Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Conservatively Speaking

Tony Abbott was talking about the Paid Parental Leave scheme when he said 'But the most conservative thing a woman can do is have a child.'

I have no idea what that meant. I have no clue what Tony Abbott could have been thinking about when he said that. I've asked my friends and Twitter followers for what they think a woman's most conservative act might be.

Silence...Followed by questions asking me to define "conservative", provide general points of reference for comparison, or tweets mocking the question.

I'm pretty sure this statement from Mr Abbott isn't just Barnaby Joyce-esque Alphabet Soup. I suspect Mr Abbott means exactly what he said, and is entirely comfortable with what he means. Good for him.

Isn't it curious that the Leader of the Opposition, a leader perceived to have a problem connecting with women, is so sure that having a child is the ultimate expression of female conservatism? I suspect that hiding behind Mr Abbott's statement is a clue to his view of women.

What does he mean by "conservative"? Christian conservatism? Thats a ambiguous concept: Baptist Conservatism is different to Roman Catholic conservatism. Social conservatism - the 1950s nuclear family model or the extended family?

And what about context? Does Mr Abbott still consider that having a baby is a conservative act for the 15% of single mothers in Australia? Is having a baby a conservative act for a lesbian couple? For a surrogate? For a woman in a mixed-race relationship? What if the pregnancy is the result of rape? defines "conservative" this way:

con·serv·a·tive   [kuhn-sur-vuh-tiv]  adjective
1.disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
2.cautiously moderate or purposefully low: a conservative estimate.
3.traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness: conservative suit.

Too take the most simplistic approach, the traditional role of women in society has oftentimes been defined by the biological role of women. That hasn't changed, but everything else - social, cultural, religious - is up for grabs.

For my late grandmother, born around a hundred years ago, having a baby would have been a conservative choice, inevitable so as to be not really a choice at all. Grandma Queenie worked at the local telephone exchange, but only up until her marriage in 1936. It was a job suitable for a woman, and leaving paid work to have a family preserved the existing social conditions. Her friends and family in the Presbyterian congregation approved.

Next it was Queenie's daughter Kaye's turn to choose her path. She was raised to be conservative, but when she married a Pakistani Muslim while living on the other side of the world, she forfeited her chance at being considered conservative.

When she arrived home to her ultra-conservative country town and respectable Presbyterian parents, Kaye was large with child (me) and married to a foreigner who was nowhere to be seen. Was her choice to have a child - this child - conservative? Hardly. The boxes were ticked (married, baby) but the fine print disqualified my mother from conservatism. She had rocked the boat.

In the social climate of the mid-sixties, Women's Lib was still to happen. The Pill was available, but women still clung to traditional values, family values, the values of today's "Values Voters". For many, The Pill was a way to preserve the appearance of conservatism, while privately behaving in a less conservative way. Conservatism had somehow become about perception more than reality.

In 50 years, the world has moved on. The thing about those definitions above is that each of them is relative. A concept can only be conservative in comparison to its context. For many Muslims, FGM (female circumcision) is conservative. For most reading this blog, it is barbaric extremism. What you see depends on where you stand.

In 2012, each of us would define conservatism slightly differently. To state that something is "the most conservative thing a woman can do" is a bold yet meaningless statement in a society where there is more than one set of values, more than one guiding principle, more than one perspective.

This one simple statement holds so many clues to the man who wants to be our next Prime Minister.

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