The Road from Coorain

The Road from Coorain is first and finally the autobiography of Jill Ker Conway, the first female president of Smith College, though its focus is not upon her presidency but upon her childhood and young adulthood. It is also a study of feminism—its complexities and its challenges—and a book about the cultural history of Conway’s homeland, Australia. This self-portrait, then, not only explores and re- creates one individual’s past but also situates that life story in a larger, complicated context of humanity and history.

In the tradition of autobiographies that employ fictional devices, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) or Lillian Hellman’s several self-portraits, The Road from Coorain opens with a storyteller’s description of the setting. The landscape of New South Wales, Australia, is described in compelling detail, with its plains and their endless horizon, its ever-present red dust, its emus and kangaroos and kookaburras. Conway recalls the bleakness of this world that dwarfs human beings and their lives as a place that defies imagining “a kookaburra feeding St. Jerome or accompanying St. Francis. They belong to a physical and spiritual landscape which is outside the imagination of the Christian West.” They also belong to a landscape that shapes its people into self- reliant, independent individuals, “real men” who learn to reject comfort and emotional expression and women who struggle with isolation and loneliness.

Conway’s mother and father are prototypes of these men and women. Purchasing and committing their lives to a soldier settler’s block of land on the western plains, they called their property Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place.” For Conway’s father, stoic and single-minded in his obsession with the land, Coorain was a dream come true; for Conway’s mother, a nurse who had grown up in a comfortable Queensland urban area, Coorain was a nightmare. For Conway and her brothers Robert and Barry, the early years at Coorain resembled her father’s view, for their lives were idyllic. By 1942, however, when Conway was eight, their lives were changed, and the dream became a nightmare. A severe drought occurred, Conway’s father died in an episode that suggests suicide, and Conway, her brothers, and her mother were cast out from a paradise that, in Conway’s words, “had become literally purgatorial for us.” As they left Coorain for Sydney, Conway recounts her awareness that she would have to serve as her “father’s agent in the family and muster the energy to deal with such further disasters as might befall us.”

Those subsequent disasters were largely familial and mostly related to Conway’s mother, who became both increasingly dependent upon her daughter and increasingly manipulative of her. Conway tried to understand this relationship while dealing with other dilemmas of growing up: finding the right school and friends, dealing with the death of her beloved brother Bob, coming to grips with her sexuality. As she relates the ways in which she learned to reconcile most of her concerns, she considers how her relationship with her mother persisted as a painful conundrum. In her effort to solve this puzzle, she passed through various stages of understanding, including an epiphany she had when reading a Carl Jung essay, “The Positive and Negative Aspects of the Mother Archetype.” She discovered that she and her mother were Demeter and Persephone, and that her mother would be destroyed if she were to lose her daughter. Following her father’s stoic model, she decided to grit her teeth, stop complaining, and devote herself to her mother.

This decision was revoked, however, when Conway recognized that her commitment to her mother, like her commitment to Australia, meant bondage and entrapment. A series of experiences,...

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Form and Content

Jill Ker Conway was born on a sheep ranch in the grasslands of New South Wales, Australia, was educated in Sydney, came to North America to continue her graduate studies in history at Harvard, taught and was an administrator at the University of Toronto, and became president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her autobiography, The Road from Coorain, tells of the beginning of her life journey from her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in Australia until she departed for the United States. This thoughtful look at Conway’s formative years gives insight into the position of women in Australian society during the first half of the twentieth century and her personal struggles in dealing with the expectations of women’s role in this cultural milieu.

The autobiography begins with background about the Australian land and tells how Conway’s parents came to Coorain, the sheep station they owned. She relates events of her life in chronological order. The first four chapters cover her childhood at Coorain through a drought that devastated the sheep ranch and claimed her father’s life. In the fifth and sixth chapters, she and her family try to cope with their loss, their relocation to urban life in Sydney, and Jill Ker’s preparatory school education. The last three chapters relate the turning point of Jill Ker’s self-discovery as she attended the University of Sydney and broadened her horizons during a European tour. The book concludes with her departure for the United States to study at Harvard University.

The narrative of this period of her life serves as a framework for a reflective book that confronts a number of issues. Conway writes with a perceptive eye for detail and an evocative style that captures the characters of both rural and urban Australia. Within this setting, she views the position of women from two perspectives. First, she is constantly aware of opportunities for and limitations on women in Australian culture through the tension in the relationship between herself and her mother. Second, the position of women is paralleled in the subordinate provincial status of Australia to Great Britain and the cultural differences between these two lands. These analytical observations enable Conway’s book to transcend the particular events of her life while at the same time endowing women’s issues with a personal humane dimension.


In many ways, The Road from Coorain is part of a substantial tradition of autobiographical writing by Australian women. Conway’s work, however, has several distinguishing features. First, it excels as a work of literature through the construction of dramatic narrative and a descriptive prose style that makes the setting especially vivid. As a result, this autobiographical account enables readers to relate to the universal character of Conway’s experience, which has been described by Carolyn Heilbrun as “the despair of an ambitious young woman facing a constricted female destiny.” Second, Conway analyzes issues concerning women that she confronted as she grew to maturity. This analytical quality helps to provide an objective evaluation of women’s place in the society in which Conway was raised. The Road from Coorain achieves its impact in women’s studies from this integration of literary and historical features.

As a historian, educator, and writer, Conway has written and edited numerous books and articles on women’s intellectual history and women in education, including The Female Experience in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century America: A Guide to the History of American Women (1982) and Women Reformers and American Culture (1987).