Jill Ker Conway Essay - Critical Essays

Conway, Jill Ker


Jill Ker Conway 1934-

Australian historian, essayist, editor, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Conway's career through 1999.

Recognized for her passionate ideals and active role in the modern feminist movement, Conway is a respected educator, historian, memoirist, and editor in the field of women's studies. She served as the president of Smith College from 1975 to 1985, when she retired to focus on writing. After being confronted with many forms of gender bias early in her career, Conway began fighting to change educational systems from within. Conway has utilized the genre of the autobiography as a tool to trace the plight of women throughout history and to aid women in furthering their own personal introspection. Many critics have admired Conway's efforts to overcome gender bias, but some have questioned the limitations set by her feminist theories.

Biographical Information

Born on October 9, 1934, in Hillston, New South Wales, Australia, Conway was raised on an isolated, government-allocated sheep ranch in the Australian outback. Conway's mother provided a strong home-schooling program for her children, despite the fact that education was viewed as a luxury in many parts of rural Australia. The ranch enjoyed several years of prosperity until a severe drought struck in the early 1940s, almost crippling the Ker family financially. Another tragedy occurred in 1945 when Conway's father drowned while repairing a dam on the property. Conway and her mother struggled to save the ranch, but eventually were forced to move to Sydney, and turned the land over to hired managers. In Sydney, Conway attended formal schooling for the first time. At school, she was exposed to gender-based discrimination and encountered the many quirks of mainstream society. Conway faced social difficulty in Sydney's public schools and subsequently began attending a private girls' academy. This experience helped to shape her academic confidence and attitudes toward education, particularly the education of women. Conway developed an interest in history and entered the University of Sydney, where she graduated with honors at the top of her class in 1958. After being denied a position with the Australian Department of External Affairs, Conway took a job as a professional model. Both of these experiences wounded Conway's self-esteem, but also served as motivating factors which increased her determination to overcome the social prejudices that she had encountered. Conway cultivated a scholarly interest in viewing history from different perspectives and pursued a doctorate in history at Harvard University. She took a job as a tutor at Harvard and worked for professor John Conway, whom she later married. After earning her doctorate in American history, Conway and her husband moved to Toronto, where she taught nineteenth- and twentieth-century American history at the University of Toronto. While there, Conway became known for her vocal objections to female advancement discrimination and salary inequalities based on gender. As a result of her activism, Conway was named one of the university's five vice presidents. In 1975, Conway took a position as the first woman president of Smith College, where she implemented programs allowing older women and financially disadvantaged women to gain opportunities in education. In 1985, Conway retired from Smith to concentrate on her writing. Since then, she has published three memoirs, The Road from Coorain: An Autobiography (1989), True North: A Memoir (1994), and A Woman's Education (2001). She also has dedicated herself to writing about the history of feminism in works such as The Female Experience in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century America: A Guide to the History of American Women (1982), The First Generation of American Women Graduates (1987), and When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography (1998). She has compiled and edited multiple volumes of anthologies, and has contributed to many books and periodicals. Conway serves as a visiting scholar in the Program of Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is additionally a member of the Board of Directors of several major corporations, including Merrill Lynch, Nike, and Colgate-Palmolive.

Major Works

Conway's first memoir, The Road from Coorain, focuses on her childhood and early adulthood. In the book, she chronicles the financial and emotional difficulty experienced by her family and explores her relationship with her mother. Conway also describes her disappointment with the discrimination she experienced in the Australian system of education and in society as a whole. The memoir concludes with Conway seeking solace and accepting an university scholarship in America. In her sequel, True North, Conway continues her life story and relates the new beginning that she found in the United States. In the memoir, Conway recounts the bonds that she forged with new friends, discusses her opportunities and studies at Harvard—as well as the educational reforms she helped enact—and details the successes of her career, culminating in her position as president of Smith College. Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women—An Anthology (1992) details the lives of twenty-five female American pioneers in the areas of civil rights, education, science, medicine, arts and letters, and social reform. The anthology centers on issues and experiences that are important to the feminist movement. The twenty-five portraits include a wide spectrum of personalities from Harriet Jacobs and Gertrude Stein to Margaret Mead, Jane Addams, and Maxine Hong Kingston. In the second volume, Written by Herself: Women's Memoirs from Britain, Africa, Asia, and the United States (1996), Conway presents the voices of women from three generations and four different cultures, including excerpts from Vera Brittain and South African labor reformer Emma Mashinini. As co-editor of The Politics of Women's Education: Perspectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America (1993), Conway continued to show insights into the female condition across several continents. In spite of the variety of perspectives presented in the anthology, recurrent themes emerge in the text, such as transforming the systems of education through curriculum and non-formal classroom models. Conway returned to the autobiography genre with When Memory Speaks, in which she offers her view on the purpose of the autobiography, traces its effect on readers, and extends a historical explication of the genre. Additionally, Conway presents her theory on the divergent patterns and structures of autobiographies written by both men and women, discussing the self-narrative in gender and cultural contexts. To demonstrate her theories, Conway contrasts the autobiographies of diverse male figures such as St. Augustine, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Lee Iacocca with the memoirs of women such as Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem. As the editor of In Her Own Words: Women's Memoirs from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States (1999), Conway collected excerpts from autobiographies of women from various English-speaking countries. In 2001, Conway published her third volume of memoirs, A Woman's Education, which focuses on her struggles and accomplishments as the first female president of Smith College.

Critical Reception

Conway's writing gained sparse critical attention until the publication of her first memoir, The Road from Coorain. This work was almost universally well-received by critics, who have described it as interesting, intelligent, empathetic, and engaging. Reviewers embraced Conway's journey through hardship and concurred that, while not a traditional bildungsroman (a novel following the development of a young character), the narrative contains many rich insights. With the publication of the first volume of Written by Herself, Conway was complimented for her efforts to bring female voices into the male-oriented American society. Critics have valued the book for its encouragement of female introspection and its clear illustration of the challenges fought by a wide variety of women throughout American history. However, some reviewers questioned Conway's choices of inclusion criteria and cited her lack of fluent transitions. The Politics of Women's Education has been applauded for the coherence of the essays in the collection and for the overall thematic lucidity. True North was received almost as warmly by critics as The Road from Coorain, with many commentators lauding Conway as a tenacious role model for the modern feminist movement. Some critics have conversely asserted that True North lacks The Road from Coorain's deeper sense of self-contemplation. Certain reviewers also felt that many events in Conway's life happened by chance, and were not solely due to the “ambition” to which Conway credits her success. Critics have been most sharply divided in their reviews of When Memory Speaks. Some have applauded Conway's ability to explore women's lives in cultural contexts. However, a majority of critics felt that the scope of the volume was narrowly restricted to fit Conway's theories. Several reviewers asserted that Conway's activism against gender bias is hypocritical, in that she seems only to support women who approach feminism in an assertive manner, often treating female authors as victims of society. Some have also disagreed with Conway's distinction of autobiography by gender, arguing that comparison of the male and female memoir only serves to stifle the growth of female intellectual recognition. Additionally, critics have commented on the volume's failure to discuss the feminist movement in a postmodern cultural context. In Her Own Words has been admired as an interesting volume by reviewers, as the excerpts provide for a unique survey of English-speaking women from various parts of the world. The collection has been praised for its diversity, although several critics offered negative assessments of Conway's editorial contributions.

Principal Works

The Female Experience in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century America: A Guide to the History of American Women (history) 1982

The First Generation of American Women Graduates (history) 1987

The Road from Coorain: An Autobiography (memoirs) 1989

Written by Herself. Volume I: Autobiographies of American Women—An Anthology [editor and contributor] (memoirs) 1992

The Politics of Women's Education: Perspectives from Asia, Africa, and Latin America [co-editor] (essays) 1993

True North: A Memoir (memoirs) 1994

Written by Herself. Volume II: Women's Memoirs from Britain,...

(The entire section is 124 words.)


Keith Henderson (review date 26 July 1989)

SOURCE: “An Arduous Journey from Outback to Ivied Halls,” in Christian Science Monitor, July 26, 1989, p. 14.

[In the following review, Henderson offers a positive assessment of The Road from Coorain, praising Conway's perception and tenacity.]

Early in her book Jill Ker Conway describes the differing impact Australia's vast interior had on her mother and father. “She saw no landmarks to identify direction, only emptiness. My father saw strong fertile soil, indications of grazed-out saltbush, dips and changes in the contours of the land and its soils, landmarks of all kinds.”

It was from this land, or the chunk of it they named...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Christian Century (review date 4 October 1989)

SOURCE: A review of The Road from Coorain, in Christian Century, Vol. 106, No. 28, October 4, 1989, p. 894.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Road from Coorain.]

This autobiography [The Road from Coorain] by the Australian-born historian later to be president of Smith College is a standard for the genre. Conway is a beautiful stylist, reflective yet restrained in her consideration of her early years on a western Australia sheep ranch (she never met another girl-child until she was seven), her school years in Sidney, and the years spent coming to realize her vocation. She describes, without indulging in...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Valerie Miner (review date 4 April 1993)

SOURCE: “They Did It Their Way,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, p. 12.

[In the following mixed review of Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women, Miner praises the inspirational autobiographies included in the anthology, but criticizes Conway's failure to provide smooth transitions and questions her inclusion criteria.]

Jill Ker Conway's anthology, Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women, is part of an avalanche of recently published or republished memoirs, journals and autobiographies. What makes this self-writing so popular among writers and readers?

The writers' motives vary: to...

(The entire section is 1114 words.)

Lynn Z. Bloom (review date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: “Talent, Grit, and Guts,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, p. 50.

[In the following positive review of Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women, Bloom explores the various obstacles overcome by the twenty-five women whose excerpted autobiographies appear in the anthology.]

Americans have for two centuries been reared on the exemplary lives of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Frederick Douglass—all embodiments of the male version of the American Dream. In the traditional male plot, the hero overcomes a series of obstacles through prodigious effort before attaining power, wealth, social position, and a faithful...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

Ruth Hayhoe (review date May 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Politics of Women's Education: Perspectives from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, in Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2, May, 1994, pp. 508–09.

[In the following positive review, Hayhoe outlines the various issues surrounding women's education that are presented in The Politics of Women's Education: Perspectives from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.]

This volume [The Politics of Women's Education: Perspectives from Asia, Africa, and Latin America] provides many insights into the lives, aspirations, achievements, and frustrations of women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as they wrestle with issues of education and social...

(The entire section is 860 words.)

Barbara Landis Chase (review date 14 August 1994)

SOURCE: “The Middle of Her Journey,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 24, No. 33, August 14, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following review, Chase offers a positive assessment of True North, praising Conway's passion and insight.]

Jill Ker Conway is an immensely engaging storyteller. Her eye takes in every detail of her surroundings and experience, and none of those details escapes her memory. Her insights sort out and render fathomable the mysteries of human interaction. Conway's earlier memoir, The Road from Coorain, recounted the haunting tale of her solitary childhood in the Outback of Australia. Those who have waited impatiently for more of her story...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 22 August 1994)

SOURCE: “A Life in Academia, Fighting Gender Bias,” in Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following favorable review of True North, Rubin examines Conway's academic perseverance and her tenacious approach to women's education reform.]

One widely held perception that has long puzzled me is the assumption that academia is the last place a writer should look for interesting material. Certainly, Jill Ker Conway's account of her own academic career, set forth with admirable clarity and élan in True North: A Memoir, should do a lot to dispel this popular misconception.

Academia is not all that Conway, a former...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Diane Cole (review date 2 October 1994)

SOURCE: “An Explorer and Advocate: College President Jill Ker Conway's Account of Life in Her New Home, America,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 2, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following review, Cole offers a favorable assessment of True North.]

The search for identity—the need to discover who we are—takes us on many journeys whose ultimate destination cannot be predicted, even in our dreams. For Jill Ker Conway, who recounted her struggles growing up on, and then flight from, her family's isolated Australian sheep station in her moving memoir of youth, The Road from Coorain, the metaphor of travel is especially apt because she begins her second, equally...

(The entire section is 1244 words.)

Madeline Marget (review date 4 November 1994)

SOURCE: “A Woman of Parts,” in Commonweal, Vol. 121, No. 19, November 4, 1994, pp. 34–35.

[In the following review, Marget offers a mixed assessment of True North, faulting the book for covering too much material and being overly ambitious.]

This second volume [True North] of Jill Ker Conway's memoirs is an instructive, and often vivid, travelogue of her experience, and of her knowledge and ideas. It begins where The Road from Coorain left off, at the time of the author's leaving Australia for the United States in 1960, and ends in 1975, as she is about to assume the presidency of Smith College. The decade-and-a-half she writes about was an...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)

Edwards Park (review date December 1994)

SOURCE: A review of True North, in Smithsonian, Vol. 25, No. 9, December, 1994, pp. 144–46.

[In the following review, Park offers a positive assessment of True North.]

As a child living on “Coorain,” her family's sheep station, little Jill Ker knew only the schooling of the Australian outback. She played with farm animals and her two brothers, joined in the rough and demanding duties of a 32,000-acre property, never saw another girl child until she was 7, and was 14 before she set foot in a formal school—which she hated. Years later, at the pinnacle of a blazing academic career, she was named president of prestigious Smith College. How in the world did...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Marilyn Gardner (review date 18 June 1998)

SOURCE: “Autobiography as Vestibule,” in Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1998, p. B8.

[In the following review of When Memory Speaks, Gardner examines Conway's opinions on the purpose of the autobiography genre.]

The first person singular serves as the most fascinating of all pronouns. In person and in print, it raises a tantalizing question: Who is the real person behind the “I,” however bold or meek, self-righteous or self-effacing the “I” might be?

As Jill Ker Conway explains in When Memory Speaks, even autobiography can fail to answer that question. Describing memoir as “the most popular form of fiction for modern...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Martin Stannard (review date Spring 1999)

SOURCE: “Franklin Speaking?,” in Biography, Spring, 1999, pp. 262–66.

[In the following negative review of When Memory Speaks, Stannard criticizes Conway's selection of material for the collection and faults several of her theories regarding the genre of autobiography.]

Any book by Jill Ker Conway demands respect. A distinguished feminist scholar, she is also a fine autobiographer. The Road from Coorain and True North established her as a leading voice of the genre. Her academic work investigating the suppression and release of the female voice is no less powerful, and the two volumes she edited entitled Written by Herself are...

(The entire section is 2369 words.)

Joyce Antler (review date December 1999)

SOURCE: A review of When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography, in Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 3, December, 1999, pp. 318–19.

[In the following review, Antler offers a positive assessment of When Memory Speaks, calling the collection “insightful.”]

Intended for a general audience, this trim volume [When Memory Speaks] argues that autobiography as a narrative form is based on cultural scripts that offer readers symbolic reflections of their own inner lives. Conway believes that, unlike other genres, autobiography has become a universal medium because it addresses complex problems of personal identity using language...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Further Reading


Becker, Alida. “Her Brilliant Career.” Washington Post Book World 29, No. 20 (14 May 1989): 4.

Becker discusses Conway's unique perspective in The Road from Coorain.

Conroy, Sarah Booth. “Giving Voice to Women's Choices: Jill Ker Conway's Road from Scholar to Feminist Author.” Washington Post (27 January 1993): D2.

Conroy discusses Conway's views on the importance of the expression of the female voice in history, politics, business, health care, and education in this review of Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women.

Dintenfass, Michael. “Crafting Historians'...

(The entire section is 445 words.)