Jill Ker Conway died this summer, on June 1. Obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Canada’s Globe and Mail and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald followed a few days later, all struggling to capture the essentials of a life and mind that defied categorization.
An historian of American feminism and the first female vice president of the University of Toronto, Conway was little known outside academic circles until her appointment as the president of Smith College in 1975. Following the successes of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement had made important strides, as formerly all-male Ivy League institutions and male liberal arts institutions had either begun to admit women or were in the process of doing so. Where would that leave women’s colleges — and the storied women’s liberal arts college Smith, in particular? What role might they play? Surely, their survival dictated going coed.
The appointment of a woman — the first in the Smith’s history and a feminist at that — almost 100 years to the day after the college admitted its first students, challenged that easy assumption and made national headlines. Time magazine would name Conway, together with Barbara Bush, a “Woman of the Year.”
Conway insisted that men and women should have equal access to any education and career, given their equal intellectual gifts and the strength of women’s bodies. Her argument was not just moral but also pragmatic: our society could not afford to squander the minds and skills of half its members. Smith College should support women at all stages of their lives. Further, it was not enough that a woman received an education equal to that of any man. The institution must undertake in the curriculum to address the existential questions that women encounter when social expectations deprive them of opportunity or push them in directions at odds with realizing their full potential.
Smith’s students and alumnae greeted her appointment with unalloyed joy. But Smith’s senior, mostly male, faculty members did not. They were comfortable teaching the canon, and the only acceptable change for many would have been to go coed. They made things quite difficult for Conway. But over the course of a decade, with the support of a handful of mostly junior faculty (the leader of whom, Susan Bourque, would many years later become Smith’s provost), foundations, her board and various allies in the Five Colleges (including her close friend, Mount Holyoke’s president Elizabeth Kennan), she outflanked the old guard. When she decided to leave Smith in 1985, she left a profoundly changed institution.
As with the other big decisions she took, relinquishing the presidency of Smith was a considered step, followed by a leap into the unknown. She wrote that she did not want to land in an academic program or department. Studying other people’s texts no longer satisfied her; she wanted to write her own. And that is what she did, both figuratively and literally.
Figuratively, she seemed determined to explore the range of careers that opened up to her as a result of her presidency of Smith — a reaction, perhaps, to her early experience of being closed out of governmental and other nonacademic careers in her native Australia. She became a businesswoman. She explored corporate governance, serving nearly 30 years each on the boards of Nike and Merrill-Lynch. She also founded a nonprofit and served on many nonprofit and educational boards.
Literally, she wrote text. After leaving Smith, she would produce three beautifully written memoirs that sketched the details of her first 50 years. Those works amplified her fame. The first, the bestselling Road from Coorain, told the story of her early childhood on a remote farm in the Australian outback, growing up homeschooled in virtual isolation. She was sent to boarding school at age 10 after the sudden, unexpected death of her father. She blazed through undergraduate studies at the University of Sydney.
The second, True North, details the phase of her life that begins with her decision to move to the United States: “I’d arrived at the choice by exhausting all the possibilities of interesting careers in Australia discovering, one by one, that they were not open to women.” She would ultimately receive her Ph.D. in history from Harvard University for her work on feminism in American history. There, she and John Conway, charismatic Harvard professor and decorated Canadian war veteran, fell passionately in love. Over family objections about the age disparity between them, they married and moved to Toronto. Jill Conway taught at the University of Toronto, where she quickly became professor, then dean, then first female vice president of the university.
Her third memoir, A Woman’s Education, sketches the decade beginning with her 40th birthday in 1975, when the couple returned to Massachusetts so that she could assume the presidency of Smith.
Her memoirs brought her even more fame. Deservedly.
They are well worth rereading today, and not just because of the beauty of the writing and the subtlety of Conway’s thought. She did more than write her own text. In fact, after writing her first two memoirs, she wrote When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography, a book about the literal act of writing one’s own text. In that book, she explores why autobiography is the most popular form of fiction for modern readers, and how society and culture context shape not just options but also how one thinks of those options and one’s life. She examines how that plays out differently for men and for women of different races, writing in different times and societies, and notes, “So we should read feminist memoirs as conscious acts of rebellion.”
Reading any of Conway’s memoirs, especially A Women’s Education, as an act of rebellion has much to say about higher education today. Her insistence that Smith truly welcome all women and honestly prepare them for the world they would encounter outside the college challenges all educators to think through how that translates for our own students, and her experiences changing Smith offer us a model for institutional change. She reminds us that the marginalization of women or any group, and the closure of careers to them, harms everyone. Lastly, her writing teaches us that power resides not just in what you say, but how you say it.