Academic journal article Lilith: A Feminist History Journal

On Reading the First Stone Ten Years Later

Academic journal article Lilith: A Feminist History Journal

On Reading the First Stone Ten Years Later

Article excerpt

The invitation to reflect on feminism's future for Lilith and the desire to re-read Helen Garner's The First Stone (1995) were coincidental, but fortuitous. I have always been better at offering reflections than remedies and feminism has always had plenty of room for both. Re-reading The First Stone has prompted me to revisit my early twenties, a period in which I was already an avowed feminist, but not yet a feminist historian. I am now an historian, though perhaps not, as I branch into new areas, a 'feminist' one. I am inclined to agree with the argument that the move of feminist historians into new areas of research and analysis is not so much a defection as an extension or evolution. In any case, I am still a feminist and The First Stone controversy is part of my own feminist history. This personal narrative is augmented by discussions with friends (partly in homage to Garner's own research style and partly as evidence of the existence of thirty-something feminists), the work of other scholars and inevitable media commentary.

When I first read The First Stone I was a 21-year-old undergraduate history student from the western suburbs of Sydney who resented what I took to be the class privilege of the subjects of Garner's book. I also had little time for the wrist-slapping from older feminists or the aggrieved Gen X responses. However, I was nonetheless a feminist, who passionately defended my own ad hoc version of it, grafted together from Marxist feminism, Marilyn French novels, Germaine Greer, Liz Phair albums, the American 'zines Bust and Bitch, the comprehensible bits of French feminist theory and the collected works of one Helen Garner. I would have been happy for her to continue chronicling the adventures and heartbreaks of the aging hippies of Carlton and Fitzroy forever, but she had chosen to examine the issue of sexual harassment and I found myself persuaded by Garner's argument that surely feminism had evolved enough for young women to deal with the usual repertoire of unwanted sexual interest directly. Along with a friend of mine in the same history class, I was attracted to what we saw as a more empowering feminist position than that which seemed overly dependent on the state and the law. My friend remembers: 'I wanted Helen's kind of feminism, not some wimpy whingeing run to daddy when things got tough kind of feminism'. (1) For us, this was the issue at stake--the kind of feminist philosophy we wanted to live by. Another classmate was more cautious: 'I thought it was such a sensitive issue that I could barely form an opinion. It seemed like it was risky to call into question sexual harassment processes when so many women have suffered and legislation was so hard won'. (2)

Now, over a decade later, I teach history at the University of Melbourne and some of my students attend Ormond College, the originating site of the sexual harassment case that caught the attention of Garner, the media and basically anyone with a passing interest in 'questions about sex and power'. If any of my students ever tell me they have been sexually harassed by their College Master and seek my advice or help, I hope that I would act in their best interests. I would assume the Master could take care of himself. My most recent response to The First Stone is indelibly refracted through this duty of care--and more thinking about (and experience of) sex and power. If I once entertained the idea that slapping a man's migrating hand in a pub was equivalent to doing the same to an authority figure in a tertiary institution, as Linda Jaivin suggested in 1996, (3) I no longer do.

Yet, in 1995, I read The First Stone in a different spirit. The campus setting resonated with me not as a site in which I worked and taught, but as a place where I read, drank, gossiped and generally got up to mischief. As for college life, it may as well have been Mars. The University of Sydney can match Melbourne when it comes to the pomp and privilege of college living, but I had little to do with it. …

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