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

By Jessica Gerrard and Helen Proctor

Photo of Rona Joyner by Russell Shakespeare

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’.

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

  1. Patrick Lee says:

    Helen and Jessica, Thank you for bringing this perhaps forgotten episode to light again. They were heady times in Queensland then. As a history teacher in a Catholic high school in northern Brisbane I led a challenge to the Joyner/Bjelke-Petersen coup within our school. The episode is worth considering if you are investigating this period more. Briefly, we determined that the ‘parents’ in whose names the coup/ban was being undertaken were never really able to actually see the forbidden material (S.E.M.P and MACOS), have it explained, and consider it themselves. I got hold of a couple of boxes of the S.E.M.P resource material from the University of Queensland Dean of Education (Prof Glen Evans- he had them sitting in the corner of his office!) and distributed them around the school hall for a week, inviting the parents from the school to come up at any time to look at then, pick them up if they dared, and read them. And a couple of teachers were popping in as possible to discuss them if the parents wished. Quite a lot came up. Then on the Friday night we had an open forum where we formally explained what such resources were, how they might be used, and addressed the rabid attacks that were being made on them. It was a wild night because the school was in a suburb close to where Ms Joyner lived, and one primary school teacher on staff was totally aligned with her. So, without advising any of us, he invited Ms Joyner to the meeting, and she came. The events of the night are worth telling, but suffice to say Ms Joyner’s attack on a newspaper story in the resource pack that referred to ‘social housing’ as Communist state control was ridiculed by a waterside worker (a parent) who slowly came to the front of the room and asked whether she was attacking the Housing Commission and the house he lived in. Her confirmation this was so was special! Then the attack on a Bruce Dawe poem that mentioned the Virgin Mary (but was about a dog doing the rounds of the street in the morning, she said it was scurrilous and corrupting) led her to in passing say that as a Protestant she didn’t think that the idolatry of the Virgin Mary should be taught either. In a conservative Catholic school. It was a free kick, sparked outrage, left stranded the obsessed primary school teacher who was at the podium at the time, and the parents swung behind the teachers and stated their trust in the teachers’ judgement about using such resources sensibly with their children.
    A wild night, and a win. But a few points worth making. It helped that we presented it all as an open democratic exercise to let parents into a very public argument being waged allegedly on their behalf but which they had no actual knowledge about; it helped that as the head of history, I said that I didn’t actually want to purchase the S.E.M.P resource packages, not only due to costs but because they wouldn’t be that useful within our curriculum; it was presented as an explanatory exercise in how such materials can be used critically within teaching strategies (so, teaching not just having a text book read as sole content etc)’ and it finally helped that Ms Joyner who was not part of the school community felt she could turn up and lecture the actual parents on what they should believe; it helped that in a thoroughly working class community she would attack the housing commission as state control over lives (there was no shortage of state control over lives under Bjelke-Petersen and Ms Joyner!), and of course it utterly helped that she thought the Virgin Mary might get a side-swipe as well.
    We were of course making the point that Bjelke-Petersen couldn’t ban the resources in Catholic schools (he probably could have if he’d gone about it adroitly) and making a claim for teachers to have prudential agency in resource selection and use, something that most parents probably thought little about and relied on some sense there were mainstream processes in place to ensure all was well in classrooms and no revolution likely to be happening these, especially in a small working class Catholic school that at the time was very short on numbers and not looking like it would survive. Petersen had state school teachers in his sights, and the parental rights agenda was being weaponised in the way this article discusses.
    Anyway, I thought this 1978 (or ’79, I’m not totally sure) episode might be of interest.

    Patrick Lee
    former CEO NSW Institute of Teachers.

  2. Mary Lou Rasmussen says:

    Thanks for sharing this story Patrick – great to get this history recorded

  3. Helen Proctor says:

    Thanks so much, Patrick, this is wonderful and absolutely of interest . Jess and I would love to hear more at some stage!

  4. Bob Lingard says:

    Thanks Jess and Helen, Patrick too,
    One thing I wondered about was the reference to Bjelke-Petersen as Trumpian.

  5. Helen Proctor says:

    Thanks, Bob, a bit of a shortcut I guess for people who don’t know who he was. Obviously many differences but Trumpian in the showmanship, bluster, the lack of patience with due process, anti-intellectualism, and the positioning as someone who is communicating directly with the people. We didn’t pursue this aspect and the records may be too thin, but Joyner seems to have been frustrated when he fell, lost her direct line to National Party leadership.

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