own planting projects as they wish.” 

Royally quotable

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, meets Mila Sneddon, 5, in Edinburgh on May 27, 2021. (Jane Barlow/The Associated Press)

“It was so good. I’ve never met a real princess in my life before.”

— Mila Sneddon, 5, was all smiles after meeting Kate while she and William were in Scotland. Mila, who is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, had previously talked with Kate on the phone after her photo was chosen for an exhibition. 

Royal reads

  1. Buckingham Palace barred people of colour from office jobs during the 1960s, the Guardian newspaper reported Thursday, citing documents in Britain’s National Archives. The palace replied forcefully to the historical allegations, stressing that the Queen and her household comply “in principle and in practice” with anti-discrimination legislation. [CBC]

  2. In one of a series of letters to the BBC from African writers, a Nigerian journalist delves into why there is a throne reserved for the Queen of England in the west African country.

  3. Joe Biden will become the 13th U.S. president to meet Queen Elizabeth when he and his wife, Jill Biden, visit Windsor Castle on June 13. [The Guardian]

  4. Prince Charles has suggested people recovering from COVID-19 practise yoga. [Express]

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