Very Conservative, but Ready for Change

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 26, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

I am just off the plane when my welcoming and perhaps warning committee offers me a description of their hometown. ++ ''Well, first of all, our town is really conservative.''

This one-sentence briefing is given confidentially, F.Y.I. The three greeters are like-minded women who are happy in their place and yet regard themselves as exceptions to its political rule. They agree, in unison, that conservatism is the rule.

But by this morning, I have become attuned to such political proclamations. I have spent the past week in middle-sized cities in middle America. In Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky. At each stop, invariably, I have been told the same thing: ''This city is really conservative.'' It is uttered in a tone that is one part pride and two parts caution --and all-over conviction.

I hear these words Monday from a woman who runs a shelter for battered women and their children. Once such a shelter would have been suspect as a feminist plot to subvert the family. This night a good part of the town's establishment has come out to support the shelter.

But this is a conservative place.

I hear them Tuesday from another woman who runs a YWCA using both her social conscience and her carefulness. Her community has come in full force this day to give awards to local women whose work would have once been considered radical.

But this is a conservative place.

I hear them Wednesday as well from a man whose town is hosting a conference on families and children that does not in any way limit itself to the old pro-family agenda.

L But this too, he assures me, is really a conservative place.

As an outsider, in each town for only a day or two, I can't dispute the lifelong expertise of these natives. Indeed, there is more than enough evidence in each place of people who value tradition, long for stability, and are uneasy with neighbors who shake the boat. As for social conservatism, one newspaper editor tells me about the hundreds of canceled subscriptions that came after a Valentine's Day piece on relationships that included a gay couple.

But I have heard this phrase -- ''this town is really conservative'' -- too often in the past year, in too many places, in too many unexpected and even inappropriate circumstances. I have heard uttered again and again by people who consider themselves exceptions. And now I wonder.

Words like ''liberal'' and ''conservative'' don't mean as much anymore, especially when we are talking about women, men and families. Is it liberal or conservative to be appalled at Tailhook, in favor of Head Start, sick of violence in the movies and worried about teen-age mothers in the community?

Yet at the same time, people who are concerned about the women's movement, for both themselves and their children, will often tell me that feminism is a no-no, a suspect word in their town's vocabulary. Men whose own lives and marriages are changing will say and believe that they are unique in their neighborhoods.

Could these local self-images lag behind reality? Could this time warp, in turn, undermine the people who see themselves at a vulnerable cutting edge instead of in a mainstream?

In many polite and careful places, it seems, we deal with it -- change -- by not talking about it. As one or two or three ''exceptions,'' we may never find strength in numbers.

I suppose that this political reticence is a legacy of the years between 1980 and 1992. First we learned that the country was more traditional than many of us believed. Then we became convinced that the country was more conservative than it is.

In theory the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings ended the long backlash against women. In theory the election of Bill Clinton brought change back into fashion.

But the belief in change is as new as the administration. At times it still seems that many people whose politics went into the deep freezer in the '80s have trouble believing in a thaw. They move ahead with the speed and confidence of runners looking over their shoulders all the time. They talk as fluently as speakers worrying that they will stutter on an L-word.

So, in my travels through middle-sized towns in middle America, people still believe their town is ''really conservative.'' What I hear, however, may be a quiet, if not silent, majority for change.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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