Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.