Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The two McConvills

James McConvill must be pleased with himself tonight. He had an opinion article today in both Melbourne newspapers.

What’s even more unusual is that the two articles are set against each other: one is conservative in its outlook and the other is liberal.

The conservative article is in the Herald Sun (not online). In this article McConvill argues that the attempt by women to choose everything by “having it all” hasn’t worked. He writes that,

Being a high-flying executive, the devoted parent, the loving partner, the loyal friend and the overall all-rounder is just not possible for any mere mortal.

Now, many writers have made similar observations. McConvill, though, goes further than most by drawing out questions of principle.

First, he writes that “With the potential dangers that too much choice can expose, the challenge for the feminist movement today is to appreciate that not only are there limits on what women can do, but that there should be self-imposed limitations on what women can choose.”

This is a direct challenge to the liberal first principle on which feminism is based. Liberals believe that to be fully human we must be self-created from our own individual will and reason. In order to be self-created, there must be no restrictions or limitations on our freedom to choose what we do and who we are. Our actions and identity, in other words, must be self-determined.

McConvill, in arguing that there are in fact limitations, is setting himself against this liberal principle. He also sets himself against the principle elsewhere in the article when he argues that “unfettered choice” can be oppressive, and that “propping up freedom of choice as the panacea for today’s woman” is misguided, and when he denies the feminist claim that “the key to women’s real liberation is self-determination – the freedom to structure one’s own path to success”.

The second way that McConvill breaches the liberal first principle is when he ponders the following question: if it’s not possible for women to choose everything, then what should they choose?

For feminists, the answer is that women should choose to focus on their careers rather than motherhood. The problem with motherhood for feminists is that it’s a traditional gender role. It’s thought of as a merely “biological destiny” – an identity which the individual inherits due to the accident of being born a woman, rather than something fashioned by individual reason.

McConvill, though, suggests that for many women motherhood would be the better choice. He cites “happiness studies” which show that family relationships are more important to individual well-being than “the great job, respect on a professional level, money and a glitzy lifestyle”.

McConvill goes so far as to suggest that rather than seeking to “dismantle the traditional stereotype” of women as mothers that “we should embrace it” for the majority of women.

So, in the Herald Sun article McConvill rather bravely challenges the very foundation principle of liberalism. In his article in The Age, though, he reverses his position.

The Age article is a tribute to former prime minister Paul Keating. Why does McConvill admire Keating so much? Because “He made me believe I could do anything and be anybody” – which made McConvill believe that “one day I too might become prime minister” and which inspired him to pursue his career success in the law.

There is a kind of selective conservatism happening here. McConvill is telling women that it’s important to accept that there are limits on what we can choose to do and be. But he applies to himself the liberal principle that he can do anything and be anybody – and that politicians should be judged by how well they promote this belief.

Such a selective conservatism obviously won’t work. Once you set up the liberal principle as the foundation stone of politics, as McConvill does in his tribute to Keating, it will eventually be applied across the board, including in the lives of women.

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