Jill Ker Conway remembered as modernizing force for Smith

  • Former Smith College president Jill Ker Conway, who died June 1, was remembered Thursday at a memorial service on the Smith campus. FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 10/19/2018 12:24:57 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Friends, loved ones, and admirers of Jill Ker Conway gathered in Helen Hills Hills Chapel on Smith campus on Thursday afternoon to celebrate the life of the first woman president of the college.

“She opened many previously closed doors,” Mary “Pat” McPherson, president emerita of Bryn Mawr College, said of her friend and colleague.

Speaking to a packed room, friends at Thursday’s memorial service remembered Conway, who died at her home in Boston in June at 83, as an innovative feminist scholar who paved the way for women in higher education and business with personality and grace.

Born in Australia and with a doctorate from Harvard, Conway was just 39 when she was appointed Smith College’s first woman president in 1974. In her remarks at Thursday’s service, current Smith president Kathleen McCartney recalled Conway’s vision as she stepped into the role, in an era when the college’s faculty was still mostly men and the coursework mostly Western-focused: “Jill saw Smith as a four-year disruption of unquestioned patriarchy. In writing about her own ambition, her own quest for power, and her own risk-taking, Jill modeled leadership for women as necessary for modern feminism.”

During her tenure, which lasted until 1985, Conway spearheaded the development of several programs that helped the college shed its conservative, antiquated reputation and pushed it toward the more progressive one it holds to this day.

The Ada Comstock program, a scholarship opportunity for women of non-traditional college age, came to fruition under her watch, as did the Project for Women and Social Change, Smith Executive Education, and the women’s studies, comparative literature, and engineering academic programs.

“She created pathways of meaning,” said Camille O’Bryant, a member of the Smith board of trustees.

When O’Bryant was a student, she said, Conway personally helped her in a financial emergency. As colleague and friend Carol T. Christ, who was president of Smith from 2002 to 2013, said: Conway “knew that women’s lives take a different shape than men’s.”

Conway’s vision for Smith led her to be named Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year after the first year of her presidency. At the time, Donna Divine, former professor of Jewish studies and government at Smith, said in her remarks on Thursday, Conway’s ideas sparked “a new pedagogy, all of it accompanied by passion.” She championed scholarship that challenged the old ways of patriarchy and ethnocentrism, Divine said, and “we left no cutting edge smooth.”

After Conway left Smith in 1985, she wrote three memoirs — “The Road From Coorain” (1989), which became a best seller; “True North” (1994); and “A Woman’s Education” (2001) — and edited several other books. She also served on various education and corporate boards, including Nike and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and was, until 2011, a visiting professor at MIT in science, technology and society.

Her continuing mentorship of women in business and education was noted by Deborah Duncan, chairwoman of the Smith board of trustees, who remembers the love she and her fellow students had for Conway: “She showed us a woman could be a leader of a place like Smith.”

In addition to, and perhaps more important than, her mentorship, Conway was a loyal, supportive friend. McPherson recalled the excitement of 1978, the year that each of the Seven Sisters colleges had women presidents for the first time. It was a relief, McPherson said, to attend Seven Sisters meetings with people who actually understood the complexities and realities of each other’s lives.

Laughing, McPherson fondly remembered the poker game she, Conway and their colleagues played after the meetings. As Conway was a legendary fundraiser (she tripled Smith’s endowment during her tenure), McPherson always wagered to win Smith’s endowment.

Conway received more than three dozen honorary degrees from North American and Australian colleges, universities, and women’s organizations, and, in 2013, she was honored with a National Humanities Medal from President Obama.

“She was a quiet force, leading with dignity and grace,” Deborah Duncan said. “Jill embodied Smith’s mission — she was a woman of distinction.”


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