Many of us on the left often don’t have time for conservative women. But there is a case to be made that ideology in its most distilled form is revealed in the discourse of conservative women writers. Reading Miranda Devine’s column earlier this month on ‘shaming’ mothers, I was struck by her description of ideology: ‘our behaviour is influenced by the social norms that develop from the stories we tell ourselves about our lives’. But this process works the other way too: politicised social norms make their mark on what we think, speak and write.
The stories Devine herself relates about gender, race and class speak to our contemporary, paradoxical moment: we are in an increasingly conservative Australia within a world where feminist thought – though not without compromise – is becoming increasingly mainstream. Devine, a conservative woman with a politics deeply complicated by her feminine subjectivity, is perfectly placed to articulate the profound traumas of contemporary Australian gender politics.
Back in May, Devine startlingly represented pro-choice (‘mutant’) feminists as equivalent to the Boko Haram rapists: their victims ‘trapped at the intersection of two extreme ideologies: Islamist fanaticism and post-Christian feminism.’
Devine is commendably concerned with the capacity for a ‘Western feminist establishment’ to enact cultural imperialism. Still, Devine’s critique of a white, Cosmo-style feminism is tangled up in assertions that motherhood offers rape victims ‘a reason to live’, a conclusion as prescriptivist as the feminists who, Devine assures us, are trying to force abortions on the Boko Haram victims. Inevitably, the Nigerian women take a back stage to ideological warfare that reduces them to their wombs and ignores their voices. Devine asserts women’s ownership of their culture and their bodies while paradoxically denying them any agency. Devine’s writing simultaneously resists the ideologies that control women’s bodies and enacts these ideologies. What’s more, this psychic schism is at the core of her writing.
Another example is Devine’s response to the fracas about Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young being spied on by a private contractor paid for by taxpayers. Devine characterises Hanson-Young as ‘attention seeking’. Put aside, for a moment, the irony of calling a politician who was spied on without her consent as ‘attention seeking,’ and note how Devine playfully links Hanson-Young to the character ‘Raven’ (a DC Comics superhero). Devine characterises Raven as a ‘female . . . Human/Demon hybrid’ wearing thigh-high boots. Devine forges a link between Raven, a sexualised female figure on the borders of the human and demonic, who threatens to ‘unleash Hell!’ and Hanson-Young, who ‘thunders’ on the television. How, Devine implies, can Hanson-Young complain about being spied on when she is keen to be on television? When she loudly speaks her mind? When she refuses to be ‘looked after’ by the (prime) minister for women?
Yet what if beneath these assertions is a latent awareness that Raven, a woman who unashamedly raises Hell (and is a white brunette) could stand for Devine herself? Devine’s column is symptomatically, indeed sympathetically saturated with an awareness of the difficulties of being a woman in public life in Australia: the way female journalists, politicians and commentators, of course, are repeatedly attacked.
Devine’s complex feminine politics both resists and is complicit in upholding structures of oppression across gender, race and class. Devine wishes Caitlyn Jenner well in similar words to the transgender activist Laverne Cox, who, in a much shared tumblr post, also used Jenner’s transition to draw attention to ‘trans folks [who] don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare.’ Yet Devine takes a directly opposite approach. Her support is for Jenner and Australia’s Cate McGregor, self-made, wealthy transwomen who have paid for their own healthcare and haven’t ‘charged the taxpayer a cent’. A seemingly progressive stance on gender identity is counterpointed by a conservative position on class, where the wealthy are allowed to express their gender identity but trans people who are poor, who Cox identifies as being most at risk, are dismissed. By collapsing left and right ideology together Devine’s writing unconsciously demonstrates how it is imperative that feminism, as Rosemary Overell states, challenges ‘the system that constitutes and maintains patriarchy: capital.’
The conflicted stories of gender told by one of Australia’s most controversial and prominent conservative columnists are symptomatic of a specific political moment in Australia. A growing, world-wide awareness of feminist possibilities exists in tandem with a conservative Australian government intent on reinforcing class divisions in ways which hurt the most vulnerable women. As I see it, it’s absolutely crucial that we pay close attention to Devine, and other conservative women, such as Janet Albrechsten and Anne Coulter, and engage with the neurotic nuances and symptomatic paradoxes within and beneath their conflicted, fractured discourses.