YOU WILL ASK how a genteel girl (her boarding school worked extremely hard with her) from an Australian sheep station turned into a professional scholar and became the first woman president of Smith College.
Jill Ker Conway, the sheep girl turned Smithie, had more than her share of intellectual problems growing up. Living on one of those enormous sheep farms where it never rains ("not a single tree," she said), she had a nuclear family - mother, father, a couple of brothers - when it would have been better, maybe, to have the old time sort of family, with Great Uncle Sion and 92-year-old Cousin Emma Jones in the guest house, etc., etc.
Her brothers were sent off to boarding school at age 7, and her father died soon after she entered her teens.
"One neighbor was 100 miles off, another 120."
It must have been quite different from growing up in the American South, say, where children tend to be surrounded by adults who talk much of the day and all of the night, having perfected their anecdotes and adages over the decades, if not the centuries.
Jill took correspondence school lessons, and then in time was sent off to boarding school, run by the Church of England in Australia.
I gathered, as Conway poured milk in her coffee and brushed off the golden retrievers (amiable animals belonging to her hostess. Virginia Glover, and quite used to taking part in any dis-course) that this elegant school had its work cut out to make a polished person of Jill.
"Their idea was to instill in us a love of the English countryside," she went on. The daffadils, the mist, the moors, the stag in the forest, even perhaps Tristan and Cornwall and the chestnuts of Bushey Park . . .
"I never could quite get it together," she said with the amused good humor that one can afford, once one has been through hell and emerged safely on the other side.
Her landscape was so different. Not even eucalyptus, let alone cedars and tea carts with thick cream. You would not dream of asking, actually, but I am convinced the girl never saw a cow till she went abroad.
But fortunately her mother took her traveling, to Sri Lanka (no shortage of rain there) and a year in England and Europe a few years later.
She hated her good school, of course, but when they finished - one would not say gave up - when she was 16, she was "well on the path" to a scholarly career. There is something - not much, but something - to be said for making nature children into persons of learning.
She is an authority on the history of feminism, and indeed history in general (with American history a special field of hers) is her love.
In Australia she said she had trouble with history, since historians gazed steadily at England and paid little attention to the very historical forces that Conway herself could not help being aware of: the frontier, the urban-rural and agricultural-commercial polarities.
But she found that American history made much of these forces, and promptly fell in love with it. Raised eyebrows notwithstanding, she came to school at Harvard (instead of Cambridge or Oxford) and there she fell in love with her history professor and married him.
So often in life one's course is altered by accidents of love, marriage, etc.
After Harvard they moved to Toronto, where her husband taught.
One thing led to another (she became vice president for internal affairs at the University of Toronto) and in 1974 she became president of Smith. Her husband was imported from Toronto and they live in the president's house at Smith, and he heads the Department of Canadian Studies at the University of Massachusetts (Smith and U. Mass. have extensive swapping of facilities anyway).
Now then, why is Smith not letting young men in like Bennington or Vassar? Now that everybody is liberated, why can't women go to Yale and let it go at that?
President Conway was not born yesterday, and is aware (as some men are not) that some places are more equal than others. Facilities for women (including role models) may not be quite the same at a predominantly male school, even if they let a few girls in, to the dark mutterings of the old boys.
Conway thinks of her years at the sheep station, plugging away at correspondence school. The years at schools in which mathematics and physics (for instance) were male bastions.
It makes a difference to a girl, or a boy, or anybody else, what the perhaps silent expectations are.
If you're a young girl, even today, the taste for mathematics may be thought not so feminine as, say, Byzantine and Persian embroidery of the sixth and eighth centuries.
"At Smith," she said, and some men would have been intimidated, "mathematics is extremely important and popular." She cited the figures, which I see I have blocked, except the recollection they are incredible. Furthermore, vast numbers of Smith women pursue graduate studies in math - entering the realm of creative work. In comparable schools (Conway hesitated only slightly at "comparable") only a mere fraction of the women take mathematics seriously.
And why? Because at Smith it is not thought unfeminie to use the brain rigorously. In a nutshell, a girl does not have to wonder if she's crazy. She sees plenty of quite feminine (code for "sexy") who do not have to ask men what eight times 12 comes to.
Conway may well spend 10 years at Smith, then return to her scholarly work in history.
She greeted a lot of people at a reception Wednesday night at Neiman-Marcus, the department store. How's that for liberation. People spoke of ideas and currents, riding up and down moving stairways among the three floors, each one equipped with platters of pate and first-rate cheeses and things stuffed with other things.
I heard someone speak of Jane Addams (the great founder of Hull House in Chicago in the last century) while taking care not to bump into the display of misses summer dresses (for the ordinary merchandise had not been loced up for the night.) A ship's thermometer encased in brass ($65) might divert one's attention from a display of photographs and memorabilia of women who risked much in their day, being well before their time.
Conway has noted that women over the centuries have been much more active, in business, in politics, than we think, with out short memories back to Victorian times.
Fishwives, she likes to point out, were not called that because they talked like fishwives but because they ran the fish business. And once women dominated the wool trade in England. The market women of Paris were the ones who fetched back the royal family from Versailles during the revolution. (It is only the idealism of males, however offensive it may be that has dreamed up a version of women as innocent gentle, soft-voiced; historically they have been depressingly human.)
Once a woman is free, you can have an awful time getting her back on a pedestal, apparently. The Lord only knows how you keep them down on the farm once they've seen the lights. And yet stridency (outrageous rudeness to men) need not be part of liberation, Conway being a conspicuous charmer. The golden retrievers pronounced her (by their behavior) a regular lamb, and retrievers are not easily fooled.