Autobiographical lessons from the education Conway received as the first female president of Smith.
In her When Memory Speaks (1998), Conway observed that “what makes the reading of autobiography so appealing is the chance it offers to see how this man or that woman negotiated the problem of self-awareness and has broken the internalized code a culture supplies about how life should be experienced.” This volume, the third installment of the author’s life (The Road from Coorain, 1989; True North, 1994), centers on the realizations and accomplishments Conway made in her decade (1975–85) at Smith’s helm. Viewing her calling as a “latter-day Christine de Pizan,” Conway sets about building an educational system that opens the doors of intellectual maturity to all women while avoiding the presidential pitfall of losing her autonomy to the institution. Her achievements are impressive. Conway’s inspired vision as a reformer of education not only enabled older women to return to college decades before catering to the nontraditional student came into vogue, but extended financial aid to welfare mothers and greatly expanded athletic programs to women, convincingly refuting the elitist assumption that women, sport, and academic prowess don’t mix. Most of this memoir does not detail the process by which this social historian achieved her goals; rather, it analyzes the psychological and intellectual effects of that experience. One might have hoped for a little more balance between method and meaning, given both the pioneering nature of Conway’s actions and the instructional tone of some of her reflections. Occasionally readers may feel in the midst of a primer for administrators of higher ed—not necessarily a flaw here, but a surprising emphasis for a writer so attuned to the emotional underpinnings of autobiography.
Theoretical generalizations aside, these are engaging scenes from the most public chapter of an accomplished feminist’s life.