Friday, March 28, 2008

Jill Ker Conway

Yesterday I attended a lecture of the Lancaster Literary Guild. The speaker was noted memoirist and historian Jill Ker Conway. I was mesmerized by her speech which included passages from her best-known work: The Road from Coorain. A native of the Australian Outback, Ms. Ker Conway is a historian and an educator who resides in Massachusetts. The first female president of Smith College, she has studied the memoirs of many women before deciding to write her own. She wanted to present a story that she felt was missing from the culture--that of the ambitious woman. Not that there is a lack of ambitious women, just that women tend to hide that fact. They deny their agency when they give accounts of their lives. Ker Conway also wanted to write a tale with a feminist hero that proved you can talk of female empowerment in a way that does not denigrate men. Indeed, she was surrounded by men in her formative years in Australia's underpopulated interior. Only once a month would she meet up with someone who was not in her immediate family in which Ker Conway was the only girl. Her father was a real man, not some cartoon of the Australian man as in Crocodile Dundee. Though her portrayals of men are sympathetic, don't expect a romance. Her journey is just that---hers. When she does get married (an event that happens in the second installment of her three-book memoirs) she continues to maintain a path of her own making and does not simply join her husband on his.
I have yet to read her memoir. I am currently reading Three Cups of Tea (another blog entry altogether.) But I can't wait. As a writer who has contemplated a children's book in which a female character goes on a hero's journey, I want to find the ways in which gender plays a role in such things as a "life quest." From the bits she has read to us, these are exactly the kinds of themes that Jill Ker Conway plays with in her memoirs. Joseph Campbell, move over. I am about to discover the heroine's journey.

1 comment:

PenUltimate said...

Your blog was a wonderful serendipity for me. I was searching on "Jill Ker Conway" as I am reading "True North" in preparation for my 30th reunion at Smith. If you do the math, you can see she became president my sophomore year. I can't claim to have known her as anything more than another student in the receiving line. But as one with a continuing interest in women's education and its meaning, both for individuals and for civilization and culture, the thing that interests me beyond her scholarly work and career is the contrast in her written and actual presence. When I read "Road from Coorain" 20 years ago, I was astonished at the sheer anger that came off the page (with respect to both her mother and a sexist world), when in person I knew her to be so genteel and soft-spoken. The sharpness continues in "True North." Conway continued to devote herself to the education of women, so the passion shows there, but how she has done this with so gentle a public persona fascinates me. At any rate, I am glad to know she is making the circuit, still speaking and making the case for women's education and self-determination. Good luck with your heroine! ("Three Cups of Tea" is on my list, recommended by alumnae friends at Emma Willard School, my secondary school)