Ladies, feel free to use the f-word.
Feminism is not a bad word, at least according to Jill Ker Conway.
The author of three memoirs about her own life, including the recently published A Woman's Education, about her 10 years, starting in 1975, as the first female president of Smith College, an all-women's liberal-arts institution in Massachusetts, Ker Conway takes a historian's long-range view of the feminist movement and its slide from a peak of militancy in the seventies to the often fractious mess it is today.
"I still call myself a feminist," the prim 68-year-old says calmly, seated over lunch in an uptown Toronto café on a recent visit to address the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, a national non-profit organization, founded in 1985, that ensures the rights of women in Canada.
Neatly dressed in a tweed suit, she offers the cool unflinching gaze of an academic who has thought about her subject matter intensely and come to clean, concrete conclusions. A visiting scholar and professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's program in science, technology, and society, Ker Conway, who lives in Boston, serves on the boards of many leading corporations, including Nike, Merrill Lynch and Colgate-Palmolive. She listens to each question, but you get the sense that before you have finished asking it, she has already pulled her answer from the organized filing cabinet of her mind and is simply waiting for her chance to read it aloud.
"You use the word feminism as though there's some core definition of what a unified gender group wants to achieve," she informs me somewhat sternly. "But it's no more monolithic than fascism, socialism, communism, conservatism. There are many rings and strands in a movement. Feminism is united only about the question of women's place. This notion that [women]should all agree astonishes me."
As for the perceived decline of feminism, she describes it as "a cyclical phenomenon that reaches a peak roughly every three generations. Women's status advances during periods of economic expansion and declines through periods of contraction."
But what about all the contra-feminism books of the past few years, most notably Sylvia Ann Hewlett's controversial Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, that argue the movement has betrayed women in their pursuit of fulfillment?
Ker Conway does not regard the contrasting views about what women want as problematic or even all that new. "The origins of feminism in the 19th century come out of the Enlightenment, which stressed women's rationality and similarity to men," she explains. "And the response to the Enlightenment, which was Romanticism, stressed the importance of emotion and intuition. The feminist movement has always been divided between stressing women's rationality and purposefulness and the Romantic view that the important things are emotional and that women are not just the same as men but in fact better than men because they live this rich emotional life, forgetting about Beethoven or Shakespeare. What I see," she concludes, "is simply oscillation between two poles." All ideologies progress through thesis, antithesis and eventually synthesis, she instructs.
Her memoirs, always designed to be a trilogy, she says, were not an exercise in recreating her past or the result of a pressing need to explain herself. Rather, they are Ker Conway's way of addressing problems she sees in how women tell their stories. She edited a book Written by Herself, Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology,and wrote a book that explores the art of autobiography called When Memory Speaks.
"I have been teaching all of my life, since I was not quite 23," she explains. "And if I'm teaching a bright young man who has all sorts of potential talents, I can pull down dozens of male memoirs -- how I discovered DNA, how I founded General Motors, how I became president of the United States. They're inflated accounts of how that happened, but they're sort of a road map. If I'm counselling a gifted young woman, all I have are these totally misleading accounts that never acknowledge for one second what the person was really doing," she continues, explaining her frustration over "all these wonderful stories [by women]about life on the frontier where no one gets sick, no one has a difficult delivery, no one gets a breast abscess. It must have happened, but it's just never in the story.
"I definitely wanted to create a counter-record to the soppy, sentimental notion of females," she says merrily. "I'm very much opposed to the school of psychology of women, which argues that women don't like taking risks, are not ambitious, are not interested in power, except for relational power, because it doesn't square with my experience. And the problem with intellectual fashion and trends is that if no one creates a counter-record, they're taken at face value. I know from my research on the lives of women in great historical periods that they're huge risk takers, filled with ambition, excited by danger, but all of that is screened out [by many female memoirists]"
Road from Coorain is the poignant story of Ker Conway's journey to intellectual adult life from where she grew up on her parents' sheep farm on 12,000 hectares of dry, windswept Australian outback. She was 7 before she saw another girl her age. She chronicles the hardship of life in that setting with clear-eyed observation.
Educated at a girls' school in Sydney, after her father's death forced her mother to move from the farm, Ker Conway attended the University of Sydney before immigrating to the United States in 1960, where she completed a PhD in history at Harvard University. True North is her recounting of the time she spent in Canada, when her late husband, John Conway, a fellow historian, taught at York University, while she found a teaching position at the University of Toronto, later becoming its vice-president.
She left Canada when she was recruited to head up Smith. She and her husband always supported one another's career needs and alternated about whose should take precedence. Her marriage, she tells me, was just another in a series of rational, strategic decisions she has made in her life.
"I didn't marry until I met a man who was willing from the get-go to support my desire for a separate professional life. People always said to me, 'How lucky you are to have a husband who supports your separate career,' and I always say, 'It wasn't luck.' Young women are trained to think they should marry someone who is a great romantic love. You should really marry someone who respects your working self and creative ability and wants to enter into a relationship where each supports the other. And that's not the romantic story."
A Woman's Education is a truthful look at the difficulties she encountered while at Smith, both with its patriarchal faculty and at home with her husband, whose manic depression, which she first discussed in True North, grew worse. It captures the gritty reality of an ambitious woman whose life was far from perfect.
Smith has an iconic power in the culture and in feminist circles, largely because of its illustrious alumnae, including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Anne Morrow Lindberg. That Ker Conway reveals the reality behind the image is important and long overdue. The only other memoir of Smith, Ivy Days, by Sue Allen Toth, a former student, is a gentle walk through the bucolic days of an undergraduate.
I attended Smith myself in the late seventies, graduating in 1979, at the tail end of what was feminism's most politically vocal decade. It may have seemed preppie and perfect from the outside, but life at Smith was often confusing and stressful, and not just in an academic sense. Questions about sexuality were hotly discussed. Lesbian clubs emerged. There was a group of women who called themselves LUGs, meaning lesbians until graduation. It was also not uncommon to hear of students having affairs with male professors.
Asked why women have still not achieved political power and why the culture bashes female ambition, if unflattering portrayals of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and one-time Republican presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole are anything to go by, Ker Conway again offers a calm, historical analysis. "Look at 19th-century England, France and Germany. If you do away with hereditary social ranking and if you substitute one that's economically driven, males at the bottom of the hierarchy have to have somebody who is subordinate to them in order for them to retain a sense of their definition of maleness. So all democratic societies have disenfranchised women and have deep hostility, as a mass of voters, to women running for political office. It's the societies with remnants of aristocracy -- England, Scandinavia and India -- which are okay with women leaders because there are all sorts of other social hierarchies still at play."
Her idea for a solution?
"Well, there needs to be more women senators, not just one aberrant one, a critical mass, but, at the same time, a little more deconstruction of the male notion of needing someone to dominate." The popular belief that feminism has won many of its important victories is foolish, she says. "The battle," she says, with a piercing glance of her large hazel eyes, "still needs to be fought."