Needing His Signature

by Kerryn Goldsworthy

© all rights reserved

Moira McAuliffe, David Hart, Adi Wimmer and Leith Morton have responded to this article.

Remember the beginning of A Room of One’s Own, where Virginia Woolf sheds her name and turns her ‘I’ into a representative figure from history? ‘Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please — it is not a matter of any importance …)’

The litany of names refers to the ‘Four Marys’, the companions of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the fact that we all know what happened to her was doubtless at the back of Woolf’s mind. But the historical reference has been filtered through the ballad of Mary Hamilton, who is about to be hanged for murder after the death of her ‘own wee babe’, said babe being a result of some doubtless involuntary hanky-panky with the King. ‘Last night there were four Marys/Tonight there’ll be but three/There was Mary Beton, and Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael, and me.’ That is, Woolf has chosen her persona from one of the most sinister lines in all of British balladry.

A couple of years later, writing to her friend Ethel Smyth about the importance of impersonality to feminist polemic, Woolf pointed out that

I didn’t write ‘A room’ without considerable feeling even you must admit; I’m not cool on the subject. And I forced myself to keep my own figure fictitious; legendary. If I had said, Look here am I uneducated, because my brothers used all the family funds which is the fact — Well they’d have said; she has an axe to grind; and no one would have taken me seriously, though I agree I should have had many more of the wrong kind of reader; who will read you and go away and rejoice in the personalities … because they prove once more how vain, how personal, so they will say, rubbing their hands with glee, women always are; I can hear them as I write.

She is right, of course, and following her example this essay is not autobiography either. The stories you will read here have happened to any number of women, to me, to my friends, to strangers, over a period of twenty years or more. Call me Mary Hamilton; the moral of my story is ‘Don’t fuck with the boys in charge.’

The great Canadian writer Alice Munro once wrote a story in which a young woman is sexually molested by an unattractive stranger on a train. Am I wrong in thinking that something of this kind has happened to most women? I was thirteen or fourteen the day I learned more, on a crowded bus, about the hydraulics of the erect penis and the effect of a school uniform on a certain kind of man than any book had ever explained.

The man in question was elderly and smelly, and it was in no way a pleasurable experience, apart from the pleasure of learning. But Munro’s girl is, I think, a bad girl; outwardly prim and winter-coated, and initially truly horrified by what she thinks may be happening, by what may or may not be a hand on her knee under a casually-spread newspaper, she ends up having what seems to be a fairly gratifying orgasm at the hands, or hand, of the unattractive stranger, just as the train arrives at its destination.

While the word ‘orgasm’, fortunately, does not appear, the combined facts that (a) the train is travelling from the country to the city, (b) the young woman, staring intensely out of the train window, suddenly sees a flock of wild swans exploding upwards into the sky, and (c) at this wild-swans moment she bites the edge of her tongue — these combined facts leave us in little doubt, even if they are not quite what one would choose to instruct the innocent on the nature of the orgasm and the signs by which it may be recognised. (Now, girls, here we are in the CBD; watch out for the swans, and mind your tongue.) ‘Invasion,’ says Munro at a crucial point in the gradual encroachment of the unattractive stranger’s fingers. ‘Invasion, and welcome.’ In the current climate this may be one of the most subversive things a writer has ever said.

I thought of these encounters, fictional and real, one day last year when the stranger next to whom I had been seated at dinner, and with whom I was making polite conversation — Oh dear, I was thinking, a middle-aged stitched-up private-school boy, quelle drag — became quite animated in his account of a scarifying experience he had just been through. In illustration of his tale he turned sideways to face me and without warning put one hand on my back as a ballroom-dancing partner would, spread the other hand across my midriff under my breasts, and continued to hold me unselfconsciously by the rib-cage to illustrate the awful story, which he continued, wholly carried away by it, to tell. His hands were firm and very warm.

I nearly fainted. Really, I said hastily, sitting up straight and pretending not to be turning to golden syrup, God how awful I said, and so what did you do then? His intention was innocent; my response was not. I thought: if he were a colleague of mine and he did this to an eighteen-year-old student, what kind of trouble would he be in? I thought: if this had happened yesterday or tomorrow, if the wine were less wonderful or if his hands were not so warm, would I be reacting very differently? How do these things work? I am as ignorant as I was that day in my school uniform on the bus, thirty years ago.

One day almost exactly half-way between these two events, I was in a group of academic colleagues about to go to lunch; untenured, not yet thirty, I was the only woman in the group. One of the men began to tell a story (I am intrigued by the amount of storytelling involved in these incidents) that he described as a ‘joke’. It was one of the most disgusting jokes that I have ever heard; it was vilely, hatefully sexist and racist, and profoundly obscene. And it was a test. Would I pretend to be one-of-the-boys and laugh, while secretly hating him and it and doing violence to my own nature? Or would I react indignantly and be laughed at for having no sense of humour (everyone knows feminists have no sense of humour, ha ha)? I could fail to stick up for my own, known, views; or I could behave like a hysterical humourless girly wowser. Either way I could only lose; either way I would be judged inadequate, in a group of my professional peers and superiors.

This story, unlike the last one, is about what was unmistakably a form of assault; but there was and is no way the perpetrator could be called to account. It was, as they say, only a joke. But it was profoundly more damaging and offensive than any secret physical gesture from a stranger, because it was not private; it was not about the spark, or the absence of the spark. It was about work. It was a piece of naked, public psychological violence designed to make me look bad in the jolly company of the senior men who would, some time in the future, be deciding our respective professional fates; who would probably be deciding between us, possibly more than once.

One of these men, when I first arrived in his department, had greeted me by looking me up and down from head to foot, slowly, several times, and then saying with the self-preening air of one who has newly discovered the double entendre:’Your reputation has preceded you.’ Over a coffee years later with Mary Beton, I discovered that, as a graduate student, she had spent a year or two fielding the same man’s searching, suggestive questions about how she was getting on with her husband. Mary Carmichael, she told me, had during the same period been treated to long and very explicit monologues about how he was getting on with his wife. We had all dealt with it in a practised way; we had seen this kind of stuff frequently enough to be experts at dealing with it.

Why, we asked each other now, feminist theory and practice having exponentially increased in sophistication and clout in the intervening years, why didn’t we deal with him? Polite request, backchat, challenge, insult, official complaint? We looked at each other and we spoke in unison. ‘We needed his signature,’ we said. On postgraduate progress reports; on references; on applications for leave, for funding, for promotion. Not once, but over and over and over.

I am telling these stories because an opportunity has recently been lost for gender equality in Australian public life to take a few small steps forward; something that should have been talked about was not, or not enough. After the publication in 1995 of Helen Garner’s The First Stone, a partial and personal account of a major sexual harassment scandal at Melbourne University’s ‘prestigious’ Ormond College, public discussion ran hot for months, through most of 1995, about the issues that the ‘Ormond Affair’ and Garner’s book had raised. But the discussion was repeatedly derailed by a preoccupation with personality and detail, which in combination form the stuff of gossip and which hold gossip’s irresistible attractions, especially for the press. Did he or didn’t he? What kind of girl is she? What goes on in that place? Oooohh.

The nature of sexual harassment and its defining location in public life, the nature of institutional power, and the reality of gender relations within institutions are the things that should have been at the heart of the public debate, but were pushed again and again to the margins in favour of speculation, accusation, and an intellectually crippling kind of righteous indignation from which nobody seemed immune and which kept the level of debate well down. The abstractions, alas, were not sexy.

And since they’re not, and since I, Mary Hamilton, have spent most of my adult life in universities in some capacity or other, I will tell you some stories of institutional life instead. They are not stories of sexual harassment, but rather of the environment which breeds it; they illustrate the unspoken assumption of women’s status as second-class institutional citizens, an idea which many academic women, and many female students, have internalised and therefore unconsciously play their part in perpetuating. For that is where sexual harassment comes from: an abuse of the power differential. And the overwhelming irony of these stories is that the universities are supposed to be in the vanguard of feminist enlightenment, to which most pay elaborate and self-righteous lip service.

Yet I could tell you about the time (recent) when, as a young academic, I volunteered as a member of a conference-organising committee and was warned by an older woman in the department not to get stuck with tea-and-coffee duty. I thought she was joking. Five minutes into the meeting the most senior man present told me that tea-and-coffee duty was what he wanted me to do, and was very puzzled when I laughed. Or I could tell you about the time (also recent) when, as a student, I was getting A’s in all my subjects but one, where I was consistently given C’s in what was obviously a punishment for feminist views; and when my case was raised in an examination meeting, the suggestion that if my work were to be re-marked then it should be re-marked by a female staff member brought a sharp rebuke from the chairman of the meeting for the female staff member who had dared suggest it. Or I could describe to you my feelings as I watch the departmental SNAGs happily racking up Brownie points for escorting their children round the corridors and offices while I hide mine at home, having learned from experience not to be seen with them by the men in charge — for of course I, Mary Hamilton, both have children and do not have them, just as I am both beautiful and plain, and all four of these things exact a high price from women in public life.

But all this is to be expected. The place where entrenched, systemic gender inequality becomes nightmarishly surprising is, ironically, the very point at which institutions attempt to do something about it. If it is perceived, for example, that young male academics have an advantage over female ones because they are more likely to have some older, more powerful man acting as their unofficial mentor and advocate, then the university will set up a ‘mentor scheme’ for female academics. Some questions are not asked: is mentorship, with its hierarchical structure and inbuilt power imbalance, necessarily a good thing in itself? Will either woman thrive in what is by definition a lopsided relationship? Doesn’t effective mentorship proceed from ‘elective affinities’ and, if so, can it really be regulated or legislated for? What effect will the pressure, first to volunteer for such a scheme and then to follow through, have on older female academics whose workloads are already crippling?

And why are their workloads already crippling? One reason is that everybody’s workload is crippling, in the wake of what has been done to universities round the world in recent years. Another reason is that students of both sexes, like everyone else, tend to have deeply ingrained beliefs about the difference between men and women. On the whole, students will argue more with women; they will listen less; and they will see women as nurturers to whom they can tell their troubles. Students who can discourse ferociously and brilliantly on psychoanalytic theories of gender difference, and students who publicly attacked and reviled Helen Garner in 1995 in a frenzy of enthusiastic activism, will corner female teachers and, in blithe oblivion, settle down for a long chat. And all these things take up time during which most male colleagues are working on the research projects which will secure them promotion.

But another, more Catch-22ish reason for this perpetual overwork is that universities have decided there should be more women on University committees. Membership of most University committees requires a level of seniority to which most academic women do not get promoted. So the few who do get promoted are, because of the shortage, immediately appointed to every committee in sight; and for every meeting, every agenda that must be worked through and every action that must be taken, time for research is cut. The woman drags herself about the campus baggy-eyed; her teaching suffers, her research profile drops. Well, they say, she’s not coping. Why did she accept yet another commitment? Probably because somebody said to her ‘But if you say no, then there won’t be any women on this committee at all!’

That was the line that propelled me, in the early 80s, onto a committee that had been formed to develop university entrance tests. One such test, in a draft submitted for our approval, consisted of a drawing of a bicycle and the instruction to write an account of how bicycles work, in a paragraph of clear correct English. I thought this was my big moment; this, after all, was why they had wanted a woman on the committee, preferably a young one.

– This test, I said, will disadvantage women students.

– But why? they asked.

I explained. I was amazed that I needed to explain. I was more amazed that they appeared not to understand the explanation. I would obviously not pass the entrance test myself, if I could not explain in a paragraph of clear correct English why a test of how well you could explain how a bicycle worked might disadvantage women students. What about a picture of a sewing machine, I said. They thought I was joking. I resigned in protest from the committee, whereupon there were once more no women on it at all, as promised. For all I know, somewhere today they are letting students into universities on the basis of how well they can explain how a bicycle works and then looking at each other and saying Well, the boys are doing better on these tests, it just goes to show.

Meanwhile, over on the board of a national funding body, I was again, for a nightmarish six months, the only Mary on the team. Women applicants were my constituency and anything to do with gender equality was my unspoken responsibility. So I spoke up whenever it seemed necessary, which was frequently. And within a very short time, I would be greeted by a chorus of eye-rolling, an unspoken chant of ‘Oh God, here she goes again,’ from every other member of the board. To speak of fairness for women was to ensure its trivialisation. Here as elsewhere, formal attempts in an institutional context to ensure a better deal for women in public life were backfiring badly.

I have no idea what the answer is to any of this, although I do know it doesn’t lie in the incrimination of individual men — some of whom are doing a great job of incriminating themselves, but many of whom are doing their best in the face of the structural problems within institutions and the values that underlie the structures.

And in the aftermath of The First Stone, an opportunity to talk about these things was missed. Such is the power of Ormond College, for example (at least in Melbourne; over a Christmas drink in Adelaide last year, a friend from Perth delightfully dismissed the whole business as ‘all very East Coast’) — such is the power of Ormond College in Melbourne’s public life that very few people in Melbourne’s public life were game to speak up about the power of Ormond College. Ironically, Helen Garner was one of the few, a fact which was largely ignored but which should have alerted even the least attentive punter and even the most rabid ideologue to the fact that the battle lines were not as clear as they may have seemed. The repeated shift of emphasis in public debate from the institutional to the sexualised personal meant the demonising either of the complainants or of Garner, depending which side you were on. The result was an ongoing failure to lay the blame where it belonged: squarely at the feet of Ormond College. And like the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War, that failure has practically ensured that it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing happens again.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Writer, Adelaide, South Australia.
This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

Moira McAuliffe, David Hart, Adi Wimmer and Leith Morton have responded to this article.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also

Also on this site, read an excerpt from Cassandra Pybus’s Gross Moral Turpitude based on the Orr Case which was Australia’s cause celebre of the 1950s and 1960s.

  • “Did Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr seduce his eighteen-year-old student as she claimed or was he framed by a sinister cabal who disliked his politics as he and his supporters insisted? Was this a case of sexual exploitation or an example of McCarthyism down under?” Read on …

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