Jill Ker Conway, 1934-2018

Tributes paid to pioneering historian who served as first female president of Smith College

June 21, 2018
Jill Ker Conway, 1934-2018

An acclaimed scholar and author who served as the first female president of Smith College has died.

Jill Ker Conway was born in New South Wales, Australia, in October 1934 and grew up on an isolated sheep ranch. She studied history and English at the University of Sydney (1958) and moved to the United States in 1960, securing a PhD from Harvard University in 1969. An expert on female reformers in the US, she was appointed professor of US social and intellectual history at the University of Toronto in 1971 and went on to serve as vice-president for internal affairs. She moved back to the US to become president of Smith – the women’s liberal arts college, based in Northampton, Massachusetts – from 1975 to 1985.

In her inaugural address at Smith, Professor Conway spoke of fostering “research and the creation of new knowledge around matters of central importance in women’s lives”. Her own scholarly work included Modern Feminism: An Intellectual History (1977), Utopian Dream or Dystopian Nightmare?: Nineteenth-Century Feminist Ideas about Equality (1987) and a series of anthologies of autobiographical writing by women.

A highly effective fundraiser, Professor Conway used her time at Smith to develop bold new programmes in management, women’s studies, comparative literature and engineering as well as the Ada Comstock Scholars Program for “women of non-traditional college age”. She also oversaw a number of major infrastructural projects, transforming the Neilson library and creating far more extensive sports facilities.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s current president, described Professor Conway as “groundbreaking and gracious”, a woman who “came to Smith when gender roles were being transformed – and there were people here who tried to stand in her way. But at a time when the academy didn’t see women as college presidents – or as leaders at all – she demonstrated a leadership that was innovative and effective.”

After leaving Smith in 1985, Professor Conway became a visiting professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Program in Science, Technology and Society. She devoted much of her time to environmental causes and to addressing the problems of homelessness. She also wrote a series of acclaimed memoirs, The Road From Coorain (1989), True North (1995) and A Woman’s Education (2001), the last devoted to her time at Smith. All were notable, she once said, for exploring “what women were not supposed to acknowledge – ambition, love of adventure, the quest for intellectual power, physical courage and endurance, risk-taking, [and] the negative aspects of mother-daughter relations”.

Professor Conway was honoured with a National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2013. She died on 1 June and was predeceased by her husband.


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