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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...
(The entire section contains 11405 words.)
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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 “Coorain” (Aboriginal for “windy place”), that Conway's parents were to wrest a living. The unceasing struggle against nature—culminating in a disastrous drought that nearly destroyed their sheep station—shaped the author's early perceptions of life.
And her mother's sense of emptiness and impending disaster, persisting long after her husband had died and Coorain was run by hired caretakers, was a weight that Conway labored under until the turning point that ends the book. She decides to leave Australia to pursue an academic career in the United States, which eventually led to the presidency of Smith College.
As the title implies, The Road from Coorain narrates an emergence into adulthood. The early sections, about life in the outback, are full of nature's imagery and a kind of gritty romance. Conway's parents seem the archetypes of pioneering Australians—lean, strong, physically beautiful and morally moored.
In Coorain, this couple found a place to make a life and raise a family. But it was grueling. There was “no way to mitigate the red baked soil, the flatness, and the loneliness,” Conway writes. Her father was stimulated by the challenge. Her mother endured through the strength of her will, disoriented and clinging to the home for bearings.
Conway herself thrived as one of her father's hands. She observed colorful bush characters like the Aborigine who helped with the sheep, the shearers who came around each year to ply their trade, the crusty old driller who finally coaxed enough moisture from the earth to make her mother's garden possible, and the cheerful Scottish neighbor who saw them through hard times. She rode fences, tended the sheep, and tried in vain to get the dogs to work for her as they did for her father. It was a rich childhood.
But it ended with the terrible drought of the early 1940s and her father's death, a probable suicide. She moved with her mother to Sydney, to an alien urban landscape and her first formal schooling after years of at-home tutoring. After being roundly hazed in the public schools, Conway moved on to a private academy that provided her first taste of the scholarly pursuits.
Her tightly bound family sustained another tragedy with the death of her oldest brother in a car accident. Her mother sank into a destructive self-absorption from which she never fully emerged. But Conway knew, as she followed her love of history on to the University of Sydney, that she would have to escape her mother's desperate grip on what remained of her family. Much of the later part of the book is taken up with that struggle, together with accounts of her development as a young woman in a society that offered few openings to talented females.
Conway's reflections on this experience are feminist in tone, but not doctrinaire.
Women will doubtless draw things from this rich narrative, points of familiarity, that men may miss. And many readers will find the Coorain chapters quickly engaging, compared with the later chapters, which are slower going. But as one perceptive person's path through an eventful childhood and adolescence, Conway's book offers universal insights into perseverance and self-discovery.
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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 psychologizing, the trauma of losing her father and oldest brother to death and her mother to frustration and despair, and treats without rancor the development of her feminism. One discovers that stoicism and restraint are part of the Australian temperament to an extent that we Americans, who feel such kinship with our fellow frontier-settlers, may not understand. We look forward to the next set of memoirs from this empathetic scholar.
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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 inspire, to propagandize, to settle scores or justify choices, to secure places in history. The most interesting stories ask, How did I get here from there? When narrative is a process of discovery for the writer, so it can be for the reader.
We read these stories for literary pleasure, entertainment, escape, psychological and social edification. What distinguishes autobiography from other genres is the chance to witness different versions of “real life” and thereby widen our range of compassion.
Autobiography offers the satisfaction of gossip and the promise of role models. Personal examples are particularly useful to women breaking new ground through jobs or private relations or a balance of the two.
Years ago, as an earnest adolescent, I read life stories to learn how to be a good person while my sophisticated best friend was reading other lives in order to become a successful person. Nowadays I suspect we're each more interested in being a whole person. The thread common through these autobiographies is the achievement of this kind of fulfillment.
Conway, herself the author of a best-selling memoir, The Road from Coorain, and a historian of science at MIT, has collected 25 stories spanning more than 150 years. Voices include birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, singer Marian Anderson and journalist Gloria Steinem as well as less celebrated figures such as astronomer Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin and literary scholar Vita Dutton Scudder.
Perhaps the book's most powerful, eloquent piece is the first, Harriet Ann Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs, writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, says, “I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. … I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.” This strong initial section of the anthology also includes inspirational stories by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, opera star Marian Anderson and Inaugural poet Maya Angelou.
Next Conway introduces physicians and scientists who often were isolated in “male” professions. These women came from affluent and/or academic families and were given innovative private schooling. Especially engaging are the stories of early anthropologists Hortense Powdermaker and Margaret Mead.
Powdermaker describes her arrival in the village of Lesu on the southwest Pacific island of New Ireland: “Now I was sitting on my veranda, presumably ready to begin work, yet in a panic. I asked myself again, why am I here alone? … I quickly decided that although I may have been mad, I did not have to remain so. I would go home on the next boat.” That evening, after being visited by a village family, she changes her mind, “I was no longer alone. I had friends. I went to bed and fell asleep almost immediately. No more thoughts of madness or leaving entered my mind. Several years later I learned that a definition of panic is a state of unrelatedness.”
Less satisfactory is the third section, “Arts and Letters,” in which Conway's selections pale in comparison to many of the narratives in this abundant field. Why, for instance, isn't there a contribution by Gertrude Stein, Lillian Hellman, Natalie Barney or Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston? Among the successful pieces here are excerpts from the acclaimed autobiographies of Maxine Hong Kingston and Margaret Bourke-White. Hong Kingston, the lone West Coast contributor, writes movingly about her life in California as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Bourke-White, an adventurous photojournalist, concludes with provocative thoughts on independence: “I have always been glad I cast the die on the side I did. But a woman who lives a roving life must be able to stand alone. She must have emotional security, which is more important even than financial security. There is a richness in a life where you stand on your own feet, although it imposes a certain creed. There must be no demands. Others have the right to be as free as you are. You must be able to take disappointments gallantly. You set your own ground rules, and if you follow them, there are great rewards.”
The “Pioneers and Reformers” in Conway's dramatic final section hold a variety of public occupations including journalist, athlete, political crusader. Social reformer Jane Addams recalls her humbling, enlightening encounter with writer Leo Tolstoy. Methodist preacher Anna Howard Shaw describes her terrifying night journey to speak at a lumber camp: When the wagon driver makes advances she surprises him with a pistol—Hour after hour crawled toward day, and still I sat in the unpierced darkness, the revolver ready. I knew he was inwardly raging, and that at any instant he might make a sudden jump and try to get the revolver away from me. I decided that at his slightest movement I must shoot. But dawn came at last.”
Conway's own writing in this book is disappointing compared to her charming and graceful prose in The Road from Coorain. The introduction, section transitions and biographical sketches are rough and distracted, as if this project had been sandwiched between other, more compelling commitments. Anthologizing is an arduous process, thwarted by the exigencies of research, financial and time constraints in gathering permissions, and the impossibility of achieving an absolutely perfect balance of style and social grouping. Compiling an anthology is yet another autobiographical act—in terms of conscious and unconscious inclusion and exclusion as well as in editorial voice—and Conway seems to focus on the professional lives of these women somewhat at the expense of interesting questions about sexuality, contraception, maternity and friendship.
But in all, Written by Herself is a valuable addition to the shelves of new autobiographical material ranging from the Feminist Press's Cross-Cultural Memoir Series to the University of Wisconsin Press' Studies in American Autobiography. It may encourage readers to go back to the original autobiographies. And it will provide some of us to think about our own journeys—about how, and in what company, we got from there to here.
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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 helpmate. Because of pervasive sexism, not until the late 19th century did American women have access to this dream—minus the helpmate. Even then, it took an extraordinary mixture of talent, imagination, grit, and guts for a woman to succeed.
To illustrate how women attained the once-impossible dream, Conway has selected lengthy excerpts from the exceptionally well-written autobiographies of 25 women trailblazers in civil rights, science and medicine, arts and letters, and social reform. Conway's characterization of the “Pioneers and Reformers,” [in Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women] including Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Babe Zaharias, and Gloria Steinem, applies to most of the autobiographers in this book: “Rebels, high-achieving leaders, individuals of extraordinary energy, possessed from childhood with a drive for adventure, their lives fueled by strong moral purpose” and an “inner urge to achieve.” Together, these autobiographies form an inspiring history of the past century of women's public accomplishments.
“We shall overcome” might have been the motto of any one of these autobiographers in explaining how they surmounted cultural, racial, and especially gender prejudice to succeed on their own terms. Conway appropriately begins this collection of tales of triumph with autobiographies of four black women: Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, Marian Anderson, and Maya Angelou. Unsensationally, unsentimentally they anatomize their “quest for physical and psychological survival” in a world of “racial hostility and male exploitation,” empowered by their mothers and grandmothers, fierce guardian angels all, to find their voices and so to broadcast the message of freedom.
The women scientists and physicians, such as psychologist Margaret Washburn and anthropologist Margaret Mead, were all pioneers in a male establishment, and were thus dependent on men for admission to graduate school, research support, and jobs. Some, such as ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice, were totally excluded and did research on their own—in Nice's case resulting in 250 publications. Others, such as public health pioneer Josephine Baker, remade the establishment as they rewrote the rules—in this case as the dramatically successful director of the New York City Health Department's Division of Child Hygiene.
The autobiographies of writers and artists, including sculptor Janet Scudder, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, and novelists Ellen Glasgow and Maxine Hong Kingston, reveal lives more self-determined and independent, though their work had male champions and promoters. Jane Addams, social reformer at Hull House, and Margaret Sanger, champion of birth control, gave focused—and in Sanger's case, flamboyant—social purpose to their family's money, and enlisted men as well as women in their crusades for maternal and child health. Extraordinary athletic ability enabled Babe Didrikson Zaharias to star in eight Olympic track and field events in 1932, and to pioneer as a champion professional golfer.
These autobiographers have established a legacy for the women—and men—of our own and succeeding generations. Their groundbreaking work has been imaginative, serious, all-consuming, risky—and lots of fun. Their works and lives have transformed the American Dream into an American heritage that includes women as well as men, accomplished, strong, and free.
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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 change. While the two editors of this volume are Americans, both associated with Smith College, almost all the contributors are women academics and activists from these three regions who write in concrete and vivid terms about the historical and contemporary struggles going on in their own societies. This makes for a collection that is remarkably fresh and jargon-free.
One wonders how the particular countries included in the study were chosen and how fully they reflect the contradictions and conflicts that take different form according to the kind of colonization experienced, the characteristics of indigenous culture and social structure, and the pace and nature of economic development. It seems likely the selection was a matter of serendipity, the result of a network of contacts, although there is a nice balancing of regional representation. The lack of a tight comparative structure means that common themes appear to emerge rather naturally and are explored more ingenuously than if they had been imposed by a set of preconceived theoretical structures.
The societies considered present striking contrasts along cultural, economic, and political dimensions—Korea, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan in Asia, Kenya and Zimbabwe in Africa, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil in Latin America. Also included is an article on broad issues of women and education for each region, written by a scholar or professional whose work and life is closely connected to the region, and a piece on the economics of women's schooling. In spite of this diversity, however, many common themes run through the collection. One is that increasing and even equal participation in the educational system per se does not ensure equity in the arenas of employment or family life. Women's struggle for equity in different contexts seems to have brought them to one perception that is widely shared. The challenge they face is not simply how to benefit equally with men from the structures now in place, but rather how to transform them toward greater authenticity and justice in relation to local social, environmental, and cultural needs, and how to adopt a more restrained and equitable vision of long-term economic development than the Western model would suggest. The two areas of education that constantly come to the fore in relation to this vision are the curriculum, and non-formal educational patterns and structures.
In the area of curriculum, the book presents a range of thinking. On one hand is the radical call to create an alternative set of knowledge patterns built on women's traditional understandings of the soil, agriculture, health, and nutrition. Neera Desai's chapter, entitled “Healing the Wounds of Development,” is the most striking and consistent presentation of this approach. On the other hand is the call to recognize and include in school texts the contribution women have made to the mainstream of industrialization, political struggle, and social change, a point made particularly well in In-ho Lee's article on Korea and Fay Chung's on Zimbabwe.
Many chapters note the importance of alternative structures of non-formal education and a more practically oriented curriculum to women's education. There is a strong sense in several chapters that non-formal education should be a kind of starting place for the transformation of formal education structures toward greater authenticity of curricular content and greater relevance in local and national development goals. Although in most of these societies women's rights gained a degree of legal and political recognition at the time of decolonization and nation-building, persisting structural patterns within the formal education and employment system have made it difficult for them to realize the benefits this protection should afford. They are left with a sense that they must begin from the base they have in non-formal education to work toward transforming the system.
Finally, as in the West, women's educational participation tends to be skewed toward humanities and social science fields, rather than toward engineering and natural sciences, which open the way into the best employment opportunities. Even though women do much of the farming in some areas, for example, it is men who are trained in agricultural technology. Several chapters give insight into structures of private provision as against public, community provision as against that of central government, that produce this gender bias by field. Kaburi Kinyanji's chapter on Kenya, and Fulvia Rosemberg's on Brazil are particularly interesting in this regard.
Overall, the two editors are to be congratulated for their efforts in bringing together such a diverse yet coherent set of essays. Their light hand, both in setting the framework for the study and in drawing together some of the threads in introductory and concluding essays, gives the volume grace and credibility.
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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 need wait. no longer. The Road from Coorain continues in True North. This leg in a life's journey begins in 1960 with Conway's arrival in the United States to study American history at Harvard. She describes her transformation from expatriate to one who belongs, from shy, young graduate student to successful teacher and administrator, from a somewhat withdrawn young woman to one capable of true friendship and love.
She entices and transports as she relates new experiences, as in this lyrical description of her flight from Australia to the U.S.: “I spent the long flight gazing out at the stars, watching the moon come around the curve of the earth … watching first the outlines of the Fijian Islands come up ahead and then, many hours later, the glorious white-rimmed, velvety green chain of the Hawaiian Islands …”
The expatriate sees in a way those on the inside never can. A newly arrived graduate student in Cambridge, Conway partakes in the excitement of a great university and warms to the “easy sociability” of the States. But there are aspects of the culture she finds jarring. She is troubled by the disposability of things, and her wondering goes beneath the surface: “If material objects were so easily disposed of … I wondered how the principle operated in human relations, and whether the passions of the heart were … subject to a similar code.”
Slowly, however, North America begins to feel like home. Her experiences at Harvard and later at the University of Toronto, where she moves with her new husband, begin to change and call forth a new self-confidence and an increasing comfort with her own interests and talents. Conway captures the pure joy of study with gifted and dedicated professors. As they encourage her academic interests, her chosen field of research is confirmed: “It dawned on me that I could study the lives of other women and be taken seriously.” Because of her rare abilities and because this was the era in which women's history was just beginning to take off, an uncommon energy infused her teaching. She once overheard one of her students remark to a friend walking to class, “What excites me … is that I'm seeing myself as the subject of history. That means I can change it if I like.”
Academic politics reveals itself clearly, with all its pettiness and jealousy. Yet, as Conway becomes involved in administration at the University of Toronto, she quickly learns to use the system for the benefit of the causes in which she believes—including the advancement of women and daycare for faculty children. In fact, Conway was, by her own description, such an astute academic politician early on that her claim to have been completely surprised by her administrative talent does not quite ring true.
Just as the academic environment in North America encourages Conway's growth as a professional woman her friendships begin to reshape the young woman shaped earlier by the loneliness and sadness of her childhood. A beautiful and telling passage describes how much her diverse group of graduate-student housemates meant to her: We “were like different constellations in the night sky, points of reference, from the configuration of which we could begin to chart our experience free of the internalized presumptions of our native world about what was ‘natural’ and ‘feminine.’
The book is crowded with stories of her friendships—including those with Archibald and Ada MacLeish and Clotilde Marghieri, an Italian writer who questioned the newlywed on her feminist views: “But tell me, Jeel … what are these freedoms you need that you do not have?” Especially, the account of her falling in love with John Conway, a Canadian war hero and Harvard master, and the unfolding of their rich life together elevates the spirit. With her self-described British reserve, Conway draws the picture of her early infatuation in subdued hues, but their passion for one another shines through. Because they are lucky and work hard at it, romantic love turns into something much more durable and radiant. They are life companions in the most profound sense. His “moral integrity and courage” become her compass point, her “true north.” Together, they take on painful family situations (hers), severe depression (his) and professional challenges (theirs). Yet they maintain their independence as well.
This imperative for both intimacy and autonomy in a relationship is one of the lessons in this wonderful book, which also teaches about the integration of public and private spheres and the power of connection with others to shape our lives. It is a testament to the talent of the narrator that the story itself teaches the lessons.
The major flaw of True North is that of its forerunner, The Road from Coorain: The story ends before it should. We know there is more of the Jill Ker Conway story to be told, but we must wait, hopefully, for the next chapter—in this case, the story of her years as president of Smith College.
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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 president of Smith College, writes about in this second volume of her memoirs begun in 1989 with publication of The Road from Coorain, a colorful portrait of the author's childhood in the isolated Australian outback, and her much-misunderstood passion for learning and intellectual achievement.
Like its predecessor, True North touches upon a wide range of experiences, including Conway's strained relationship with her possessive mother, her ambivalence about her national identity, her marriage to an eminently compatible, supportive older man prone to bouts of depression, and her increasing awareness of the gender discrimination practiced, not only by the ignorant, but by members of the educated elite who first seemed to welcome bright women into their ranks.
Conway also writes evocatively of the landscapes and cityscapes she came to call home over the course of her career. From the sunny, brilliant light of her native Australia to the subdued, but no less lovely, wintry tones of the northern regions of North America, she not only offers us vivid word-paintings of her changing surroundings, but also provides insights into the process of adapting to each new place.
Still, the focus of True North, covering the 15-year period between Conway's arrival in America as a graduate student in 1960, and her accepting the presidency of Smith, a women's college in Northampton, Mass., in 1975, is her life in academe, recounted with an appealing blend of enthusiasm and clear-eyed criticism.
Coming from a culture that viewed the love of learning as pretentious, if not downright unbalanced, Conway plunged into her studies at Harvard University with the joy of someone finally finding her lost homeland. She conveys the thrill of working with teachers and students avidly debating questions of free will versus determinism, rationalism versus religion, personal freedom versus civic responsibility.
At the same time, she recalls the immensely dispiriting shock she and her female housemates felt when it became clear that none of them, however well they did at their studies, was likely to be invited to stay on and teach at Harvard alongside their male counterparts: “We didn't adjust our standards of achievement one hair's breadth. Instead, we decided we were pursuing knowledge because it was our calling … our vocation in life, to be pursued regardless of external rewards.”
Conway's future proved to be brighter than she feared. As a teacher and subsequently an administrator at the University of Toronto, however, she was continually confronted with fresh evidence of gender bias.
She had a showdown of her own when a department chairman refused to promote her. Later, as university vice president, she worked to redress inequities throughout the school's employment structure, from faculty to janitorial staff.
As a scholar exploring the lives of women reformers like Jane Addams, Conway got to wondering why these savvy, tough-minded crusaders presented themselves in their writings as innocent, romantic ladies. Were they catering to popular prejudices or did they actually see themselves that way?
The possibility that these women might not have been fully aware of their own motives and capabilities—were unable to see themselves outside the terms of cultural clichés—was Conway's first insight into the need for the much-abused notion of “consciousness-raising.”
What this lively and cogent memoir suggests is that a life spent educating oneself and others can be consciousness-raising in the best sense of the term.
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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 resonant volume of memoirs, True North with an actual journey—her plane ride from her native Australia to New York and, more important, a new life in the United States.
Ultimately, that journey will take her to Boston, Europe, Canada and back to Massachusetts in different roles as graduate student, historian, educator and eventually college president. And although the young Conway sets out determined never to marry, romance will find its way into her life as well.
“Mine wasn't the usual flight of the nestling eagerly flexing newly developing muscles, but a somewhat delayed break for freedom from a suffocating family, from a culture actively hostile to aspiring women, and from the constraints of a still-colonial society,” she writes. When she disembarks in America, she is 25, and the year is 1960. That her brief sightseeing tour of New York has left her with a mere hint of the vistas that lie ahead is something she realizes when she becomes aware that this single city's population is larger than that of the entire Australian continent.
As she quickly settles into her life as a graduate student in the Harvard history department, mostly pleasurable jolts are in store, not least of which are the animated intellectual conversation of her university peers and the unstudied informality of American manners. Most of all, she revels in the newfound friendship of like-minded women, as determined as she to put their careers on an equal footing with any man. Soon the group of talented women with whom she shares graduate student digs are serving multiple roles for each other as support group, gossip network and intellectual roundtable.
Yet the constant shadow of the academy's discrimination against women hangs over them. When Jana announces her engagement, for instance, her thesis adviser denounces her as “a frivolous woman who would never make a committed scientist.” And Barbara's achievement in winning a coveted award for the year's best Ph.D. dissertation in the Harvard English department is clouded by the knowledge that it is, at best, the department's consolation prize for denying her a teaching position at Harvard while offering positions to several of her male colleagues.
Would her future be any different, Jill wonders? Enter history professor John Conway—a 45-year-old bachelor and wounded war veteran from Canada whose battle injuries had caused the amputation of his right hand. It is in his course that Jill Ker begins serving as teaching assistant. Soon their professional interest turns romantic, but their marriage, they both resolve, will be a partnership of equals: “We were not seeking a merging of identities in the romantic mode,” she writes, “but an enhancement of each identity, through access to the other's broader experience.”
Indeed, after an extended honeymoon in Europe—during which time she completes most of her dissertation on American women reformers—they move to Toronto, where he embarks on a new venture in his already distinguished academic career as a master at the newly founded York University, and she begins her first professorial appointment at the neighboring University of Toronto.
Their marriage's first test is not professional, however, but medical. John, always subject to depression, falls into a long hospitalized bout with the disease. Jill's compassion and care are unflagging, but the crisis brings with it a new realization of life's frailty:
“Now I learned first hand the hard lessons of the middle years of life,” she writes. “I was bright. I had boundless energy. I was an excellent manager of time, resources, people. But I was powerless to avert suffering from the person who was the center of my personal universe.”
Nor was she able to stem her grief at learning, at approximately the same time, that she would never be able to bear children. “I wasn't interested in adopting children,” she says flatly. “It wasn't the experience of caring for adorable infants and toddlers I wanted. It was a much more primitive desire to produce the combination of my genetic material and John's.”
Thrusting herself into her work, Conway quickly made a name for herself as a historian specializing in women's roles in American history and culture, women's involvement in American reform movements and women's education. Nor was Conway afraid when it came time to fight the necessary practical battles for equal pay for women on campus, or to speak up on a number of other educational and community issues. Ultimately, the University of Toronto named Conway a vice-president—the first woman there ever awarded a position of that rank.
Conway's thoughts on anything to do with women's history and feminism are fascinating, especially so because her views are not always predictable. For instance, Conway is critical of the idea of separate Women's Studies programs:
“I thought it a basic error in strategy to allow those, almost exclusively women, who wanted to study women's experience to be driven out of the core disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, segregated in a separate underfunded department without sponsors in the expense allocation process of the university, and so swamped with students that their research output could often not be competitive with more traditional faculty,” she asserts.
Further, separate programs were a mistake politically because they “could, and later did, make it possible for embittered and conservative male academics like Allan Bloom in his ‘The Closing of the American Mind,’ to scapegoat feminist scholars, and to blame them for every change in the academy they didn't like, or hoped to persuade others to regard as second rate.”
At the same time, Conway is the strongest advocate possible of single-sex colleges for women. Historically, she writes, co-educational colleges originally included women as “either explicitly … or implicitly secondary to men. That seemed, to me, to be an equally strong theme in the discussions of coeducation at male elite universities in the 1970s. … No one talked about women's intellectual life as the driving purpose of the proposed new coeducational institutions, because women were simply to be added to an ongoing enterprise designed to maximize male talent.”
Given Conway's public and professional history, then, it was only logical for her to be named president of Smith College in 1975. And it was equally in character for her husband to tell her, in the true spirit of equality, “I've had my ten years in Canada. I'll go with you wherever you want to move now. It's your turn.”
Alas, because the current volume ends here, we will have to wait to learn of her subsequent activities. I, for one, declare myself ready to read on. True North is a wonderful book, written with grace and style by a woman of great intelligence, resilience and spunk, someone able not only to confess her sorrows but also to laugh at herself and meet whatever challenges come next. Readers, male and female, will feel that they have found a friend.
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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 intense time for the contemporary women's movement, and a period of striking development and change in Conway's life. The huge amount of material it encompasses is both the strength of the book and its weakness.
Conway's subject is her life and the lives of women who, like her, have had to move beyond their sphere and training to realize their high ambitions. Her thesis, first explored in her doctoral dissertation, is that successful women use direct, complex, well-thought-out methods for achieving their goals, but that when they report on their achievements they often, even habitually, disguise what is likely to be the socially unacceptable sight of their drive and planning, thereby falsifying to other people, and perhaps to themselves, the means of their accomplishments.
Oddly, however, Conway attributes many of the positive turns in her own life to serendipity. She meets and charms one of Canada's greatest philanthropists because she happens to sit next to him at a party; she does not anticipate how timely and popular her choice to center her scholarship on women would be and is surprised at the attention she receives. Adding to the unreality is her representation of people she likes as essentially flawless. They are witty, kind, exceptionally bright, talented, and generous—never the cause of their own, or anyone else's, misfortune. Similarly, Conway's choices are almost always wise, and her conduct is not only irreproachable, but highly admirable. I believe that in her self-portrait, at least, she is accurate—she once took considerable trouble to do a favor for me, a complete stranger—but the unalleviated virtue of her story and her companions left me wondering what enlightenment a fuller rendering of dark times, and especially of the struggle against them, might have given.
Nevertheless, her portraits of the events, settings, and people in her life radiate her own happiness, and yield clear, memorable views. When she arrives in Cambridge to begin her graduate work at Harvard she immediately (and luckily, in her telling) meets women who are to become life-long friends, and with whom she shares a vigorous, secure, intellectual, and emotional life. Before long, she meets her future husband, an erudite, sophisticated scholar and war hero, and after a passionate courtship, marries him. The wedding is romantic and elegant; the year-long working honeymoon is in England and Italy. After that, there are jobs for both of them in Toronto.
In her personal life as an adult, Conway has suffered three major—and on-going—blows. Her husband John suffers from severe depression that at least once required a long hospitalization. Conway says that she marks her maturity from the time when she discovered that despite her great love for him—he is her compass, the “true north” of the title—she could be only a companion, not a cure, for him.
Though she had not wanted to marry until she met John (and says she did not think of marrying him until he asked), once married she did long for children. She was unable to have them, however, because she suffered from endometriosis, so severe that she was wracked with pain each month—pain that Australian doctors had dismissed as psychosomatic, a result of her unmarried, childless state.
Her third serious problem was also an outgrowth, at least in part, of sexism. Conway's mother, an energetic, intelligent woman, wholly admirable in the first half of The Road from Coorain, becomes almost evil—bitter, idle, self-centered, and consumed by a desire to own her children. Though in True North she doesn't succeed in breaking their marriages or careers in her effort to possess Conway and her brother, she'd like to. Grief (at the loss of her husband and son) and perhaps character play a part in the transformation of her personality, but the idle, mannered, often chemically tranquilized conditions of an upper-middle-class woman's life in a conservative society are the great cause of harm to her, and through her, to her family. The contrast between the damage her repressed energy does, and the good Conway's actions do, is the most important lesson of the book.
There are others. When her activities are clearly political, especially when they're conducted to advance her career, Conway tells how she did it in straight-forward, educational terms. When she realizes that she's not being promoted or paid as her male peers at the University of Toronto are, she takes quick and effective steps to gain justice. She stands up for order in student demonstrations, constructs a course on women, learns a compelling extemporaneous lecturing style, helps other women gain support and advance, and becomes an effective administrator through cool thinking, hard work, and clear ethics. Most of the time she gives enough detail so it would be possible to follow her path—if one had her energy and intelligence (and, maybe, a little of her luck).
The book is too brisk, though, to adequately do justice to Conway's thinking or her eye. The many conclusions in True North come too quickly, as if Conway already—and off-stage—has participated in disputatious discussion and is now the only one left talking. In her academic and administrative work, and in the other books she's written for a general audience, Conway's done much good. The observation and instruction in True North are part of that accomplishment, but more, or more open, reflection and introspection would make the worlds she presents to readers more accessible. I hope Conway's future work not only continues the life she writes about in this book, but also enlarges on it.
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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 she do it?
True North tells how. This fine book takes over Jill Ker Conway's personal story from where her beautiful and moving childhood memoir, The Road from Coorain, ended, with her departure from Australia in search of richer academic pastures. This, then, is the second volume of what her readers hope will be an autobiographical trilogy.
Covering her years of high scholarship on the road to Smith, True North is an adventure in academia, cramming its bookish realm with vibrant life. It's a story of striving for headroom in the violently competitive game of graduate studies, theses, orals, instructorships and original research. As a woman contender in the fusty, pipe-smoking academic world of the 1960s and '70s, the author finds herself placed firmly at the soggy end of the playing field. But don't worry about Jill. She's a brilliant competitor and an impeccable scholar, and she enters the fray with a surprising twist of chutzpah garnishing her personality. I guess any kid raised on herding sheep, suffering summer's blistering heat and finally meeting the tragedy of remorseless drought is tough enough to handle Harvard.
So Jill—“product of a small society, tormented by colonial doubts”—storms those ivied walls. She falls in love, first with her courses of graduate study in history, then with John Conway, Canadian war hero and master of one of Harvard's residential houses. After their marriage, the Conways take a year in Europe. She works on her thesis, dealing with the education and growing liberation of American women. John reunites with old friends and contemplates returning to Canada's university life.
In Europe they plot the course of their future. And Jill charmingly and perceptively describes the stops along the way: Oxford in autumn, where she delights in the “exquisite small walled gardens” of Pembroke College, the “pollarded willows turning gold along the banks of the Isis,” schoolboys “with scarlet football jerseys and cheeks to match.” Then there's Paris in winter, when “a light snowfall … etched the Seine's bridges in white.” And on to Rome—minus tourists—where, between winter rains, “it was the sunshine I remembered … sunlight on handsome Italian faces seated at the cafes along the Via Veneto. …” The grand tour ends in Toronto: Jill at the University of Toronto, John at nearby York University. As a historian, the author perceives that Canada's whole nationality still depends on grimly maintaining its differences from the vast and tempting “continental economy” south of the border. The Québecois problem is at this time still only latent.
This life devoted to scholarship comes across as almost too good to be true. That marvelous year of travel; those brilliant dinners with notable intellectuals who are actually close friends; that golden glow of success! Why didn't more of us readers take a stab at academia? One sure answer, made clear in these pages, is that to become a scholar a person must be deeply passionate about scholarship.
However appealing you find Conway's descriptions of cherished European corners, of a weekend with Archibald and Ada MacLeish—“The newest books were on the bedside table. The bell to ring for breakfast was close at hand”—don't merely skim the bits that deal seriously with history and the writing of her thesis. It's love of work that pays the dues to this exclusive Conway club. And the price is obviously heavy. In this book, John Conway enters the hell of depression, and his wife, so often the ebullient pilgrim on her intellectual progress, battles a host of her own personal demons.
One is her mother. Forced from Coorain by drought, she lives in Sydney, and Jill, visiting her, finds her an even more embittered recluse than when she left for America. Partly because of her, and largely because Australia failed miserably to give her the scholastic chances that she craved, Jill Conway seems pretty well alienated from her native country. That's a pity to me. Being one of Australia's sons-in-law, I love it, even its harsh and often tragic outback. There is an intellectual life to be found there, Mrs. Conway—theater, music, poetry, bursting theories and ideas, and strivings for justice and fair play. And despite its new, hugely cosmopolitan society, the old self-effacing sense of humor has survived.
I shan't convince you, I realize. But never mind. Just get on with the third volume of what you do so very well.
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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 readers,” she shows how it involves “censorship for public self-presentation.”
Conway, a former president of Smith College, is herself the author of two acclaimed autobiographies, The Road from Coorain and True North. In this brief history of the genre, she examines why readers like to read about other people's lives and why men and women choose to write their life stories.
To illustrate, she draws on autobiographers ranging from St. Augustine to W. E. B. Du Bois and Lee Iacocca, from pioneer and slave women to Virginia Woolf and Gloria Steinem. In particular, she focuses on ways in which cultural assumptions about gender shape the telling of a life story. She emphasizes the importance of agency—the capacity to act on one's own behalf rather than being acted upon, to actively shape life experiences.
There are, she explains, “archetypal life scripts” for both sexes. For men, the “overarching pattern for life” involves adapting the story of the epic hero in classical antiquity. “Life is an odyssey, a journey through many trials and tests, which the hero must surmount alone through courage, endurance, cunning, and moral strength.” The active voice dominates.
Women, by contrast, fall back on a more romantic view and the passive voice. They portray themselves not as agents but as objects, focusing more on interior life than on action. Yet as Conway notes, “We can be sure that whenever women autobiographers are hiding behind the passive voice and the conditional tense, they are depicting events in which they acted forthrightly upon a preconceived, rational plan.”
This is a wide-ranging book, too random and scattered at times. Still, it surveys a variety of intriguing life stories.
As autobiographers weave their chosen threads of experience—some glittering and strong, others plain and ragged—into the tapestry of a life, they may partially explain their own “I” to themselves and others. In the process, they might also help to illuminate their readers' lives. As Conway observes, “That magical opportunity of entering another life is what really sets us thinking about our own.”
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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 essential reading for anyone interested in women's memoirs. Somehow she has also managed to find time to serve as vice president at the University of Toronto and to spend a decade as president of Smith College. Now she is a visiting professor in M.I.T.'s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. This book opens with a typically provocative question: “Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?” (4), and goes on to reveal a mind thoroughly engaged with a conspectus of theoretical and practical issues at the root of literary self-construction. Indeed, one might see her own experience haunting these reflections, a life in which education offering escape from an Australian sheep station, the mystery of her father's death, and the combination of executive and creative power all merge to provide her point of view. “In a long life as a feminist,” she remarks, “the question I have been asked most frequently is ‘How do you make yourself heard?’ … We're heard when we speak confidently out of our own experience” (180). This principle informs everything she writes.
When Memory Speaks is a structure strung between two chapters like the entrance and exit pillars of a suspension bridge. The opening chapter, “Memory's Plots,” offers the thesis. The skeptical postmodern world, she argues, has lost patience with realist fiction and male history, yet still craves knowledge of “how the world looks from inside another person's experience” (6). Hence the popularity of autobiography. Conway then provides a formalist analysis of the “archetypal life scripts” of Western society and its colonies. Fundamental to this is the notion of life as an odyssey. Achievement is the product of agency, and the material details of the external life become metaphors for the transformation of consciousness “making the journey of initiation the journey of conversion” (7). Thus we have a variety of male “heroes” from St. Augustine (spiritual) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (secular) to Benjamin Franklin (economic), James Joyce (artistic), and Malcolm X (ethnic). This male consciousness of agency is founded on the Western notion of continual “progress,” imaged, particularly in America, by frontier battles with virgin territory. Women's autobiographical writing, however, is different. Although it maintains the form of an odyssey, it generally disavows agency. This tradition begins with theological speculation within closed communities of nuns. Dame Julian of Norwich “possesses a formidable knowledge of Scripture, but it is the vision of God she wants to convey rather than how she feels about it” (12). Such female self-elision developed into the “archetypal form for the bourgeois female history” in the “secularised romance, the life plot linking the erotic quest for the ideal mate with property and social mobility” (13). The visionary encounter with God is replaced by the romantic search for the immaculate male who will “complete” the intrinsically “incomplete” (and by implication “incompetent”) female. Ambition is regarded as unseemly, physical strength (as in frontierswomen's narratives) played down. Even when the woman professional emerged as a “potentially revolutionary social type,” she “told her story as a philanthropic romance” in which success “just happened” to her (15).
The last chapter, “Word and Image,” is an exercise in autobiography. Conway walks out from behind her screen of objective discourse and speaks directly to the reader. That word “agency” which has recurred throughout now takes on a personal dimension. “If we see the past as fully determined,” she writes, “… we see ourselves as victims of those forces, with our best hope a kind of stoic resignation. If we see our past as a moral and spiritual journey in time, our imagined future will continue that quest” (176). Clearly Conway prefers the latter attitude. This is a feminist issue in that female autobiographers are seen all too often to disguise their own agency and to settle instead for a kind of romantic victimhood, while their male counterparts write women out of their lives. It is a (mild) call to arms.
The intervening chapters, then, flesh this out. Conway investigates the images of the secular hero and of the romantic heroine; she looks at the autobiographies of empire; there are two chapters on feminist issues, one on homosexual and transsexual narratives, and one, “Grim Tales,” on the life stories of those from poor and/or dysfunctional families. The usual pattern is to set up a debate between three or four texts to develop the male/female disjunction of the thesis. It is highly selective, concentrating on American women's writing. One would have liked to see how The Book of Job fitted with her ideas about Augustine's Confessions, how recent British autobiographies—Doris Lessing's Under My Skin, Muriel Spark's Curriculum Vitae, Blake Morrison's When Did You Last See Your Father?, John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father, for instance—tallied with her theory. These limitations often nag at the edges of one's consciousness as qualifications of the central idea. But it is a good idea, and the art of a convincing polemicist is precisely the art of rhetorical reduction. The book is well-written, cogently argued. Ultimately it presents its position as subjective and the entire text as another form of autobiography. Quite apart from these virtues, it acts as an excellent introduction to a wide range of reading many of us will either not have encountered or will not have subjected to formal analysis.
Nevertheless, some omissions are more seriously baffling and relate to category confusion. One of the basic questions investigated is: “What constitutes an autobiography?” Where it suits Conway, she is happy to include “fiction” like Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Sometimes it is difficult to tell in her first chapter whether she is speaking of novels or of memoirs. (Becky Sharp is cited as an anti-heroine of male discourse.) Sometimes biographies (of parents) are read as the autobiographies of the children who write them. Conway can justify this with the escape clause of that first sentence: autobiography is fiction rather than documentary history; all history is in some sense fiction. But that basic question is never teased out. If we can use Portrait, why can't we use other autobiographical novels—David Copperfield or The Mill on the Floss? Why can't we use Jane Austen's letters or Fanny Burney's Journals? The clearest omission is surely A Vindication of the Rights of Women. There is nothing on the Brontës. An obvious chapter in a book like this might have examined the relationships between famous writers and their partners, as recorded in their public and private writings: William and Dorothy Wordsworth; William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, P. B. and Mary Shelley; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Virginia and Leonard Woolf; Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen; Joseph and Jessie Conrad; D. H. Lawrence and Jessie Chambers. One could go on. The book seems both to raise the complex issue of the fictional status of autobiography and to back off from it into the safe territory of considering only books published as memoirs which are then read as factual statements.
Lying behind this, there is another problem. Conway's sharp intelligence doesn't help her much when it comes to literary criticism, literary theory, or even to a discussion of the postmodern condition. Large swathes of the book constitute plot summary, which frequently make it read like a collection of reviews or a descriptive bibliography. These “reviews” are vivid rehearsals of the life-stories told but rarely move the argument forward. They are also rather literal-minded and insensitive to linguistic nuance. Sometimes she even repeats a plot summary. There is not much sense, despite the formalist analysis of genre markers, of the debates which have riven post-war cultural analysis: of the ways in which literary language defamiliarizes functional language, of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign, of the sense of endless anteriority which has both plagued and stimulated twentieth-century writers. There has been an explosion of feminist writing engaged with these issues and, for instance, the notion of multiplicity and multiple selves.1 None of it is referred to directly. Much work, for instance, has been done on women's writing of the First World War.2 No mention is made of this. “If postmodernism means anything,” she states, “it's the abandonment of the idea everyone over fifty was raised on—of linear development or universal progress.” Everyone? Over fifty? Doesn't modernism abandon this idea? The implication, itself problematic, is that postmodernism is a post-World War Two phenomenon. Evelyn Waugh denied universal progress in a 1932 radio broadcast, Beckett's Trilogy was begun in that decade. And what about Pirandello, Samuel Butler, Pope, Shakespeare's and Webster's tragedies? Do the countless dystopias count for nothing? Who wrote that life was “nasty, brutish and short”? Conway's title is a version of Nabokov's but Speak, Memory is ignored.
The difficulty here is that the voice behind this text, for all its nods towards the consciousness of ambiguity, is itself decided, as though ambiguity were precisely the condition from which women have suffered throughout the centuries. What we have, then, is a political, attractive, but rather old-fashioned feminist agenda. The women she admires most are those displaying “executive talent” like Jane Addams, and her treatment of Addams is typical (108). Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) obliterates her agency in social reform made plain in her letters and diaries. This is seen to be the lot of women until the late twentieth century: to be “in denial” of their talents, at least in the public male-dominated world, and to see their own decisive actions as unbidden vocation.
It is a convincing, if somewhat simplistic, argument. Conway is happier with the emergence of the unapologetic virago. Emmeline Pankhurst, repulsing the force-feeders in her prison cell by brandishing a heavy earthenware jug above her head, stands like an icon in this book, a Statue of Liberty. And why not? Of course we all cheer as the repulsive doctors and their lackey wardresses scuttle off. Conway, however, seems to find it difficult to sympathize with subtler forms of resistance. No reference is made to French feminism. And, on the American scene, Kate Millet is rejected as passé. “Millet,” she says, “buys the radical feminist view that individualism is a sin, and that what distinguishes women's culture is that women's groups function by consensus, without leaders. The feminist doctrine of the day taught that leadership was a male ego trip which women didn't want or need” (132). True, but there is no mistaking the tone of those words: “doctrine” and “of the day.” It has a whiff of the right-wing. All that cooperative nonsense is behind us, she seems to say. “Motherhood” gets short shrift. She is politely impatient with women like Mabel Dodge Luhan who say that they were “just naturally fluctuating and flowing all the time … in and out of the people I was with” (116). Such an attitude, Conway comments, prefigures “the views of many late-twentieth-century feminist psychologists”—but none of them is named or valorized. Instead, we seem rather to be in the brave new (and now itself rather dated) world of executive power-dressing with female role-models who are decisive.
Ultimately, this power of female decision becomes the essential issue of interpretation. Women's victimhood derives from their failure publicly to acknowledge their agency. Their writings are thus often in the passive voice. Motherhood is not “agency”; women who fall hopelessly in love—especially with their fathers as in Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss (1997)—are passive victims. The act of autobiography is an intervention, particularly for women, in that the writer can reimagine the past and create a future. In short, the ideology here is founded on the notion of “progress” and fixed determinants, and appears to be opposed to the postmodern view of the world. Conway believes there to be a moral imperative to rewrite inherited narratives and to accentuate the positive. One admires the use of experience to “reject out of hand the notion of female passivity and the lack of intellectual drive” (177). At the same time, however, so many of the generalized extrapolations would have left George Eliot (not to mention Angela Carter and Beckett) gasping with incredulity.
The whole point of Harrison's remarkable book is that it does acknowledge agency in an incestuous relationship. Conway can't ignore this, but she patronizes her subject by insisting that she was a victim, just as she suggests that most of the other powerful women cited here were (unknown to themselves) also victims. It is not just agency that matters but acknowledgment of agency. Without this, Conway says, it is almost impossible to reason about the morality of one's actions (179). Is it? Aren't there more ways than one to intervene in, or ignore, male discourse? Is moral reasoning the prerogative only of Conway's style of feminism? Wouldn't a lot of women say of her that she is, like Margaret Thatcher, imitating male systems of power? This is a stimulating book and it is a pleasure to read something driven by firmly held beliefs, but it might have been a better argument if it had tried to answer some of the questions it provokes. What she admires most is the “drive to improve the moment” epitomized by Benjamin Franklin (183). It is a log cabin-to-capitalist independence story for every life, with the good psychiatrist as its secular hero.
See, for example, Smith and Anderson.
See, for example, Tylee and Ouditt.
Anderson, Linda. Women and Autobiography in the Twentieth Century. New York: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997.
Ouditt, Sharon. Fighting Forces, Writing Women. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Smith, Sidonie. Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women's Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
Tylee, Clare M. The Great War and Women's Consciousness: Images of Militarism and Womanhood. New York: Macmillan, 1990.
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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 nonspecialists can comprehend.
Despite the familiarity of many of the texts Conway discusses, her concise readings are always insightful. Over all, she finds more constancy than change in the genre's common forms—for example, the quest, the romance, the odyssey. Thus the story of the epic hero in classical antiquity is inscribed in later periods as a Napoleonic hero, a self-made economic man, a working-class rebel, a utopian socialist hero, an imperialist adventurer. Less able to express an active, self-magnifying heroism, women across the generations create romantic narratives framing personal relationships or self-sacrificing quests; even pioneering professional women write autobiographies of “philanthropic romance.” Despite the perceptive linkages Conway makes across time, however, the “archetypal life scripts” that she sees as the core of all autobiography—a heroic myth for men and a romantic myth for women—remain too schematic to stand as explanatory frameworks for the vast historical and literary territory covered.
Few autobiographies fall outside the parameters Conway establishes. Her chapters on “feminist plots” and “assertive women,” for example, are filled with descriptions of heroines who succumb to the allure of the romantic plot. This is as true of early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Margaret Sanger as it is for contemporary strong women such as Katharine Graham and Gloria Steinem; each denies the personal agency demonstrated in her own life and in artifacts written for private rather than public consumption. The problem is less a failure of imagination than a desire to craft narratives that advance a political cause or resonate with popular stereotypes.
Conway minimizes the extent to which the most compelling autobiographies express internal contradictions that subvert the cultural messages they embody. Despite a concern with the passive voice as a reflection of authorial confusion over agency, she cares less about narrative strategies than about culturally scripted myths. Yet it is the blend of unique narrative voice and revealed social-historical patterns that renders the best autobiographies so useful as windows to their times.
Conway ends her book with a story about her father's premature death, which made her aware that she and he shared a similar medical history; this revelation proved to her “how much history matters.” History—as autobiography—matters because we need personal links to the past that we can trace through family, local, regional, national, and ethnic patterns. History also matters because autobiographical narratives take the shape that their culture provides and in turn shape possibilities for future generations. But autobiography remains a hybrid that joins historical identity to a more constructed self that emerges from the creative imagination, a reading that Conway acknowledges at times when she describes autobiography as “fiction” as well as a reflection of cultural history.