Moira McAuliffe responds to Kerryn Goldsworthy

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It seems to me that research and debate about gender and power in institutions has to take place away from specific cases and accusations of sexual harrassment or misconduct.

Once an accusation has been made the immediate question is, rightly, whether the accused is guilty.

The disenfranchisement of women within the institutions that have supposedly been opened to them is an important issue. But it is a cognate one.

Yes, it comes from the same enveloping refusal, hostility, greed, blindness, powerseeking; yes, the jokey-blokey closing of ranks can be so psychologically apparent as to be almost tangible, can constitute, finally, a “hostile work environment”; but being the object of disenfranchisement, overwork, barely concealed contempt and constant condescension is not quite the same thing as being the object of an act of physical harrassment. (Although there are days when I, too, am ready to scream at the thinness of the line between these states of objecthood.)

“Needing His Signature” describes the mechanisms of disenfranchisement so clearly that solutions can be imagined, plotted at, worked on.

This is why information is power.

But I think this kind of information-gathering and sharing can only be done away from specific cases, as part of a slowly gathering general strategy.

All sorts of information are needed.

If “the power of Ormond College in Melbourne’s public life” could refocus a debate about the guilt of the accused onto the character of the reporter (never mind the accusers), then we need to know exactly how that was done so next time those moves can be effectively countered.

If we are to “lay the blame … squarely at the feet of Ormond College” then we need to know, legally, or practically, exactly how to do that. (Does it mean creating a groundswell of newspaper editorials/investigative TV reports calling for some kind of open examination of all sorts of College practices? Does it mean suing the College as a legal entity, for example, rather than charging the Master as an individual?)

I think these things also need to be worked out quietly, in advance, away from the hurly-burly of an actual case.

During another case in the same unreconstructed social context there will be no time to do extensive groundwork free of immediate agendas, to examine the implications of tactics, or to see that the last state of everybody, man/men/woman/women, accuser(s) or accused, won’t be avoidably worse than the first.

What follows are some recent examples from this part of the world:

In July 1996 the daily quality broadsheet in Vancouver, British Columbia, printed draft sexual harassment proposals under consideration at the University of British Columbia at the time. This particular one caught my eye: that two members of a Department having a consensual affair, should inform the Head of Dept., who would then decide whether the affair should continue.

As of 1995 the State of Oregon sexual harassment guidelines state that sexual harassment has taken place if it is perceived to have taken place. Proof is not necessarily required.

I don’t know whether the U. of B.C. proposal became policy or not. The fact that it got to the stage of being publicly proposed I found both ludicrous and appalling; the suggestion ludicrously, appallingly extends the power of your boss — a person who, in times and places of high unemployment, already has more than enough power over you.

The State of Oregon policy is simply appalling. People can be fired without proof or corroboration. A policy originally intended to give (female) employees leverage against older abuses of (male) management has given every employee the power to have any employee fired without proof of wrongdoing.

In both these cases peoples’ rights as individuals have actually been reduced, while allegedly being increased in the name of redress for former gender-based inequities.

Moira McAuliffe is a writer who currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

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