I was twenty when I first read Helen Garner’s The First Stone, published twenty years ago, in 1995. I had fallen in love with Garner as a teenager via her novels Monkey Grip and The Children’s Bach, thrilled by her depictions of ‘ordinary’ Australian women living in urban and suburban areas, thrilled that women/girls like me might be worthy of literature.
So I remember approaching The First Stone with trepidation, knowing of its subject matter but, hoping, Garner’s skills would provide an interesting insight into the case the book was investigating: two girls who were taking a master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne to court for sexual harassment.
Reading The First Stone was like being betrayed by a good friend.
I still recall the visceral feelings: anger at the descriptions she used to describe women of my age, frustration at her inability to comprehend the minefield of sexual games young women had to contend with at that time and anxiety at how quick she was to label the girl’s actions as ‘destructive, priggish and pitiless’. It was my first exposure to the generational divisions between feminists that continue to this day.
While we are all now drowning in the quagmire of [insert pre-label here] feminisms, The First Stone seemed to be one of the first real public playing out of young feminists versus old feminists in Australia and was an obvious example of someone growing up in certain conditions being unable to empathise with those who grow up in quite different ones. If the girls involved in the case were anything like me (and, unfortunately, we never got to hear their voices because they refused to talk to Garner), I had no training in how to negotiate the ambiguous power relations which play out between older men of authority and younger women.
Leaving high school and stepping into full-time work I drew the unwanted attention of a number of older male colleagues, one of whom constantly made lewd remarks about my intention to go to university – and the subsequent campus ‘action’ I’d be involved in – and who then bought me a packet of condoms for a Kris Kringle gift and, in the same Christmas spirit, gave a female (pregnant) co-worker a videotape of pornography, which was subsequently played in one of the staffrooms. Twenty years on, would such a scenario still happen in a governmental workplace? I like to think not. And such change is no thanks to Garner’s attitude in The First Stone.
While she might have seen these ‘puritan feminists’ as shutting down the ambiguities of sexual relations, the girls who took their master to court were but a small example of women saying no to casual objectification, to smirking sexism and to the ‘she should have known what he wanted’ blaming of rape victims.
Believe it or not, at the age of eighteen, I still naively assumed that when I talked to men, they were talking to me as a human being first, and a woman second, particularly in environments where, as far as I was concerned, sex had no place and, yes, I was shocked when a male lecturer admitted he’d been ‘checking out my legs’ during a university seminar.
The feminists ‘consumed with rage and fear’ that Garner condemns in The First Stone are still having to be vigilant, and still cop the same criticisms she threw at them twenty years ago: that they are throwing stones when they too have sinned. Such logic implies women are equally capable of inappropriate behaviour, that we use our sexual prowess when it is convenient and should be merciful when those of the opposite gender ‘get it wrong’. Back then, I could understand the call for compassion in Garner’s argument: yes, perhaps, we don’t always have to go for the jugular.
But now, I have to ask, what would have happened if we had granted clemency? How much worse would things be if we hadn’t started calling out appalling, sexist behaviour? If we hadn’t gone to the courts? Campaigned for legislative change? If we hadn’t become the ‘puritan feminists’ Garner named us? Over the last twenty years, I have been enormously grateful for workplaces where contraception would not be deemed a suitable gift, where doors are kept open to protect both parties and where sexual ‘banter’ can lead to serious repercussions. I have lived to see a female prime minister – however much her treatment showed how far we have still to go – and I am heartened by the daily call to account of men in power by female commentators of intelligence and ferocity.
The First Stone was described as an ‘anti-feminist book written by a feminist’ and its importance cannot be underestimated in galvanising women like me into understanding the many levels at which the patriarchy operates. While I am not sure I am yet to forgive Garner, I am grateful to her for making my own position clear: to be one of those feminists who make punitive noise when the circumstances demand it.