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Vale Jill Ker Conway

August 5, 2018

Jill Ker Conway, The road from CoorainJust before Mr Gums and I set off for our Arnhem Land holiday in early July, I came across an obituary for the Australian-born academic, educator and writer Jill Ker Conway (1934-2018). She had died on June 1, but I hadn’t heard. Why not? Her first memoir, The road from Coorain, was a best-seller, and I think her second one, True north, was also well received. I’ve read, and enjoyed, them both, but long, long before blogging. Her final memoir, A woman’s education, a slimmer volume, is on my TBR.

Those who know Jill Ker Conway will know why her passing didn’t make big news here. It’s because she made her name in the USA … added to which she was a woman. Or, am I being too paranoid?

So, who was Jill Ker Conway? Well, for a start she was born on a sheep station her parents named Coorain (Aboriginal for “windy place”) in outback New South Wales. Although more often hot, dry and dusty than not, Ker Conway loved it, as she shares in her first memoir.

Now, though, I’ll quickly summarise her career. She was, says Wikipedia, “an Australian-American scholar and author”. She was “well-known” for her autobiographies/memoirs, particularly for The Road from Coorain, but she also made history by becoming the prestigious Smith College‘s first woman president (1975-1985). She made history, of course, because she was its first woman president, but it’s fascinating to me that she was also Australian. She was 40 when appointed to this role, and in her first year was named Time magazine’s “woman of the year”. That’s impressive.

She was, later, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2004, she was named a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project, and in 2013 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. She was, in other words, a bit of a mover-and-shaker!

I have, though, exaggerated the lack of news of her death here. There were some reports, including two in The Sydney Morning Herald. To give you a sense of how she was viewed, here are some of the titles of her obituaries:

Did you notice the odd one out? Yes, the SMH Business section report which identifies her as “chairman and trailblazer”. Chairman? Apparently, in addition to being an educator, academic, author and historian, she was a “business woman”. She was, in fact, “the first female chairman of global property group, Lendlease”. The Sydney Morning Herald says of her business career:

Dr Conway served on the boards of businesses including Merrill Lynch, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive and Lendlease. She was also a former chairman of the American Antiquarian Society.

In 2000 she was appointed as chair of Lendlease at a time when the company needed a firm hand.

Interesting woman eh? For an excellent obituary, do read the SMH National Section one.

She was also one of that wave of Australian intellectuals who left our shores in the 1960s and never really returned, mostly because of the stultifying academic lives they found here. Others included Germaine Greer (1939-), Robert Hughes (1938-2012), Clive James (1939-), not to mention writers like Randolph Stow (1935-2010). They went to England, while Ker Conway made the USA her home.

Ker Conway chronicles exactly why she left Australia in her first two autobiographies/memoirs. It was because she was regularly overlooked for significant jobs – or any job – in favour of men, and because she could not find the sort of intellectual enquiry she sought. Here she is, near the end of The road from Coorain, describing Sydney’s academic circles around 1959, and the group she thought most interesting because they were “iconoclasts, cultural rebels, and radical critics of Australian society”:

When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others. I didn’t know then that I was encountering the standard Australian left view of women, but I could see that the so-called sexual revolution had asymmetrical results.

By the end of True north, she had her Harvard degree in history, and was living with her husband in Toronto when the Smith College job came up. She writes:

I’d been pushed out of Australia by family circumstances [all chronicled in the first memoir], the experience of discrimination, frustration with the culture I was born in. Nothing was pushing me out of this wonderful setting but a cause, and the hope to serve it.

Jill Ker ConwayAnd what was that cause? Well, as she also writes in True north, her main consideration when choosing whether or not to accept Smith College’s offer was “where my work would have the greatest impact on women’s education”. That “impact”, she explains, was not just about numbers. It was about proving that a woman’s institution was not only valid but valid and relevant in a modern world, and about the potential for making it “an intellectual centre for research on women’s lives and women’s issues, research that could have influence far beyond Smith’s lyrical New England campus”. She was there for 10 years, and made her mark.

Ker Conway was, then, a significant woman whose achievements I’ve only touched on. Check the Wikipedia article linked above for more, including a list of her books. Meanwhile, I’m ending with her final words in The road from Coorain, as she’s departing Australia:

Where I wondered would by bones come to rest? It pained me to think of them not fertilising Australian soil. Then I comforted myself with the notion that wherever on the earth was my final resting place, my body would return to the restless red dust of the western plains. I could see how it would blow about and get in people’s eyes, and I was content with that.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s (National section) obituary concludes:

Her love for her two worlds was reflected in her final wishes. Half her ashes will rest in a small private cemetery with John’s, near their beloved house and garden in Massachusetts. The other half are to be scattered by the big tree beside the roadway into the house at Coorain.

How good is that?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2018 8:13 pm

    I hadn’t heard she died. Your post is an excellent tribute to this remarkable woman sadly lost to Australia.

    • August 5, 2018 8:19 pm

      Thanks Pam. I hadn’t seen much about her death – in the media (social or otherwise!) – so I thought we was worth this post. Glad you agree!

  2. August 5, 2018 8:36 pm

    Well, I’d heard about her death, so it must have been reported either at ABC Online or at The Guardian (unlikely to have been Inside Story which I also read regularly).
    I admit that I considered doing an obituary, but it seemed to me that she was more of a scholar and businesswoman than an author… and when I consulted my reading journal I found that my memories of her writing were correct: I didn’t like her books much at all.

    • August 5, 2018 9:01 pm

      Google only brings up a couple of Aussie reports, Lisa, but I only looked through three pages I think. ABC might have had it. I can’t recollect what triggered me to search it out.

      I had some rather negative feelings about parts of Coorain, particularly to do with her mother, but really liked True North. I did like her writing and the description of Coorain itself. It reminded me somewhat of Kate Jennings’ autobiographical novel Snake. I’d like to read Coorain again.

  3. August 5, 2018 10:01 pm

    Yes, my journal records my distaste for what she wrote about her mother… most of us learn to forgive our mothers, in the hope that one day our offspring will also forgive us our flaws too.

    • August 5, 2018 10:11 pm

      Exactly what I thought. Her mother was difficult by the end, but her life had been difficult. I understood Conway’s wanting to get away, but it was the attitude that I found tricky.

      However, that was only one part of the book – and I tell myself that I wasn’t there. There was so much else about the station life, the school life, the university experiences, that I found good reading. And, she was honest. I always admire honesty, even if I don’t agree. I think that’s what makes reading so worthwhile?

      • August 5, 2018 10:36 pm

        I don’t know… I’m not quite so sure that honesty is admirable. I can see that sometimes cruel honesty can teach us something, but sometimes it’s a case of getting back at someone in a way they can’t repudiate. And when I sense that, I feel uncomfortable reading it, as if I were listening to nasty gossip.

        • August 5, 2018 10:52 pm

          Fair point Lisa … there’s a fine line that writers, particularly memoirists, need to tread, isn’t there, between honesty and blandness.

        • August 6, 2018 12:42 pm

          It’s interesting how often the topic comes up at writers’ festivals, but it seems to me that they often defuse it by having a humourist who’s written a tell-all about the family. I’ve never been to one where a reader has talked about the hurt or the family dissension that’s been caused.

        • August 6, 2018 3:18 pm

          I haven’t really seen it discussed much at Festivals, but then I haven’t been to as many festivals as you have. I have seen/read many interviews with authors where they’ve been asked about it.

          And, I have seen it discussed from the family point of view elsewhere, including on my blog where a family commented on an autobiographical novel. (Michael Sala’s first novel if you are interested. It was a very interesting discussion.)

        • August 6, 2018 4:41 pm

          I must get round to reading his book! It was longlisted for the MF wasn’t it?

        • August 6, 2018 8:19 pm

          His second one? Yes it was. His first was shortlisted for several awards, and won the regional section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

  4. August 5, 2018 10:35 pm

    I had never heard of Conway before. Based on your commentary she had such an accomplished life. I would be curious to read her books.

    I did not know that there was such a bad situation with Australian intellectuals in the past. How unfortunate that so many felt the need to leave.

    • August 5, 2018 10:55 pm

      I guess most of her achievements were not, really, in the sorts of areas that make the big news, Brian, though I think The road from Coorain which came out in the mid to late 1980s did well in the USA as well as here.

      Australia was a very conservative place, intellectually, in the 1950s. There were the exceptions but as she points out they didn’t necessarily extend to women! By the time I was at university in the 1970s things had changed quite a bit.

  5. Sara Dowse permalink
    August 6, 2018 5:22 am

    I had no idea. Vale indeed.

  6. August 6, 2018 9:23 am

    A film was made of this, wasn’t it? If so, I remember her being harsh on her mother.

    • August 6, 2018 9:35 am

      Yes, it was. I only noticed a reference to it in my brief research for this post. It was released in 2002. I think my life was too busy with teenagers in high school to even notice it. Her mother did become very demanding, and Jill had carried a huge load since her father died but I would have liked a little more recognition from her, as an adult, of her mother’s situation. I always love to see generosity of spirit – even if she still had to leave home to survive herself. She did, I believe, suffer from depression through her life, and her husband from manic depression.

      • August 6, 2018 11:04 pm

        My impression, from the film, was that she was a bit hard on her mother.

        • August 6, 2018 11:50 pm

          Seems like a few of us have felt that, Guy, from the book or the film.

  7. August 6, 2018 9:41 am

    Read her first book and possibly her second. A great Australian and international citizen and contributor.

    • August 6, 2018 9:42 am

      Thanks David for adding your voice to this tribute. I think you’re right about her contribution.

  8. August 7, 2018 3:58 am

    It’s interesting to read this, especially the exchange between you and Lisa about what she wrote about her mother. I read The Road to Coorain recently and though you’re right, she was horrid about her mother, my take-away was that her mother was amazing to have successfully run the farm so successfully from afar after the war. It did seem she was writing to work through her own “stuff,” as she later wrote a book about writing autobiography. Generally I think the bashing of relatives is tiresome and unbecoming, but it seems I blocked that from my thinking about the book. I do plan to read the next one. https://booklogforcharlotte.com/2018/07/the-road-from-coorain-by-jill-ker-conway/

    • August 7, 2018 7:54 am

      Oh thanks Charlotte for chiming in on this. I’ll read your review. I agree with you, I found it discomforting as I read it, but I also understood it so didn’t feel as negative about the book at Lisa. Just a bit uncomfortable, or, sad perhaps. They were both amazing women and she probably got a lot of who she was from her mother.

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