Former Smith College leader Jill Ker Conway honored for longtime support of humanities

Last modified: Friday, July 26, 2013

After 10 years serving as Smith College’s first woman president beginning in 1975, and a lengthy stint as a visiting professor in the sciences at MIT, Jill Ker Conway decided she wanted to do something that would “reach a larger audience out there.”

She did so by telling the story of her own life.

In three searching memoirs beginning with her best-selling 1989 book, “The Road from Coorain,” Conway — who has a home in Franklin County — explores her childhood in the Australian Outback, her academic career in Canada and the U.S., and her marriage to John J. Conway, a Canadian war hero and historian who taught for years at Harvard University.

John Conway died in 1995 at 79 after suffering a stroke. The couple had no children.

Ker Conway’s books are among the key reasons she was honored recently with a National Humanities Medal. For breaking the mold of traditional stories about women leaders, she was one of 24 scholars, poets, painters, musicians and others awarded medals this year by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The award caps Conway’s long career as a supporter of the humanities in the broadest sense. In selecting her for a medal, the endowment cited not only her work as a women’s history scholar (she holds a Ph.D. from Harvard), author and college administrator, but also her leadership on numerous corporate and nonprofit boards. Among them are Nike, Merrill Lynch, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and locally, the Franklin County Land Trust.

In an interview this week at her summer home on a wooded hillside just over the Conway town line, Conway, 78, described a phone call from the NEH last month letting her know she’d been awarded a medal and asking if she’d be willing to accept it at a July 10 ceremony hosted by President Barack Obama.

“I said ‘yes’,” Conway deadpanned, in an accent that still bears traces of her native Australia.

An article about the award on the endowment’s website said Conway’s autobiographies may be her “deepest legacy” for teaching “countless women and men to practice self-awareness.”

Conway said she was drawn to the genre because of her studies of American women reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I learned there was a convention about how a woman told the story of her life,” she explained. “She took up good works but the crowning experience was meeting and marrying someone.”

In reading letters and other primary sources by women leaders such as Jane Adams, founder of Hull House, and Frances Perkins, who was U.S. secretary of labor under President Franklin Roosevelt, Conway discovered the reality was far more complex.

She vowed to write an account that would offer a more forthright vision and “allow someone to try on another person’s life and learn something from their struggles.”

“The Road from Coorain,” does just that, describing Conway’s lonely childhood at a remote sheep station in Southern Australia, her father’s accidental drowning death and her efforts to pursue an education in a ranching culture steeped in traditional sex roles.

Conway’s later books explore her decision to leave Australia after being denied a training spot in that country’s foreign service by an all-male committee, her tenure as the first female vice president of the University of Toronto and her decade-long role at the helm of Smith, where she expanded offerings in the sciences and athletics and founded scholarship programs for women on welfare.

Among those who say they have been influenced by Conway’s memoirs is Smith’s current president, Kathleen McCartney.

“Those books are extraordinary,” McCartney said. “When you read her writing, you’re almost as affected by the prose as by the ideas. Jill has been a role model for so many of us.”

Conway’s former colleague and fellow historian, Natalie Zemon Davis, said Conway’s books offer readers a new lens on how women become leaders.

“They were honest, sharing the struggles and hopes and achievements,” Davis said. “Her life became exemplary.”

Davis — a Smith graduate who is a professor emerita at Princeton University and an adjunct in history at the University of Toronto — was also awarded a Humanities Medal and attended the White House ceremony with Conway.

In addition to her autobiographies, Conway also penned a mystery in 2000, “Overnight Float,” with Elizabeth Kennan, who was president of Mount Holyoke College from 1978 to 1995.

“We always said, when we get out of this (academia), we will write a murder mystery and kill off all our academic colleagues,” Conway said with a smile.

The NEH praised Conway for exercising a “practical feminism” while at the helm of Smith that supported women’s education, while also encouraging women to pursue studies in the sciences and other fields that at the time were dominated by men.

“We will settle the question of why there are no female Leonardos or Einsteins by simply producing some,” she said in a Gazette article about her inauguration.

That approach also grew out of her studies of American women’s history.

“Until the time that the big schools of engineering were founded in the mid- to late 19th century, women took out as many patents as men,” she noted. “After that, the number dropped off.”

Frequently described as a pioneer for being the first woman to lead Smith, Conway said she didn’t feel any particular burdens in assuming that role.

“I thought it was a lark,” said Conway, who is slim and elegant with short reddish-blond hair and bright blue eyes.

Affordability a mission

An early and outspoken proponent of keeping college affordable, Conway helped found the Ada Comstock scholarship program at Smith for non-traditional students whose education has been interrupted by the need to care for children or hold down a job.

Last year, she launched the Jill Ker Conway Challenge, which has raised more than $3 million from alumnae of the classes of 1976 through 1988 to support scholarships for low-income international students at Smith.

McCartney said Conway has remained connected to Smith over the years and dedicated to the ideal of liberal arts education.

“She has helped ease the false tension between the humanities and the sciences,” McCartney said. “And she’s helped us stay committed at Smith to students learning across all disciplines.”

While the value of a liberal arts degree has been questioned in recent years as the cost of college has skyrocketed, Conway remains convinced of its value.

“I think the old-fashioned notion of being concerned with the human condition and talking about it has come back into fashion” she said, as she balanced a cat on her lap.

Since leaving academia, Conway has been active as a corporate and nonprofit board leader — a role she said has taught her about new ways to support the humanities.

“There are two kinds of corporate entities: One has to make a profit and one has to raise money to invest in solving social and economic problems,” she said. “Both do a lot of good.”

For example, Conway cited an advertising campaign Nike ran a few years ago while she was serving on its board that showed girl athletes under the slogan, “If you’d only let me play.’”

“I think that really turned the balance,” she said.

Locally, Conway has been a longtime supporter of the Franklin County Land Trust. Richard Hubbard, the trust’s executive director, said she was instrumental in helping the 26-year-old group launch its first official capital campaign last year to raise $1 million for an endowment and a building.

“Jill was one of the first people we went to speak with about the capital campaign,” Hubbard said. “She has so many years of experience and is so positive and upbeat. She’s been a wonderful mentor to me and my staff.”

For her part, Conway said she has “always been a greenie,” proudly pointing out the garden she and her husband designed using native plants that require very little water.

“I grew up in Southern Australia, where the land is being destroyed by sharp-hooved animals,” she said. “So I’m interested in conservation.”

In 2011, Conway became head of the board of Community Solutions, a new national nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness. The group is now working in more than 200 communities in the U.S., including Hartford, Conn., and New Orleans.

Conway was drawn by the organization’s mission, which aims to tackle “not shelter, but the question of why people are homeless,” she said.

Rosanne Haggerty, founder of Community Solutions, said in an email message that Conway has been “an exceptional mentor. She is direct and asks hard questions but at the same time is extremely supportive.

“Lots of people talk about taking risks and being innovative but then put obstacles in the way,” Haggerty added. “Jill is just the opposite — she asks demanding questions in order to identify the risks worth taking, then is 100 percent supportive of the effort.”

In September, Conway will be traveling back to Australia, where she still has family, to receive another award that is close to her heart.

Now a U.S. citizen, she recently learned she has been chosen as a member of the Order of Australia, which honors Australians for achievement and meritorious service.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Conway said. “I haven’t had a conventional career.”


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