Women had few job options in the 1950s, says a former head nurse

When Geraldine Mainguy was growing up in Waterdown, there were only three real career options for girls – nurse, teacher and stenographer.

Geraldine Mainguy founded the nursing team at Hamilton General's psych ward

When Geraldene Mainguy was growing up in Waterdown, there were only three real career options for girls — nurse, teacher and stenographer.

Mainguy chose the former, and she was good at it. She didn’t like the bedside manner part, but she dazzled as an administrator. She headed up the formation of the nursing team in what was then Hamilton General Hospital’s new psychiatric ward.

But part of her still feels saddened by the limited options.

At nearly 82, you really don’t think too hard on these things. But I feel it’s started. I like to see women in charge.- Geraldene Mainguy

“You couldn’t do very much of anything else because you were just laughed at,” she said. “For instance, I told everybody when I was a kid that I wanted to be an engineer on the railroad. Well, ha-ha-ha, no woman was ever an engineer on the railroad.”

Mainguy lent her voice to a new series of short films celebrating International Women’s Day, which is Sunday. At 81, Mainguy lives in a retirement home in Victoria, BC.

She won’t call herself a “dyed-in-wool, gung ho feminist,” but she has some thoughts about the career options available to her then, and how they have changed today.

“Women should be allowed to do whatever they want to do, and there should be absolutely no barriers at all,” said Mainguy, who says she advocates for "gender equality" and equal pay for men and women.

Geraldine Mainguy, otherwise known as Dene, says she enjoyed founding the nursing team in Hamilton General Hospital's new psychiatric department in the early 1960s. But as a little girl, she always wanted to be an engineer.

“At nearly 82, you really don’t think too hard on these things. But I feel it’s started. I like to see women in charge.”

Mainguy was born in Waterdown when it was still a quaint village, and her father worked at Langford’s Drug Store on the corner of Main and Dundas. She had one sibling – a brother seven years younger who couldn’t pronounce her name, so he called her Dene. She still goes by Dene. Many of her Hamilton co-workers called her Gerry.

She attended Waterdown High School, and when she graduated, was faced with the trio of common career options. She chose nursing, and boarded at Hamilton General as she trained from 1951 to 1954.

At first, Mainguy didn’t like nursing.

“My mother kept saying ‘go back for another week and if you don’t like it, you can quit,’” she said. Eventually, “I was halfway finished, and thought I might as well finish.”

'No gentlemen' in the nursing dorms

Of her stay in residence, she said, “we had a curfew at night, and we were not allowed out after 10 o’clock at night. And there were certainly no gentlemen allowed above the first floor.”

She started her career at what was then known as Henderson Hospital, now known as Juravinski Hospital. She didn’t like it much more until she got into the administration aspect. There, she shone.

Geraldine Mainguy told her story for a series of short films that were part of an International Women's Day project.

She was a head nurse at Henderson for five years, then went to Victoria for a while as a nurse in the Royal Canadian Navy, she said. Then she returned to Hamilton, where she served as a head nurse at Hamilton General.

Eventually, she was hired to establish the nursing department in the new psychiatric ward, she said, and travelled to numerous hospitals conducting research.

Mainguy stopped nursing in 1963 when she met her husband, Christopher, on a vacation in Bermuda. The couple had one son, and they lived in various places, including Montreal and Vancouver. They owned a bed and breakfast in Victoria for 10 years.

You can't go home again

Mainguy came back to Hamilton for the 50th anniversary of her nursing class in 2004. She rode around Waterdown in awe.

“Even the high school is now a condominium complex,” she said.

“I guess it is true that you really can’t go home again.”

Mainguy’s short film is part of a series called The Revera and Reel Youth Age is More Film Project: Women’s Wisdom Edition. It brings together female residents of the Kensington Retirement Community in Victoria and local youth. A dozen young women shot the films.

In Hamilton, Illuminessence e-magazine is holding its second annual awards gala and champagne brunch at Marquis Gardens, 1050 Rymal Rd. E. The event starts at 1 p.m. and tickets are $55. The event will include a number of awards and performances.