True North: A Memoir


250 pages
ISBN 0-394-28067-9
DDC 378.1'2'092




Reviewed by David Kimmel

David Kimmel is a Ph.D. candidate in history at York University.


Jill Conway is one of the pioneering scholars who taught a course in
women’s history at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, using a
feminist scheme of periodization so that women were no longer “a
simple addition to the male narrative.” Students were required to read
documents that showed women speaking about their own times. Now with
Conway writing about her own life in this second instalment of her
memoirs, history comes full circle.

Conway left her native Australia in 1960 to study at Harvard, married
there, and moved to Canada after four years to teach at the U. of T.
while her husband helped establish York University. Before she departed
11 years later to become president of Smith College, she had risen to
vice-president of her institution and had become so popular as a
historian that hers was one of the most widely consulted doctoral theses
of her generation. She also traveled widely, though she came to regard
Canada as a comfortable homeland. But the “true north” of the title
is not a reference to her adopted country; rather, it suggests the
guidance provided by her thoughtful and cultivated husband through
troubled times. Life wasn’t all success and joy, of course. Conway
also recounts the lows that stemmed from her mother’s abusiveness, her
husband’s psychological problems, the systemic misogyny of the
academy, and her own infertility and self-doubt.

This engaging account of one woman’s experience during the 1960s and
1970s is a text that could be read in any course on women’s history.
As a history of higher education, it is a useful corrective to dry
institutional biographies and the self-serving memoirs of former
university presidents. Conway also describes two endangered species: the
scholar hired directly from graduate school into the tenure stream, and
the well-rounded humanist whose interests extend well beyond her own
discipline and whose energies are spent whether or not the promotions
committee takes notice. True North is a pleasure to read.


Conway, Jill K., “True North: A Memoir,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024,