When Jill Ker Conway departed Sydney for Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1960, she knew she “was a woman who wanted to do serious work and have it make a difference.” She has, indeed, in the years since, made a difference as a scholar, a university administrator—in 1975, she became the first woman president of Smith College—and a corporate board member. But her deepest legacy may be in her autobiographical writings. Studies in achieving the examined life, Conway’s books have taught countless women and men to practice self-awareness, to acknowledge their own ambition, and to relish leadership.
So moved have they been, particularly by The Road from Coorain, readers have written to Conway to tell her that the book gave them the courage to change, a sentiment she says is enormously gratifying. Conway hopes her writings will “prompt people to ask themselves questions about their lives and how they are living them.”
In Coorain, Conway’s poignant first memoir of growing up in the outback, she describes leaving Australia “because I didn’t fit in, never had, and wasn’t likely to.” Arriving from a culture where opportunities for aspiring women were rare, Conway found at Harvard a cohort of friends for whom there was no shame in “admitting one wanted to be a great scholar.” Within a “community where everyone was awake,” Conway became a historian, coming of intellectual age just before the study of women’s history became a legitimate area of scholarship. No matter that her discipline was not popular yet, Conway explored the contradictory ways women reformers, such as Jane Addams, presented themselves in public memoirs and private writings. Addams, for instance, had a clear plan to develop Hull-House well before it was established, yet offered up a more emotional and spontaneous view of the process, a romantic style of self-presentation that diminished her own agency in founding the settlement house.
Although there is now no doubt that women can lead, ascribing success to luck rather than effort is something incredibly accomplished women still do, says Conway, who believes “success may have an element that is fortuitous, but the ability to exploit that element of fortune is not, that’s the person.”
Conway’s works—among them The Female Experience in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century America: A Guide to the History of American Women (1982), Learning About Women: Gender, Politics, and Power (1989), with Susan C. Bourque and Joan W. Scott, and When Memory Speaks (1998)—offer insight into the ways women have narrated their lives. She has written that “what makes reading autobiography so appealing is the chance it offers to see how this man or that woman whose public self interests us has negotiated the problem of self-awareness and has broken the internalized code a culture supplies about how life should be experienced.”
The Road from Coorain, True North, and A Woman’s Education, Conway’s own memoirs, are stunningly forthright about loss and tragedy, the life of the mind and love and marriage, ambition and academia. As she uncovers her talents and, more importantly, develops their potential, Conway addresses what it means to be ever evolving. She even takes herself by surprise when she finds, while serving as the first female vice president at the University of Toronto, that she “hadn’t known I liked running things, or that I was a powerful personality.”
In True North she wrote, “it seemed ludicrous that I could be approaching forty and unaware of something so basic about myself and my motivations, especially since I’d made myself a scholarly reputation analyzing a similar lack of awareness in women leaders of an earlier generation.”
With this knowledge, Conway went on to lead Smith. A feminist who saw no reason to ditch the western canon, Conway says she was in the heretical wing of the feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s because she does not subscribe to biologically deterministic definitions of femaleness and maleness, and has always advised women that they could learn from male colleagues.
For ten years at Smith, Conway exercised a practical feminism that brought in funding to research women’s experiences in the humanities, created a scholars program for older women, launched a training program for women executives, and supported mothers on welfare whose Smith educations helped them become lawyers, teachers, and clergy. She pushed for an expansion in the sciences and better athletic facilities because she believed—and still does—that leadership skills can develop by participating in competitive team sports “where you can be beaten over and over again,” then get up and “win the next time.”
In her life’s fourth act, Conway has served as a board member or trustee of a number of organizations, including Nike, Merill Lynch, Colgate-Palmolive, the Kresge Foundation, and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Her latest ventures involve supporting the Franklin Land Trust’s efforts in Massachusetts because “we all have an obligation to the Earth,” and leading the board of directors of Community Solutions. It was launched in 2011 by MacArthur grantee Rosanne Haggerty with a “modest goal—to end homelessness,” says Conway. Although her job is to ensure that the organization is well governed during its startup years, Conway is approaching some aspects of her latest work as a scholar. “We don’t have a language to talk about poor people that dignifies them.” Conway wants to come up with a rhetoric that does. Yet another way to make a difference.
— by Anna Maria Gillis