Thursday , June 17 2021

An intellectual road

In the second volume of the memoirs of Jill Ker Conway, first female president of Smith College, she has just arrived in America. She starts off being perhaps unsurprisingly gushy about Harvard, after Fifties Sydney: “Within weeks I began to see myself as perfectly normal, like all the other lively people around me. These people weren’t the alienated left intellectuals of Australia, or the wistful exiles from Oxbridge I knew in Sydney. They were young, lively and ambitious, and I was like them. (p. 23)

But she does eventually arrive at a more balanced view, especially when one of her housemates is denied the cherished lectureship at Harvard because she is female, despite winning the prize for the best English thesis in her year.

And she has a further rebuff for Harvard’s current, clinging-on-by-his-fingernails, boss, about the perils of being a female grad student, which I know haven’t changed at all:

“Women negotiating this Herculean set of tests encountered another hazard by the mere fact of being female. There was no way to expiate the invitation refused, however gracefully, or the sexual innuendo deliberately misunderstood. A woman’s work had to be just that much better, more theoretically daring, more brilliantly researched to shame naysayers with ulterior motives. As I watched my friends run the course, it was clear that the tenderest male egos were in the sciences, and that those of us who were humanists lived in a world where chances of giving offence were fewer than for those who worked day in and day out in tight-knit laboratory teams.” (p. 31)

With her new husband — married perhaps unsurprisingly just before she was about to have to go back to Australia to confront her terrible mother again (Ker Conway seems a bit short of self-awareness here) she then moves to Canada, which she is determined to find much better than Australia.

She then gets to her research work on American women who pioneered access to tertiary education and the professions, which was later published as The First Generation of American Women Graduates. She writes of her subjects, who include Jane Addams, Florence Kelley and Ellen Gates Starr:

“Every one … had been a rebel, either refusing marriage or insisting on a very unconventional union. They had all founded institutions or professions for women, and … they had all been powerful social critics. … Some were privately conscious of a drive to power. …
In real life their language was pungent, their schedules were enough to daunt a professional athlete, and, for those who worked with them, their force of character was something of primal dimensions.
… but when time came for each of these women to write her memoirs, each presented herself as the ultimate romantic female, all intuition and emotion, tugged by the heartstrings to random encounters with the important causes, which, in reality, this group of women had discovered and led.”

She looked to other periods and found the same pattern. In the 1960s, she says, the explanation she devised was that “the social system operated not merely to repress libido (as Freud thought), but to repress other powerful human feelings, and to prevent them from being brought to consciousness. That would mean that a woman could live her whole life seeking power and influence for the causes she favored, but not be conscious of any but the approved spectrum of emotions allocated her in the patterning of gendered temperaments.”

Later, she says, educated by her own experience, “I also learned that in American society, a woman who does not fit the romantic stereotype of the female has difficulty mustering public support. Then I understood that it was possible my subjects told their story the way they did because they didn’t want to damage the public response to their reforms.” (p. 151-2)

After all of that, how does she describe her entry into public life, as vice-president of the University of Toronto? “Although I thought of myself as a mature professional, with aspirations to make a difference in the scholarly profession in whish I had worked. it had never entered my mind that I had any talent for running things.” (p. 205)

As she takes on the role, “I was startled to discover that I was also a symbol for legions of other women … Without planning to I’d become a public person.” (p. 215)

Again, when she goes to Smith College, it is because a friend nominates her, and so out of politeness she goes to see the “Search Committee”. Then, what do you know, she has the job.

You’d think an academic would see the pattern, but then again maybe I am being too hard on her. Maybe it was her Freudian explanation, maybe it was because even in 1994, when she was writing True North – and maybe still in 2005 – it is unacceptable for a woman to declare ambition, for fear it might harm her cause.

I’ve already posted on how much I identified with the first volume of the memoirs of Ker Conway, here and here.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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