Jill Ker Conway

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787

Jill Ker Conway has distinguished herself as an autobiographer, historian, and college and university administrator. Her books, which include historical treatises and her own self-portraits, testify to these multiple roles and to her persistent advocacy for the recognition of women.

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Born Jill Ker in New South Wales, Australia, Conway was shaped by the rugged characteristics of that geographical area—its isolation, its ever-present red dust, its devastating droughts, its bleak landscape, and its haunting wind. In fact, the word “Coorain,” the aboriginal word for “windy place,” was the name the family chose for their property and the title Conway chose for her first autobiographical volume, The Road from Coorain, published in 1989. In that volume, Conway not only explored the geographical territory which shaped her but also examined other factors: her father’s death (apparently a suicide), her mother’s neurotic dependence on her daughter, her brother’s death, her understanding of colonialism, her emerging sense of feminism.

Coming of age for Conway was thus a painful yet liberating experience, and she determined that her life would be better if she left Australia. Following a move to Sydney, Australia, where her intellectual appetite was whetted by the environment of the University of Sydney, Conway applied for and was accepted at Harvard University.

En route to earning a Ph.D. in history at Harvard, Conway discovered what would be the focus of her scholarly and personal lives: American women reformers. Studying the lives and memoirs of Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, and the labor advocate Florence Kelley, among others, Conway chose these women as the subject of her doctoral dissertation in the 1960’s and later of her book Women Reformers and American Culture in 1987.

In addition to discovering her scholarly and personal focus, Conway also learned that a spirit of camaraderie, something she had not known in Australia, was critical to her development. She found this fellowship among the graduate students with whom she studied and among her Harvard history professors, especially John Conway, a Canadian war hero for whom Conway worked. They married in 1962 and then traveled to England, Italy, and Canada, returning to John’s homeland and the opportunity for both Conways to practice their trade as historians.

While Toronto had many of the qualities they both valued—cleanliness, order, civility, adherence to law and tradition—it also precipitated one of the most difficult periods of their lives when John fell ill and was treated with electroshock therapy. The couple survived this challenge, and Jill Ker Conway explored it, as well as her time before and after this challenge, in her second autobiographical volume, True North, published in 1994.

Toronto challenged not only the Conways’ marriage but also Jill Ker Conway’s professionalism. After landing a faculty position teaching nineteenth and twentieth century American history at the University of Toronto, she became the first female vice president of the university. In this administrative role, she learned about the political machinations required of university administrators and discovered that she was both stimulated and frustrated by those machinations, many of which related to feminist ideas and agendas. She decided to pursue a career as a college administrator, becoming the first female president of Smith College in 1975.

Two years later, Conway’s mother died. She dealt with her feelings of grief by immersing herself in her intellectual calling, the study of the history of women in modern society. Among the results were The Female Experience in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century American Culture, Learning About Women, and The Politics of Women’s Education.

In 1985, Conway resigned from the presidency of Smith College to devote herself to writing. She chronicled her own life and collected the works of other women who had published their self-portraits. In Written by Herself, which appeared in 1992, Conway produced an anthology of works by writer Zora Neale Hurston, athlete “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, anthropologist Margaret Mead, singer Marian Anderson, and dozens of other women whom Conway chose because of the strength of their characters and their narratives. In 2001, Conway published a third installment in her ongoing memoir, A Woman’s Education. In it, she describes the pleasures, challenges, and constant surprises of her years as president of Smith College.

In addition to her ongoing relationship with higher education—for example, a visiting professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Conway became involved in multinational corporations, assuming membership on the boards of International Business Machines (IBM), Merrill Lynch, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive, Arthur D. Little, the Kresge Foundation, and others. Conway’s life and works demonstrate that the road from Coorain was at times both challenging and life-threatening but that ultimately it led to worlds of opportunities, including boardrooms where her voice, frequently heard on the written page, could be heard in person.

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