From Australian immigrant to college president: a woman's story

September 25, 1994|By Ann Egerton

By any standard, Jill Ker Conway is a remarkable woman. Teacher, administrator, writer, wife, she is accomplished and, most important, one who encourages and helps others to succeed.

"True North" spans Mrs. Conway's immigration from Australia to Boston to be a graduate student at Harvard, her success as a student, then as a teacher and administrator at Harvard and at the University of Toronto, and her marriage; it is the second part of the continuing memoir of her life.

The first, the best seller "The Road From Coorain," describes her excruciatingly difficult and lonely childhood, first in the desolate outback of Australia, then in Sydney. Its events -- the five-year drought that destroys her family's land, her father's tragic death, her brother's fatal automobile accident and her mother's emotional deterioration -- are not matched, thankfully, by such ghastly occasions in "True North." Indeed, the book ends on a triumphant note as she accepts the presidency of Smith College.

"True North," which both refers to the compass point and to her husband's position as her guide, can stand alone, largely because it is an inspirational tale of a feminist who, through astute and nimble juggling, almost has it all. The writer also has considerable talent for explaining dry, complicated but important topics, such as faculty hiring and university budgets, in terse prose.

The story moves along, from her idyllic early days in America with six other female graduate students, to her romance with and marriage to Harvard history professor John Conway, their travels in Europe and move to Toronto. Mrs. Conway delivers novel comments on her surroundings; on New England: "I found myself constantly puzzling over what it means to live in a society devoted to the pursuit of happiness, managing somehow to hold this pleasure principle in uneasy balance with the Puritan fear of the world, and of earthly beauty."

She is affected by the cold weather of Toronto and describes it through fresh eyes; her description of a snowfall in Montreal is charming. So it seems odd that she, who makes such original observations, falls into using words such as "relish," "zest" and "delectable" with nerve-wracking repetition.

The Conways, while blessed with professional success, must deal with two trials -- her inability to conceive and his manic-depressive episodes. Here again, the reader is faced with unevenness. Mrs. Conway denounces the electric-shock treatments her husband received during his yearlong illness in 1965, yet he is pronounced cured, and his emotional difficulties are rarely mentioned again. One senses that he, 18 years her senior, recedes into the background as she gains prominence and that, as she grows, Jill Conway becomes her own guide.

She has great confidence; one almost feels that she is Wonder Woman as she masters various new skills, such as accounting, in her professional climb; as she co-designs and teaches a popular course on women's history, publishes books on women in American education, becomes the first female vice president at the University of Toronto, resumes running, diagnoses her husband's chronic malaria and becomes a symbol of female success in a heretofore male university environment.

Mrs. Conway's achievements are many and measurable; her flaw seems to be a self-congratulatory manner. It is also a little unsettling to see her leave Australia because a career there was discouraging to women (and because her mother was suffocating her in a battle of wills) and then to see her investigate the presidency of Smith when budgets were dramatically cut at the University of Toronto. To her credit, she admits to being cowardly at the prospect of digging in when facing daunting odds.

While "True North" naturally lacks the innocent appeal of "The Road From Coorain," it is a stimulating and well-told account of the recent history of education and of women's rights.

Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

Title: "True North"

Author: Jill Ker Conway

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Length, price: 250 pages, $23

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