the objectifying of women ~ Gynae Clinic in the 7Os

Nursing School in Toronto

The GYN rotation was also fascinating.  Therapeutic abortions were quite common in those days, and I actually saw a tiny foetus expelled as the result of a saline abortion.  Yes, it was awful and heartbreaking, but I certainly did not judge the patient, and believed passionately in a woman’s right to choose.

I would say the most bizarre experience in my whole nursing education was the gynaecological outpatient department in this huge Toronto hospital.  On a Thursday afternoon each week, there was a gynae clinic for new immigrant women.  In the 1960s and 70s, there was a huge influx of immigration to Toronto (myself being one).  I remember that this clinic afternoon was always busy, bustling and crowded with a conveyor-belt-like line of women to be seen.  Many of these women were Italian and Portuguese,  usually  accompanied by their mothers, or other female relatives, and I believe there were some interpreters to help with the consultations as few could speak much English.

this is only a photoedit of what I remember.... the cubicles were a little more narrow than this...

this is only a photoedit of what I remember…. the cubicles were a little more narrower than this… and these would be the outer curtains, not the inner half-curtain that came down to the top of the examining table…..

Now my memory dims in the exact picture of this clinic, but here goes!! Each examining table was located in a cubicle, which was just a little wider than the actual  table.  There were about 8 cubicles, all joined in a row.   There was the usual privacy curtain on the outside of each.  What I found odd was 2nd half curtain hanging from the ceiling located halfway across the cubicle and ending at the height of the examining table.    So when the gynaecologists and their many interns, medical students and residents would approach their patients, all that could be seen were two spread legs and a vagina on an examining table under a curtain.  I hope that after the physical examinations, there would be some face to face contact between doctors and these female patients, but I am not too sure all were privy to a consultation.  Lets just say, I don’t believe these women were treated as professionally as they should have been.

As a student in this particular gynae clinic, I would sometimes be helping these patients to undress and settle on the ungainly tables behind the half curtain.  Other times, I would be following the trail of the mainly male doctors and students going from cubicle to cubicle in front of the row of open legs – sometimes, more than one curtain would be open, thereby showing disembodied legs and vaginas, of those who had not yet been examined.  Horribly disrespectful I thought!!

Thinking back, it was probably the clinic nurses’ responsibility to ensure curtains were open or closed, but as I said before, this clinic was so very busy, and without the occasional help of the added bodies of student nurses, the situation of embarrassing displays probably was commonplace and perhaps not always addressed as it should have been.

I really hate to say this but, because of the anonymity of the curtains, language barrier, and perhaps the fact that this was the early seventies, I was witness to more than a few disgusting displays of juvenile chauvinistic behavior amongst the mostly male medical crowd: some repressed titters at a particularly hirsute pelvic area, and some silently holding their noses and making nasty faces at odourous vaginas…

It seems difficult to believe that this occurred in my female youth, but it did!