Why say au revoir when adieu will do?

November 25, 1994

What really persuaded Jill Ker Conway to write the first volume of her autobiography was the persistent praise for Crocodile Dundee, the movie that captivated the public with its romantic portrayal of the Australian male and his rough diamond ways.

"I couldn't stand it any longer," she told me. "I knew the kind of lonely, isolated guy who couldn't bond with anyone, but who was treated in this film as the happy embodiment of natural man. I had grown up and worked with and knew these people. They were tragically alienated and lonely."

So when she gave up her job as president of Smith, the elite women's college in Massachussetts that educated Nancy Reagan, Sylvia Plath and a host of other prominent American women, Conway resolved to put the record straight. She spent nine months writing Road from Coorain, which is what she hoped it would be -- an honest account of life in the Australian outback and later in Sydney, but with a woman, her mother, as heroine, and her daughter as narrator. "I deliberately made it a story of a young woman learning through education to decide what shape my life would take," she told an audience in Houston, Texas.

That book catapulted Jill Ker Conway into the bestseller lists in America for more than a year. Today she is feted by academic institutions and companies and described by Lear's magazine as "one of the most admirable women in America". Hollywood is planning to make a movie about her life based on Road from Coorain.

Lyrically written, it is a small masterpiece of isolation and frustrated ambition, the story of intense hardship in the remote grasslands where she grew up, telling of drought, a controlling mother and a society, modelled on the British, that offered few chances for young women, and no chance to pursue the social history that interested her.

But the budding historian got out. She went to Harvard for a PhD, became a noted expert on the education of women, particularly on the experience of women in America, and reached dizzying heights in academic administration, first at the University of Toronto, where she was a vice-president, and then the top job at Smith. This autumn the second volume of her autobiography was published, True North, which picks up where Road from Coorain left off as Conway boarded the plane in September 1960 for Harvard.

Even then, she had come a long way from the childhood on a struggling sheep farm on the dusty plains of western New South Wales. She took to Harvard immediately because it was full of like-minded, lively and ambitious creatures. It was a place where she could finally be herself.

"Americans are enormously interested in abstract thought," she says. "The British are not. Their system is very pragmatic."

She met fellow women graduate students with whom she could communicate. "I'd never lived in a place where I didn't have to censor my words and edit my emotions," she writes. "In Australia, one mustn't offend by being too abstract. Puns based on too much learning would certainly fall flat. Double entendres based on several languages would miss the mark. Admitting that one wanted to be a great scholar, perhaps the best in one's field, just wasn't done."

Bowled over by the friendliness of everyone, she met men who could talk about themselves and their feelings, about ideas, about their responses to beauty. And she fell in love with the Canadian who would later become her husband, John Conway, a cultivated historian and master of one of Harvard's houses. She did not miss Australia a bit. Her acute powers of observation which entranced the reader in Road from Coorain are sharpened in America by the eye of the expatriate. For all the awakening of mind and spirit in Cambridge, she was shocked by the plastic culture of the US, the disposability of everything -- handkerchiefs, napkins, plates, packages -- and the failure to make a cup of tea except with warm water and teabags.

She was perplexed by the pressure to have a date every Saturday night. "Not to want to be paired off in this ludicrous manner meant that one was 'poorly adjusted', having trouble with one's feminine nature, and headed for deep psychological trouble."

But she revelled in the academic challenge. History was taught as though it were a living subject, which shaped today's reality. Conway did very well at Harvard, and such success bred more success. She chose to do her research on Jane Addams, a great American reformer who had fought for higher education for women, a subject close to her heart.

She also began to teach students in the General Education Programme, which provided a crash course in western civilisation. "The first wonderful discovery was that I was obliged to move from a colonial ideal of education, in which the instructor disciplines the student so that he or she measures up to standards externally developed, to a setting in which each student was reviewed as a potential Nobel prize winner, a possible colleague whose talents might one day transform what was regarded as important knowledge. "This made teaching a joy, more like an intellectual form of athletics as distinguished from some parade-ground drill."

Conway makes no bones about her disillusion with Australia and her dislike of Britain, its values and its higher education system. She is, as she writes in her book, a "passionate Anglophobe". When questioned, she agrees her feelings stem from her Australian heritage, from living in the shadow of the British Empire surrounded by people with a colonial mentality. "I really am enormously attracted by medieval England," she told me. "But the very self-satisfied and extremely racist imperial England doesn't attract me at all."

At 60 Jill Ker Conway has lost none of the anger and drive that propelled her out of her native land. All the British have is a sense of superiority derived from the past, she thinks. When she and her husband visited Britain after getting married she found herself, "irked by the inefficiency of English life, the slowness with which things get done, and the easy confidence of all concerned that they lived at the centre of the greatest intellectual community in the world."

She and her husband settled in Canada. He helped to establish a new higher education institution and she worked at the University of Toronto, where she was confronted again with another model of British higher education. The demon had returned to haunt her. "The university sought, not to release an untutored native germ of creativity, but to transmit faithfully the heritage of British learning," she writes.

The Canadians and Australians were trying to imprint on an ignorant population standards of culture derived from elsewhere, she explains. By contrast, the American notion of education is fundamental to a democratic society, its job being to draw out the talents of every man and woman.

In history, the British tradition has been to concentrate on political and constitutional history rather than on how the culture of a country has been shaped by social and existential questions, though that has been changing since the early 1970s.

Specialisation is another of her bugbears. The specialisation of British higher education -- where students study one subject for their undergraduate degree -- is not suitable for mass democracies such as Canada or the United States, she thinks. In North America the task of undergraduate education is to give breadth and to enable students to learn things that have been left out entirely from their secondary schooling. It should give them a sense of their talents and the questions that excite them. That is what Conway set out to do in Canada. With her customary energy, she threw herself into being John's campus wife, a wildly popular history teacher at the University of Toronto and a campaigner for reform. "I would grade papers while dictating the day's grocery order to the store where I would race to pick it up after my three o'clock lecture," she writes.

"Or, dangerous but fortunately never exposed, I would find myself making up shopping lists with one part of my mind (one five-pound standing rib roast, four pounds of new potatoes, three Boston lettuce), while the other functioned apparently smoothly to deliver the lecture of the moment on the causes of the Civil War."

She fought, and won, a personal battle for equal pay, which later became a bigger battle on behalf of all women academics. She supported a successful campaign for day care on campus and she was instrumental in changing the history curriculum. The course she ran with Natalie Davies on the history of women was considered one of the most exciting in the subject. Students brought friends to the tutorials and everyone was fascinated at how history could be created using the records of so-called inarticulate women.

Her appointment as vice-president of internal affairs left her "utterly dumbfounded", she writes. Conway had always thought of herself as a working historian, and had never planned to move into academic administration. But soon she found herself dealing with the issue of rape on campus and student protest.

Conway is a feminist who eschews all hint of man-hating rhetoric. She is also something of a curricular conservative, believing that people need a firm grounding in a single discipline before moving on to interdisciplinary work. This did not endear her to feminists who were campaigning for an instant alternative curriculum.

Her years in Toronto were professionally fulfilling but marred by Ontario's decision to cut back spending for higher education, her personal struggles with her husband's depressive illness and her own private grief at being unable to have children.

True North ends in 1975 as Conway travels south, bound for the presidency of Smith. She resolved to take the job for only ten years, after which she would return to her great loves, studying and writing. She kept that promise to herself. She and John accommodated one another's careers by agreeing that every ten years one of them would choose what he or she wanted to do professionally and the other would cooperate.

Today she is to be found as a visiting scholar and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston where she lives with her husband, now retired. (She became an American citizen, she says, so that she could vote against President Reagan.) She writes each morning from 5.30am to 7am and returns to her computer screen at 10pm to scan her daily outpouring for her next book on the intellectual history of feminism.

The rest of the day is spent on her two other jobs: the MIT work and her directorships of six corporate giants, including Nike, Merrill Lynch, and Colgate-Palmolive, which she takes extremely seriously. Combining scholarship with practical work in the boardroom is not as unusual in America as in Britain.

But one suspects it is rare for an intellectual anywhere in the world to volunteer for such an arduous schedule. Conway is no armchair intellectual. "It is very demanding," she says. "The boards meet monthly and require significant amounts of preparation." Her directorships are another sign of how busy she likes to be, directing her formidable intellect and drive at solving society's problems. She believes in getting her hands dirty, trying to achieve progress within the system rather than waiting for the millennium. "Whenever it's good business for management to be improving their treatment of women, I encourage them to do so," she says.

Conway is responsible for a number of acclaimed books on women, all of which, apart from her autobiographies, are aimed at scholars of American history or at teachers. Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology, for example, contains selections from the writings of 25 women, including black women, women scientists and engineers, artists, reformers and radicals. Like Road from Coorain, it hit the bestseller lists.

She believes there are two distinct categories of autobiographical writing. Men's writing tends towards the heroic epic in which the narrator is tested by challenges and overcomes them. Women, on the other hand, portray themselves as romantic heroines, people who are defined by others, who cannot help what they do and are blown about by emotion or fate.

"Even the most radical reformer absolutely driven by ambition would still describe her life as if she fell in love with the cause and was led to it by destiny rather than by shaping the world around her," says Conway.

Jane Addams, the woman she studied for her PhD was one such. A great manager and campaigner for women, she none the less portrayed herself in her memoirs as the shy youngest daughter who was carried away by the power of emotion, not intellect.

The exceptions are black women who did not have the chance to see their lives in romantic terms because they simply were not romantic. As slaves they were not allowed to marry and they could not keep their children. Their first written stories dealt with freedom and always demonstrated strength, courage and the will to survive.

In Written by Herself Conway rescued many women, including slaves, from obscurity. In her own autobiographical volumes she has tried hard neither to exaggerate nor conceal the extent to which she made things happen. She neither writes her version of The Odyssey nor paints herself in romantic tones.

At the end of Road from Coorain she could have left us with a rosy glow about the joys of Harvard or marriage to John Conway. Instead she closes literally in mid-air, poised on the journey to adulthood. In True North she leaves us on the freeway, returning once again to the US, her adopted country. A new chapter is opening in her life. When will she write it up?

Road from Coorain (Heinneman, 1989) and True North (Random House).

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