What makes ‘progressive’ progressive?

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.)

5 thoughts on “What makes ‘progressive’ progressive?

  1. Very good questions, Nicole, and “Chained to the kitchen sink” is a great article.  It seems that “progressive” = Marxist/feminist!  But whatever the “intelligentsia” in our society are saying, it looks like many are voting with their feet anyway.

    It would be interesting to compare the statistics that Adele Horin cites, with the situation in the USA where conservative Christianity is a lot more influential than here.  I suspect the statistics wouldn’t be very different.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, my wife and I have survived all our married life on one income, for most of the time a rather low missionary income, yet I was able to retire early from the paid work force so we could finish our Bible translation project (which at the time we weren’t paid for), and yet we now own our own home outright.  Also I usually do the cooking and my wife does the gardening.  The Lord’s looked after us, and we don’t mind saying so to anyone who’ll listen grin

    Cheers,  Michael.

  2. Well said, Nicole.

    Similar thoughts occurred to me recently on International Women’s Day, when the usual suspects piped up to say how disgraceful it was that after all these years of feminist achievement and progress, we still didn’t have nearly enough female CEOs and company directors.

    But wasn’t it only the week before that being a CEO or company director was just about immoral by definition? Them with their obscene pay, and their bonuses, and their Tony Jacklin golf clubs. Didn’t they cause the GFC (or at least stand by and watch it happen)?

    But it’s apparently even more immoral that not enough of these greedy, capitalist, corporate, fat-cat polluters are women.

    I’d better stop.


  3. Tony, you must have missed Eva Cox’s comments (and those of quite a few others) who disagreed with the boardroom emphasis.  Try her SMH article here:
    http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/macho-economics-still-rules-the-agenda-20110307-1bl4e.html, particularly this sentence:
    “We wanted to change the undervaluing of those aspects of life seen as women’s issues and the overvaluing of those which were associated with masculinity.”
    Now I think we Christians are quite good at this.  We don’t want men or women to value themselves on their earnings, and we honour the care of small or sick family members.  That’s not the case in the wider community—but it never really was.  The danger for Christians, I think, is in an *unexamined* retreat to the attitudes and behaviours of earlier generations.

  4. Hi Ellen

    Yes, I did miss those comments, which is a shame because it is not often I would have the opportunity to agree with Eva Cox.

    Well, almost agree. Of all the ‘feminised social goods and relationships’ that Eva Cox and her generation fought for, motherhood certainly wasn’t one of them!

    As for retreating to the values of earlier generations, if we did examine them and found some of them superior (either on the grounds of wisdom or biblical principle) then embracing them would not be a retreat but progress, wouldn’t it? Which might be Nicole’s point.

  5. @ Tony.

    I think that any suggested immorality of CEOs stemmed from the fact that they recklessly and unethically lost huge amounts of investors’ money and weren’t held in any way accountable.

    Part of this comment has been removed for having violated our comments policy (namely, that comments should be godly and on topic).

Comments are closed.