In a recent SMH opinion piece, Adele Horin bemoans the choices made by two women of her acquaintance—a mother and a daughter, both highly intelligent, who opted out of the full-time career market to spend time at home raising children:
She topped the state in the final exams, a brilliant girl. But she married young and did what women did in the 1960s, stayed at home to raise her children while her husband climbed the corporate ladder. Much later she worked part-time. Now it’s her brilliant daughter’s turn. A lawyer in her 40s, she has pulled back, left the big firm with its killer hours to do home-based work, and to raise her own precociously bright daughters while her husband does the climbing.
These days, it seems, more and more women are making those kinds of choices, or at least wishing they could. According to a recent study that Horin cites in the article:
Almost 30 per cent of men endorsed the male breadwinner model in 2001, rising to 41 per cent in 2005; 57 per cent of women in 2001 thought at-home mothers were better for children, rising to 74 per cent in 2005.
What intrigued me about the article was not the existence of statistics like that but the way they were interpreted and the language used to present them. Horin’s summary of the trend represented by the figures reported in the study was that “attitudes to gender roles have become less progressive in Australia since the mid-’90s”.
So here’s my question. If the modernist mindset defines a ‘progressive’ attitude as one that is consistent with the direction that the culture is headed in (in contrast to a ‘conservative’ attitude that wants to keep things the same, or a ‘reactionary’ attitude that wants to take things backward), how long does a trend like the one cited in the article have to last before ‘progressive’ becomes ‘reactionary’ and ‘reactionary’ becomes ‘progressive’?
And if ‘progressive’ means something more than that—not just “consistent with the direction the culture is headed in” but “consistent with a change toward a better set of social arrangements”—then surely labelling one side of the debate the ‘progressive’ side is a question-begging use of language. If Horin wants to make the case that something along the lines of the Gloria-Steinem-style feminist utopia is the direction we should be heading in, then she is at liberty to make that case. (And, to be fair, within the space of a short opinion piece she does include a few paragraphs suggesting reasons why she thinks that is the case.) But presupposing the success of that argument in the very labels she uses to describe the competing views seems to me to be a use of language that is not really conducive to a good conversation.
Meanwhile, as that larger conversation goes on within our culture, those of us who are Christian women who have made choices to step out of the full-time, paid career market and care for children at home have an opportunity to show and to tell our culture something (in our actions and our words) about the values that inform our choices. Our opportunity (and our challenge) is to show that our choices are defined neither by a nostalgic look back towards the world of Mad Men, nor by a ‘progressive’ hankering for the feminist utopias imagined by Steinem, Greer and the rest, but by the wisdom of the creator, the example of Jesus and the hope of the Kingdom of God that he proclaimed. (For more on that theme, see an article I wrote for CASE, Chained to the kitchen sink.)