activism

For the love of God: how pornography and an explicit reading list turned Rona Joyner into a conservative activist.

Photo of Rona Joyner by Russell Shakespeare https://www.russellshakespeare.com/

The contemporary international rise of rightist politics is associated with anti-bureaucratic and anti-state ‘populist’ tendencies. Often, conservatives represent themselves as speaking for ‘the silent majority’ but yet on the outside of power. Indeed, even the Australian conservative commentary Sky News TV show is called The Outsiders, a retort to the ABC political affairs show Insiders. In education, both Kevin Donnelly and Mark Latham – leading conservative campaigners on education – pitch their politics as a ‘common sense’ that is under threat and sidelined by the so-called take-over of ‘political correctness’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ in public education.

In making sense of this, we suggest there is a need for a greater understanding of the history of conservatism in Australian education, and in particular the role of women in establishing a grassroots conservatism premised on an expression of ‘the people’ against the state. 

In our recent research, which forms part of a broader Australian Research Council project on the history of participatory activism and education policy reform (with our colleague Susan Goodwin), we have sought to bring forward this history. We focus on one woman, credited for leading the successful campaign for banning two innovative new social studies curriculum packages  in Queensland in the late 1970s, Rona Joyner. Joyner called for the ban on the grounds that they transgressed fundamental Australian Christian family values. The Queensland premier of the day, the Trumpian Joh Bjeleke Petersen not only personally actioned the ban in 1978, going over the head of his education minister, but also threatened to sack any public school teachers who used the curricula in their classrooms.

This was an important moment in the history of Australia’s ‘culture wars’. The 1970s and 1980s were foundational to the emergence of a new grassroots Christian conservatism that expressed itself as a presumed ‘Christian’ majority, maligned and sidelined by an immorally secular and ‘permissive’ state. Joyner was one of a number  of conservative activists who launched themselves into the public sphere at this time and who, firstly, claimed to speak in the name of all Christians and secondly, described themselves as being the underdog, working against a dangerous collective of left-wing bureaucrats and teachers.

In the 1970s, Joyner (who was close to both Joh and his wife, Flo Bjelke Petersen) established two campaign groups – the Society to Outlaw Pornography (STOP) and the Campaign Against Regressive Education (CARE) – and the self-published newsletter Stop Press, a twenty year run of which is held by the Queensland State Library. Through Stop Press, Joyner aimed to provide like-minded conservative Christian parents with the intellectual, religious and political tools to take up the moral struggle against secular humanism, feminism, multiculturalism and homosexuality. 

Joyner passionately argued that  education bureaucrats and public school teachers were  dangerously appropriating the rights of ‘Christian’ parents. Warning readers to be vigilant with regards to the teaching of sex education in schools in the first issue of Stop Press in 1972, Joyner writes, ‘No one has the right to usurp the parents’ position in the field of education, so be watchful’. Making the case even more forcefully a decade later – despite her success with the curriculum ban – Joyner declares in 1984, ‘State control of education is anti-family and anti-God’. 

Rona Joyner was one of several international high-profile conservative women of her era including Mary Whitehouse, who advocated for increased censorship of television in Britain, and Phyllis Schlafly, who successfully campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment in the US. A self-attribution of being on the outside of power meant that these campaigners frequently practised their conservatism as a grassroots movement. They used techniques and language associated with participatory democracy movements of the left, such as home-published newsletters and a dispersed network of community-based supporter groups. 

Vital to understanding the work and significance of ultraconservative women like Rona Joyner is their positioning as mothers. Joyner claimed that she became politicised through her alarm at the inclusion of a sexually explicit novel on her son’s first year university reading list in the 1960s. According to the logic of this anecdote, Rona Joyner’s public activism was an extension of her maternal duty beyond the immediate home and family and into the front line of a public moral fight. 

Paradoxically, women conservatives like Rona Joyner are often not taken seriously and ridiculed for their appearance or for the way they speak. This treatment plays to a head nodding progressive audience, that in turn overlooks the importance of these women in building conservative moral campaigns centred on a claim of speaking for ‘the people’ (in this case, the ‘everyday’ Christian parent). For Joyner, the power of parental authority – in distinction from the state – was the location of the family and parents in God’s laws. She writes, ‘Remember Western civilization is based on the fact that the individual derives his freedoms and his rights from God’s laws, not from the State’.

Joyner’s activism, and the banning of the social studies curricula, lays bare tensions in the relationship between parents as citizens, politicians and expert-based bureaucracies, that extend well beyond the specificities of 1970s Queensland. In our examination of twenty years of Joyner’s newsletters, we show how her campaign work exposes fault lines in the relationship between the authority of the state and individual moral authority, one such repercussion of this being the expression of political populism against state authority. Joyner was central to the shaping and production of a grassroots conservative moral political culture premised on a concern that ‘progressives’ have overtaken the key institutions of modern democracy (schools, for instance) that has been renewed and rearticulated across the late twentieth-century into the present day.

Jessica Gerrard is an associate professor at the University of Melbourne. She researches the changing formations and lived experiences of social inequalities in relation to education, activism, work and unemployment. She works across the disciplines of sociology, history and policy studies with an interest in critical methodologies and theories.

Helen Proctor is a professor of education at the University of Sydney, with a research interest in how schools shape social life beyond the school gate. She uses historical methods to examine the making of contemporary educational systems by focussing on the changing relationships between schools, families and ‘communities’.