Helen Proctor

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’.

Which national publication is responsible for (almost) all Australian children wearing school uniform?

Recently unisex uniforms have taken centre stage in the annual school uniform debate in Australia. Our research has led us through just about every argument you could have over school uniforms, but venture out into any suburb or town and you can see that the debate over whether we should have them or not in Australia has been well and truly decided.

We believe one media outlet in particular played a pivotal role in Australia’s acceptance of uniforms in schools. Our research uncovered how the Australian Women’s Weekly took on the role of ‘selling’ school uniforms to Australians, particularly mothers.

In her 1979 article ‘Change Without Innovation’, Elaine Thompson claimed, ‘The Australian Women’s Weekly generates a picture of the world, of women, of society, which is projected week after week to a huge part of the Australian population’. This magazine is not just a useful historical source of illustrative content—one of any number of publications that we could have chosen to study—but has its own substantial historical significance as a social and cultural agent. The Australian Women’s Weekly, for many decades during the twentieth century the bestselling periodical in the country, served as a formidable authority, trading particularly in the routine and the domestic.

From its beginnings in the early 1930s, the Weekly featured content on school wear. An interest in what children and young people wore to school can be seen as part of the magazine’s ongoing engagement with its putative readership: married women who were mothers, and who bore the main responsibility for the smooth running of their households.

There were back-to-school advertisements for ‘regulation’ garments and sewing patterns for the ‘correct styles’ for students. Even though the majority of schoolchildren in Australia at this time were not required to wear a prescribed outfit to school, the magazine’s message was that proper school dress was a matter of conformity—of uniformity.

Opinions on school uniforms began to appear in the readers’ letters section within a few years of the magazine’s debut. The Weekly would come to frame opinions on school dress in debate terms of ‘for and against’. When a Queensland mother, for example, posed a question to the magazine in 1963 about whether or not she was right to send her daughter to school in a ‘spotted muumuu’ despite the teacher’s objections, many readers responded, some expressing solidarity with the mother, and others voicing their disapproval of her.

The Weekly created a space for debate on uniforms, but alongside it a space for the selling of uniforms, not only directly in advertisements, but also indirectly in articles that consolidated the message that proper school dress was tantamount to a school uniform. In 1944, for example, the magazine highlighted the ‘Sloppy Sue’ craze in the US (involving high school girls wearing jeans, men’s clothing, and other oversized garments). The piece had a subsection entitled ‘Neatness is Preferred Here’ in which a headmistress noted that at her school ‘the wearing of uniforms had precluded any development of such a cult as the ‘Sloppy Sue’”. A 1958 piece on the famous Sara Quads starting a new school after their move to Sydney showed them dressed in their new matching collared shirts, blazers and hats (never mind the fact that their new public school in Punchbowl did not require these items). ‘Keeping the Uniforms in Order’, a 1969 back-to-school article, was written by a mother offering advice ‘to those who are facing the problems of school wardrobes for the first time’. Nowhere did it acknowledge that school wardrobes might consist of something other than regulation attire.

By the 1970s, full-colour photographs of happy, uniformed children became a staple of the magazine’s coverage of schooling. In a series of back-to-school covers that began in 1974, not only did each child wear a uniform, each one wore predominantly blue regulation-style outfits. These covers presented images of children dressed correspondingly, all of a piece, both within each cover and across the series from year to year.

It was the 1977 cover in this back-to-school series that was arguably the apotheosis of the Weekly’s representations of the child dressed for school. Editor-in-chief Ita Buttrose wrote in the issue’s editorial, “I hope you’ll forgive a mother’s pride but that’s my son, Ben, on the cover this week, and I think he looks absolutely fantastic. He’s with his cousin, Rebecca—my niece—so the aunt in me feels pretty good too.”

We do not have systematic data about how the magazine’s readers interpreted, acted on, objected to, or even scoffed at the Weekly’s images and stories about school dress. However we believe the magazine manufactured, moderated, and in the end resolved a national ‘debate’ on the subject of school uniforms in their gendered forms, positioning mothers as having to provide and care for them.

The Weekly made uniformed schooling desirable, connected it to the sartorial history of exclusive or selective schooling, and sold it as obtainable and maintainable. As Ita Buttrose’s expression of motherly pride suggested, dressing one’s child in a ‘regulation’ outfit was a way of enacting the values of the Australian Women’s Weekly, and thereby entering its collective world.


LISTEN to Heather Weaver and Helen Proctor discuss their research with Wendy Harmer on ABC radio:


Heather Weaver

Helen Proctor

Heather Weaver is a Research Associate and Helen Proctor is an ARC Future Fellow in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. Their research on uniforms will be published in 2018 in History of Education Quarterly under the title, “The Question of the Spotted Muumuu: How the Australian Women’s Weekly Manufactured a Vision of the Normative School Mother and Child”.


The authors would like to thank the people responsible for the excellent “Trove” database at the Australian National Library for their assistance with this project.