One night she took issue with a middle-aged lawyer who had been defending a rape case.
‘Of course, my dears,’ he said, looking round conspiratorially at them all, in the candlelight. ‘You know she asked for it. Women nearly always do.’
‘That’s an absurd generalisation,’ said Harriet sharply.
There was a quickness in the air around the table. Max moved uneasily, for the lawyer was considered the best in town, and as sharp as a flick knife. If Harriet was about to take him on on his won ground, she was obviously due for her comeuppance. The women sat back to enjoy the sight of blood, though only half believing that Harriet would pursue such dangerous quarry. The lawyer, Nick Thomas, waited; it was clear he expected the battle to be brief.
‘Come, come my dear girl, a woman like this one sets up charms to attract men. If she succeeds, then she can hardly complain, can she?’
‘Presumably most women set out to charm men at some stage of their lives. Haven’t we all?’ said Harriet, looking round at the women. ‘Or did all the men here simply come and take you off a shelf marked available for marriage?’
The women smiled tentatively. ‘I suppose we must have,’ one of them said.
‘The point is, we had the right to choose who we slept with, didn’t we?’ She knew she had reached the point where Max would like her to stop.
‘Of course you did,’ said Nick, ‘But then you must realise that this – lady, if you like to call her that, had chosen to sleep with many men.’
‘I can’t see what difference that makes,’ said Harriet.
‘It makes a great deal of difference in the eyes of the law,’ said Nick.
‘Then the law is an even greater ass than some people already suppose,’ said Harriet. ‘She didn’t choose to sleep with this particular man, did she?’
‘We don’t know that. We don’t know whether in fact she’s simply paying him back for a tiff they had afterwards.’
‘But you said she was covered in bruises.’
‘Do you honestly believe that?’
Nick shrugged. ‘My client denies it, and although he was foolish to become involved, I consider him of better character than the witness.’
‘Because he’s a man. Look, Nick, what d’you think about uninvited guests in your house? Would you let them stay?’
‘Of course not. I’d throw them out.’
‘Because you’ve got the right in law to choose who enters your home?’
‘But you do, do you not, invite many people into your home?’
Nick, still not taking her seriously, walked into the trap before he was aware she had made one. He smiled assent.
‘Then don’t you think that whether a woman has one man or many enter her body, the choice is even more important than who should enter your house? Or do you place respect for possessions ahead of respect for a woman’s body?’
I first read this book as a very young woman, before I had even left school. Reading this scene was not so much a click moment, because I had learned my feminism from my mother, but a ‘gel’ moment, where some unstructured thoughts gelled together, and I understood something, in this case about the nature of consent.
Rereading the passage and the remainder of the scene and its aftermath in my forties, I can see a great deal more to reflect on. What I find disturbing is how little things have changed since Fiona Kidman wrote this book, which is a seminal book in feminism in Aotearoa New Zealand.