Jill Ker Conway’s views about herself and the place of women in twentieth century culture were shaped by her family background and the circumstances of her childhood growing up on a sheep station in the grasslands of New South Wales, Australia. The first three chapters of The Road from Coorain, “The West,” “Coorain,” and “Childhood,” focus on the landscape and family setting of her early life. Her mother, Evelyn Ker, was a strong, intelligent woman, a nurse whom Conway describes as a “modern feminist” with strong views on issues such as a woman’s right to abortion. Her father, William Ker, was an equally independent, strong-willed man of Scottish descent. After their marriage and the birth of their two sons, Robert and Barry, in 1930, they acquired a tract of land in the Australian bush for sheep raising. In this frontier setting, men and women, although performing different tasks, had to work together in a partnership to make the sheep-ranching operation viable.
When Jill Ker was born, her brothers were six and four years of age. She grew up accustomed to the realities of frontier life on an isolated sheep station. She worked alongside her parents, and she competed and played with her brothers. After her older brothers departed for boarding school in Sydney, she often rode horses to work the sheep with her father. These early years fostered a sense of self-reliance unmarked by distinctions between what men and women could achieve.
The power of nature as a force for change became a vivid reality in the life of Jill Ker and her family. Beginning in 1940 and continuing with increasing severity for the following four years, a great drought devastated the territory where Coorain was located. Conway describes the dramatic effects of this natural disaster in the fourth chapter, “Drought.” Their sheep stock was reduced to almost nothing. Most important, her father died trying to repair a pipe to provide some water for the animals. Rejecting the usual practice of widows to sell their property, her mother was fiercely determined to keep Coorain. Eventually, however, she agreed to hire a manager and move to Sydney so that Jill could be properly educated. The train ride from Coorain to Sydney marked the end of Jill Ker’s childhood and the beginning of the confrontation with a different set of expectations for women in the urban post-World War II society of the 1950’s.
Living in the outback, Jill Ker had been educated at home, where she read avidly and learned the hard lessons of surviving on the land. With the abrupt move to Sydney, her primary adjustment was to the social setting of formal schooling. She relates the events of her life during her preparatory education in the fifth and sixth chapters. The family’s uncertain financial situation necessitated several moves in the Sydney area before she was enrolled in Abbotsleigh private school for girls, where she excelled academically in the classical...
(The entire section is 1209 words.)
Conway, Jill Ker, ed. Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women; an Anthology. New York: Random House, 1992. Drawing on her own experience with autobiography, Conway has edited a collection of selections from the memoirs and autobiographies of American women from Jane Addams to Zora Neale Hurston.
Conway, Jill Ker, and Susan C. Borque, eds. The Politics of Women’s Education: Perspectives from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Conway includes the essay “Rethinking the Impact of Women’s Education.”
Conway, Jill Ker, Susan C. Borque, and Joan W. Scott, eds. Learning About Women: Gender, Politics, and Power. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. Contains Conway’s essay on “Politics, Pedagogy, and Gender.”
Dixson, Miriam. The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia 1788 to the Present. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. This book analyzes the circumscribed position of women in Australian society and places these attitudes in historical context.
Hooton, Joy. Stories of Herself When Young: Autobiographies of Childhood by Australian Women. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1990. This book examines the literary tradition of autobiographical writing by Australian women. It contains an extensive bibliography of those autobiographies.
Lees, Stella, and June Senyard. The 1950s: How Australia Became a Modern Society, and Everyone Got a House and Car. Melbourne, Australia: Heyland House, 1987. A re-creation of popular Australian culture at the time that Jill Ker was studying at the University of Sydney.