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A Life in Academia, Fighting Gender Bias

ONE widely held perception that has long puzzled me is the assumption that academia is the last place a writer should look for interesting material. Certainly, Jill Ker Conway's account of her own academic career, set forth with admirable clarity and elan in ``True North: A Memoir,'' should do a lot to dispel this popular misconception.

Academia is not all that Conway, a former president of Smith College, writes about in this second volume of her memoirs begun in 1989 with publication of ``The Road from Coorain,'' a colorful portrait of the author's childhood in the isolated Australian outback, and her much-misunderstood passion for learning and intellectual achievement.

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Like its predecessor, ``True North'' touches upon a wide range of experiences, including Conway's strained relationship with her possessive mother, her ambivalence about her national identity, her marriage to an eminently compatible, supportive older man prone to bouts of depression, and her increasing awareness of the gender discrimination practiced, not only by the ignorant, but by members of the educated elite who first seemed to welcome bright women into their ranks.

CONWAY also writes evocatively of the landscapes and cityscapes she came to call home over the course of her career. From the sunny, brilliant light of her native Australia to the subdued, but no less lovely, wintry tones of the northern regions of North America, she not only offers us vivid word-paintings of her changing surroundings, but also provides insights into the process of adapting to each new place.

Still, the focus of ``True North,'' covering the 15-year period between Conway's arrival in America as a graduate student in 1960, and her accepting the presidency of Smith, a women's college in Northampton, Mass., in 1975, is her life in academe, recounted with an appealing blend of enthusiasm and clear-eyed criticism.

Coming from a culture that viewed the love of learning as pretentious, if not downright unbalanced, Conway plunged into her studies at Harvard University with the joy of someone finally finding her lost homeland. She conveys the thrill of working with teachers and students avidly debating questions of free will versus determinism, rationalism versus religion, personal freedom versus civic responsibility.

At the same time, she recalls the immensely dispiriting shock she and her female housemates felt when it became clear that none of them, however well they did at their studies, was likely to be invited to stay on and teach at Harvard alongside their male counterparts: ``We didn't adjust our standards of achievement one hair's breadth. Instead, we decided we were pursuing knowledge because it was our calling ... our vocation in life, to be pursued regardless of external rewards.''

Conway's future proved to be brighter than she feared. As a teacher and subsequently an administrator at the University of Toronto, however, she was continually confronted with fresh evidence of gender bias.

She had a showdown of her own when a department chairman refused to promote her. Later, as university vice president, she worked to redress inequities throughout the school's employment structure, from faculty to janitorial staff.

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As a scholar exploring the lives of women reformers like Jane Addams, Conway got to wondering why these savvy, tough-minded crusaders presented themselves in their writings as innocent, romantic ladies. Were they catering to popular prejudices or did they actually see themselves that way?

The possibility that these women might not have been fully aware of their own motives and capabilities - were unable to see themselves outside the terms of cultural cliches - was Conway's first insight into the need for the much-abused notion of ``consciousness-raising.''

What this lively and cogent memoir suggests is that a life spent educating oneself and others can be consciousness-raising in the best sense of the term.

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