It was 8 a.m. on a Friday and Deb Caruana, 51, a personal trainer in Manhattan, had just finished working out with two of her clients, Jackie Greenberg, an interior designer in her 30s, and her father, Ronald Greenberg, 59, an art dealer.
The three were chatting when Ms. Caruana, who is in menopause, suddenly blurted out, “I’m having a hot flash.”
The conversation lurched to a halt, followed by uneasy chuckling.
“It was awkward, but then it was funny,” Ms. Greenberg said. “I did a double-take: ‘Did she really just say that in front of my father?’ ”
Ms. Caruana, though, was unashamed. “Why hide it?” she said later of the episode, which occurred in March. “I kind of call my menopause my ‘red badge of courage.’ People laugh. They’re never offended.”
Thirty-five years ago, television viewers were shocked by a landmark episode of “All in the Family” when the normally meek Edith Bunker wreaked havoc on everyone around her because of a condition then delicately referred to as “the change of life.” But these days, among people of a certain age, references to menopause are just as likely to be batted across a dinner table as comments about the bouquet of the merlot.
“Five years ago, women would have kept that to themselves,” said Mr. Greenberg, who had been amused by Ms. Caruana’s immodesty. “Women who used to feel inhibited don’t anymore. They are honest about things they were never forthright about before.”
More than that, though, many women are flaunting their menopausal symptoms. If they are not erupting in the literal heat of the moment, they are flinging wisecracks, adopting a single-sex argot comprised of wry, offhanded quips and punctuated by knowing winks and nudges.
“The wink-wink reaction is a way of saying, ‘I’ve been there, girlfriend,’” said Jeanie Linders, 58, the writer and lyricist of “Menopause: The Musical.” The farcical play, with songs like “Stayin’ Awake/Night Sweatin’ ” and “Drippin’ and Droppin,’ ” made its debut in New York in 2001 and has since been produced in 150 cities and 9 countries, with an audience of 8 million to date.
And the ribbing is not restricted to friends. Last December, Beverly Mahone, 49, of Durham, N.C., had a hot flash in a backed-up checkout line at the supermarket. Madly pulling at the front of her blouse to cool off, fuming aloud about the slowness of the cashier, Ms. Mahone said she exclaimed to the woman behind her, “‘Girl, I’m having a moment here and she’s got to hurry so I can get the hell out of here!”
“I know what you’re going through,” the woman commiserated. Then, two women ahead of Ms. Mahone caught sight of her frantically fanning herself and laughed sympathetically.
Afterward, she said, in the parking lot, the group debated synthetic hormone replacement therapy versus herbal remedies, and Ms. Mahone, the author of “Whatever! A Baby Boomer’s Journey into Middle Age,” passed out her business card to the women who promised to buy her book.
“It opens up a whole dialogue,” Ms. Mahone said. “We’re laughing and making women who feel less comfortable know that it’s O.K. We’ve embraced it. It’s our exclusive club.”
In New York last February, a similar impromptu bonding session occurred at the Park Avenue office of Dr. Alan Matarasso, a plastic surgeon. Four women in their late 40s to mid-50s, all strangers, sat wordlessly in the waiting room until one, Joanna Bonaro, 42, an actress, was called up to fill out paperwork.
She began chatting with the office manager, Lisa Holderby, 46, who mentioned that she had recently had a hysterectomy, which can trigger menopause. Coincidentally, Ms. Bonaro had undergone one, too. Within minutes, the two other women chimed in.
“We started talking about hot flashes and having to carry around extra T-shirts because of the sweating,” Ms. Holderby said.
She remembered when these conversations were so unheard of that mothers were even mum about the subject with their daughters.
But, according to the United States Census Bureau, some 21 million women are between the ages of 45 and 59, the span during which menopause usually starts and ends. They make up nearly 20 percent of all women in the United States and almost 7 percent of the total American population.
It’s hardly unusual, then, to overhear a middle-age woman grousing about a restaurant’s lack of air-conditioning — in the dead of winter.
And given today’s openness and even exhibitionism — including tell-all memoirs, diaristic blogging and YouTube stardom — a personal condition that is common and natural is no reason for discretion, many women say. Indeed, as far more private matters — erectile dysfunction, enlarged prostates, sexually transmitted diseases — are served up on sitcoms and in commercials, it hardly seems daring to air one’s menopausal memory lapses.
At the same time, the market is flooded with cutesy merchandise: refrigerator magnets, mugs, T-shirts and tote bags that say things like “I’m still hot, it just comes in flashes.” There is even a board game called “Hotflash!”
Whether such novelties are the fuel or fallout of the new candor is difficult to figure. In any case, women are striking up plucky repartees to solicit support, deflect embarrassment or to take the sting out of an experience that can be frightening, uncomfortable and overwhelming.
“Humor is a great way to dull the jagged edges of menopause,” said the comedian Roseanne Barr, 54, who joked about it on her TV show in the 90s. “Humor makes everything that’s big, smaller. You can first recognize it, then you name it and then you manage it.”
But for some women, smirking at a sweat storm dilutes the seriousness of their woes. “When I’m having these symptoms, I don’t understand it and when they come back you’re mired in it and it’s kind of scary,” said Lee Ann Jaffee, 50, a New York real estate agent. “I don’t think there’s anything funny about it. It’s a tough time.”
And some people have expressed concern that the broadcasting of menopause can backfire, reinforcing ageist and sexist stereotypes by playing into the notion that women are at the mercy of biology.
“Women are still in the minority in companies,” said Betty Spence, the president of the National Association for Female Executives. “They stand out more than men. Women are more cautious about speaking out in general. They keep their heads down as far as menopause goes.”
Still, some 15 years after Gail Sheehy’s “The Silent Passage” became a best seller, some women are defying workplace and social conventions and becoming downright garrulous.
At the North Suburban Library District in Illinois, nearly half of the 40 female employees are in what they call the “hot zone.” At the Roscoe branch of the library, some have taken over a computer room that is chilled to a bracing 64 degrees, dubbing it the “Hot Flash Room.”
“We all think it’s funny,” said Melody Newton, 56, a clerk. “It’s like a group thing. Everybody is real open about it.”
Recently, Diane Jacobson, 48, a circulation clerk, tacked a poster on the room’s door of “The Hot Flash Club,” a novel by Nancy Thayer about four menopausal friends.
But not everyone finds it amusing.
“I didn’t have a clue the women were using the room to cool off,” said Peter Caton, 34, the library’s network administrator who works out of the room. “I only found out it was the ‘Hot Flash Room’ after they put up the poster. I was shocked and kind of offended. It’s my office. If I was an older man and I put an erectile dysfunction ad on your cubicle, how would you feel?”
Some women say they feel snubbed. “You’re not part of the group unless you’re in menopause,” said Regina Blackmon, 45, a legal assistant at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York. But now that she is, she said, “we send e-mails — menopause jokes and cartoons — to each other. A lot of chat goes on in the ladies room when we do our hair. It’s a secret underground.”
Some women confessed menopause can come in handy, the middle-age version of claiming menstrual cramps to get out of gym class.
“A hot flash is an opportunity to get away with saying stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” said Ms. Mahone, the Durham author. “You can curse at people. That’s your moment to get even. Afterward, you can apologize and they’ll understand and feel sorry for you.”
Her husband, Nathaniel Gibbs, 50, said he has been on the receiving end. “It’s like a built-in excuse for everything,” he said. “If she forgets something or something goes wrong, her final trump card is, ‘Well, I’m in menopause.’ ”
“That stops me dead,” he said. “You accept your loss and move on. It’s like a jungle movie when the guys come upon a bunch of heads on sticks that mark a taboo territory. That’s my wife. Nobody beyond this point.”
But the topic now knows no limits, even in the most unlikely setting. Lest there be any doubt, consider this: At the memorial service last fall for Ann Richards, the former Texas governor, her friend, Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, recounted for an audience of luminaries — including the Clintons — the night in 2005 Ms. Richards brought up the M word at a gala.
In an e-mail message, Ms. Smith said that the event inaugurated Women’s Voices for Change, an organization promoting positive attitudes toward women over 40 and menopause in particular. Among the few male guests at the gala, nicknamed the Menopause Ball, was Vernon Jordan, the power broker and lawyer.
“I don’t think Vernon had ever expressed any interest in menopausal women before that night,” Ms. Smith remembered saying in her eulogy.
Millions of people watching C-Span “fell out of seats laughing,” Ms. Smith wrote, recalling the reaction to her anecdote. “They weren’t laughing about menopause. They were laughing that menopause was out of the closet and dragging along for laughs the likes of Vernon Jordan. Now that’s progress!”