gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month - Satima Flavell

About a decade ago, I went into hospital to have my female bits repaired. Not an unusual occurrence for women in mid-life, but not a particularly pleasant one. Nevertheless, there’s something to be learned from everything, and in this case what was brought home to me was how far feminism has progressed since the 1960s.

In the bad old days, doctors, and especially surgeons, were men. They laid down the law to their patients, withheld information, patronisingly answered their questions in some kind of gobbledegook and were only rarely noted for their caring bedside manner. My initial interview at the hospital had been with one such gentleman, a chap in his sixties who, while polite, patient and knowledgeable, had a people skills quotient somewhere in the sixties, too. I got the usual jargonised explanation of the procedure and a polite dismissal. Par for the course, I thought. I’d been dealing with similar medical men all my life.

But when I was admitted for the procedure, I was met by an army of women. The surgeon came to introduce herself, bringing the anaesthetist with her. She drew me little diagrams, explaining in lay terms exactly what she was going to do. Both young women listened respectfully while I told them about previous unpleasant experiences with general anaesthesia, and they included me in the discussion about ways of avoiding another such event. They thought the best thing would be a spinal block in the lightest possible dose, and explained the pros and cons of the technique so I could sign the consent form in full knowledge of the risks and benefits.

Once in theatre, I was introduced to the assistant surgeon and the theatre sister. An all-female team! We naturally used first names. We laughed and joked together while the anaesthetist did her stuff at the top of the table and the surgical gals checked their gear at the business end.

Thirty years earlier, this just couldn’t have happened. Women doctors were still a rarity, female surgeons and gynaecologists almost unheard of. I mused on this as I drifted into the Twilight Zone, full of pride in these young women who inherited the feminist ethos. None of them was over thirty. They were part of a new class, one that is revolutionising the Hippocratic Art.

And wasn’t I also one of a new class? For women can now do whatever they like, and at any age. When I was young, it was assumed that people were dead wood by the time they were fifty. Both men and women sank into comfortable obscurity in old age. There were few career changes, fewer sea or tree changes, and grey nomads were unheard of. Yet I began writing in my late forties, and no one now thinks that strange. Every week I hear of another older person who has made a success of a late writing career and others who have taken up art or music or languages, been published, taken degrees...the list goes on and on.

We are very fortunate today. As a young adult, I could not even take out a loan without a man to stand guarantor. I had to resign from the public service when I married. Had I gone to teachers college, I would have had to sign a bond that forbade me to marry during my training and for two years thereafter. Trades such as carpentry or fitting were closed to women. I considered applying for a cadetship in journalism, but soon found out that the few women who worked in that field were nearly all daughters of men already in the business. The professions (medicine, law, engineering, science) while in theory open to both sexes were in fact so male-dominated that most women were too intimidated even to apply, and in any case their parents discouraged it. “Waste of money,” they would say. “Go and find a nice job in an office and get yourself a decent husband who will support you properly.”

Women were, in practice, only permitted access to nursing, teaching, hairdressing, the hospitality industry, office work and factory work. Of course, you could always become a nun...
Yes, today we are very fortunate, because we have choices.

I thought on all this as I lay on the operating table, drifting in and out of a comfortable haze. I listened to the chatter about work and clothes and boyfriends and The Boss – pretty much the same stuff as you would hear in any office, school staffroom, hairdressing salon, over the counter in a shop or around a table in a café. Female talk.

Then the team halted work to make a decision. It looked as if a hysterectomy was necessary, but they needed to get the opinion of the Resident Gynaecologist, a man.

The atmosphere changed the minute he walked in. The playful, happy vibe changed to one of formality and caution. The learned gentleman confirmed the young surgeon’s opinion that the uterus needed to come out, and having thus dispensed his wisdom, left. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and the cheerful chatter resumed.

I have had occasion to spend time in other hospitals since then, and I have seen this very female approach to medicine spreading its wings and taking flight. Most of those old medicos of my generation are retired now, and a younger breed has taken their place. Men as well as women have adopted the new user-friendly advance, but the change, I suspect, is largely due to the influence of the huge influx of women into the medical arena. You can legislate all you like for equality and user-friendliness, but it’s the people on the front line, practising, that make it happen.

Move over, Hippocrates. Hygeia looks set to inherit your mantle.

I'm a former dance teacher, pig farmer, astrologer and freelance journalist who now writes and edits fantasy and is reviews editor for The Specusphere. My website is at

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