True North by Jill Ker Conway


Jill Ker Conway’s second autobiographical book follows The Road from Coorain and recounts her experience upon arrival from Australia as a graduate student at Harvard through her time at the University of Toronto. It ends with the beginning of her presidency at Smith College in 1975. She tells the charming, sometimes quite touching stories of her life in this period beginning in 1960. The day after she arrived in New York, she hails a taxi to go to a bank for money.

“Where’re ya from?” the driver asked, eying me in the rearview mirror. Still a little tense about talking to strangers in a city I’d been told was a dangerous place, I said I was from Australia. His face broke into a happy smile. “This your first day in the city?” When I admitted it was he leaned across and turned off the meter. “Well, honey,” he said, “I’m gonna show you Manhattan. I was in Sydney a few times during the war. People were very nice to me there, so I want to pay a bit of it back.”

This was a good omen for beginning her adult life, which was filled with intellectually stimulating friends and colleagues, a happy marriage, and great stories of struggles and joys of life in academia. It’s not that she doesn’t tell of her hard times and the sadness in her life: ¬†she was unable to have children and within two years of marriage her husband had a nearly year-long period of debilitating depression. They had the resources to weather these hard times; it helps if you are in a position to spend your first year of marriage traveling in Europe. I was particularly interested in some of her observations:

She tells about her husband John’s reaction to some aspects of Australia. When he visited the Australia War Memorial in Canberra, he found the glorification of battle in modern warfare on a greater scale than anything he’d seen before. They wondered why there was such a “cult of death,” as they put it, in Australia. “The loss of life in two world wars had been disproportionately high for two generations of Australians…” Perhaps they are right, although I am reminded of my one short visit to England leaving me with the impression that these were a bloodthirsty lot indeed. War memorials should be set to self-destruct after a certain period.

When John remarked on the drink culture in Australia, she said

I explained about the shaping influence of rum as the first colonial currency… and a means of exchange quite natural to a settlement ruled over by the British navy. Then there were the sizable Irish and Scots migrations, the patterns of pastoral settlement requiring single male workers (always prone to binge drinking), and the aggressively male patterns of sociability, found elsewhere perhaps in fraternities or barracks, but central rituals of Australian culture because its patterns had been set by the forced migration of convicts in which men outnumbered women by about six to one.

She proved herself to be a formidable force as an administrator in higher education. Her first action came when she realized that the male junior faculty members in her cohort were paid and promoted ahead of her. She had certainly known this happened to women, but “Now that it was happening to me, my rage was so powerful, it startled me. An icy calm settled on my mind.” She was able to rectify the situation for herself, but once she had this experience, it set her on a path to becoming a high level administrator at the University of Toronto, and eventually the president of Smith.

Jill Ker Conway, True North, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 250 pages. Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.



  • I read this so long ago Charlotte … but I remember finding the development of her feminist “guns” interesting. I had forgotten about her husband’s visit to Australia. I guess I wasn’t aware that we glorify war memorials more than elsewhere? Do we really? There is of course the Imperial War Museum in England, though I haven’t been to it.

    Hmm, then we’ve funded memorials in France haven’t we. Things to think about.

    • The phrase that most mystified me was “cult of death.” Do you feel that is an Australian attribute? While I would be surprised to learn that Australians have more war memorials that other countries, I think the great proportion of war dead from two wars could make an impact.

      What she wrote about women in higher education was very interesting; she did some impressive research.

      • While ANZAC day is becoming bigger and bigger here now it wasn’t I would have thought when she wrote that. I don’t see “cult of death” here. I don’t agree with everything she says, much as I admire her. She wasn’t really fully in touch with Australia I’d say, because she didn’t live here again, but that’s just my opinion.

        • I’m glad to see that you don’t agree with the “cult of death” description. And clearly Australia changed dramatically after 1960 when she left. Yes, she’s an admirable thinker, but of course not always on target.


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