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Conway Speaks About Views of Female Body

Former Smith President describes challenges posed by social perceptions


Following in the footsteps of Gloria Steinem, Doris Kerns Goodwin and Gore Vidal, world- renowned scholar of women Dr. Jil Ker Conway spoke on "Studying Women's Lives" for this year's Lowell Lecture last night before a packed crowd in Science Center C.

Conway, on of the most acclaimed woman scholars in the world, began her lecture by prompting the audience--mostly female--to consider perceptions of the female body throughout history.

"We have to understand," she said, "What [women's] culture and society says about the female body."

Maintaining that most people discern the female body in simply medical terms--equating the body with the functions of menopause or menstruation only--she questioned how people have traditionally understood the strengths and weaknesses of women.

Their strength does not always decline with age, she said.

"People perceive women as a fixed energy system," Conway said. "They don't expect women to change and grow positively."

She went on to describe an even more negative conception of women's bodies that persisted through the 1970s. Until then, she said, Western culture portrayed women as having "Weakness and nervous excitability; men needed to protect them from stress."

Much of Conway's scholarship has involved studying the memoirs, letters and diaries of women.

She came to discover that the physiology of women was almost always neglected. In most documents, women did not say "that they were feeling physically strong."

She discovered that women's mention of the physical body in their letters was practically anathema.

One American missionary, Sarah Hall Bordman, traveled to the depths of Burma with to spread the word of God. Even after her husband died, Bordman remained in Burma alone with her baby.

Although she wrote home every day, her letters never mentioned the physical hardship she endured. However, other observers of her work reported that she trekked through rivers filled with alligators with her baby strapped on her back to reach isolated tribes.

Conway said that this neglect of physical feeling was commonplace. "Men are always writing about what they are doing and how their body feels. Women did it, but they just never reported it."

She added, though that only white women seem to be subject to this phenomenon. Black women in America "were the only group that grew up in a culture where they were taught their bodies were theirs," she said.

Women also had a difficult time breaking through physical boundaries, especially for athletic participation.

"The idea of having a body was to be strong in the reproductive sense," Conway said, "It was though that competition would destroy every aspect of the nurturing self."

These discoveries inspired Conway's professional crusade. Even as late as 1975, as Smith College president, she fought the administration to allow students to compete on an intercollegiate level. Before then, the female student body participated only in intramural athletics.

Throughout most of history, women have censored their physical salves, Conway said. According to Conway, women's self-perceptions are swiftly changing; however, there are still inequalities involved with the concept of female embodiment.

"Instead of heroines, we have role models. Only men have heroes, and only women have role models. I think it is time for women to have heroines," she said.

Conway received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1960 and continued to teach at Harvard and the University of Toronto until she became the first woman president of Smith in 1975, where she remained until 1985.

Perhaps most acclaimed for her 1989 autobiography, The Road to Coorain, Conway is now a visiting professor at MIT.

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