Obituaries

Jill Ker Conway, 83, author and first woman to serve as Smith College’s president

Initiatives Dr. Conway pioneered as Smith’s president from 1975 to 1985 continue to open doors for women decades later.
Smith College
Initiatives Dr. Conway pioneered as Smith’s president from 1975 to 1985 continue to open doors for women decades later.

On the road from a childhood herding sheep in the lonely Australian Outback to becoming the first woman to serve as president of Smith College, Jill Ker Conway found that her intellectual gifts matched her personal ambition.

“I had a talent for history,” she told the Globe in 1989, when she published “The Road From Coorain,” the first of her trio of best-selling memoirs, “and the fates were prodding me toward putting it into use.”

Dr. Conway, who was 83 when she died Friday in her Boston home, made use of that academic talent while making history herself.

Advertisement

Along with her groundbreaking role at Smith, she previously served as a vice president at the University of Toronto. Initiatives she pioneered as Smith’s president from 1975 to 1985, meanwhile, continue to open doors for women decades later, and her scholarship, writings, and service on corporate boards were equally innovative.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

None of that might have happened had she not faced gender discrimination when she finished college and was rejected upon trying to enter the foreign service in Australia, where she was born. Years later, she found reports that had termed her “too good looking” and “too intellectually aggressive.” Other assessments predicted “she’d be married within a year,” and “she’d never do for diplomacy.”

In 1960, she left Australia for graduate work at Harvard University, and by age 40 was president of Smith.

“Jill Ker Conway came to Smith at a time when gender roles were being transformed — and there were people here who tried to stand in her way,” said Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s president. “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. From her, I learned to work over, under, around, and through to advance women’s position in the world.”

When Dr. Conway arrived in 1975, the faculty was dominated by men, many of whom resisted the changes she would institute. Smith’s situation was not unique.

Advertisement

“The whole structure of higher education for women was built without any attempt to relate the educated person to the occupational structure of society outside,” she told The New York Times after her appointment as president was announced.

The many changes she instituted included the Ada Comstock Scholars Program for women returning to college past the traditional undergraduate age. Dr. Conway also helped launch what is now the Smith Executive Education Program and the Project on Women and Social Change. In addition, the college expanded course offerings in women’s studies and engineering.

“She knew the world was changing for women and wanted Smith to change so that it could support women in all careers, including business,” McCartney said.

During Dr. Conway’s tenure, Smith’s endowment nearly tripled, to $222 million, according to the college, and capital expansion included renovation of Neilson Library and construction of Ainsworth Gymnasium. These endeavors were possible in no small part to her success as a fund-raiser.

The college established the Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center in 2016, and a decade earlier dedicated the Conway House, Smith’s first residence for Ada Comstock scholars and their families.

Advertisement

In retirement, she was a visiting professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also wrote prolifically — her other two memoirs are “True North” (1994) and “A Woman’s Education” (2001) — and served on the boards of companies including Nike and Merrill Lynch in the United States, and as managing director of Lend Lease Corp. Ltd. in Australia.

When Nike created a committee in 2001 to oversee its labor, environmental, and diversity policies, Dr. Conway was chosen as its leader.

Susan C. Bourque, former provost and dean of the faculty at Smith, said Dr. Conway “was every bit as proud” of her work opening doors for women into corporate leadership as she was of her other endeavors. “I don’t think she ever left a board without it having more women on it than when she arrived.”

President Barack Obama awarded Dr. Conway the National Humanities Medal in 2013, the same year she was named a Companion of the Order of Australia, that country’s highest civic honor.

“She had a very powerful mind and shared it in the most gracious ways,” Bourque said.

The youngest of three siblings, Jill Ker was born in Hillston in the New South Wales state in Australia, a few years after her family started a sheep ranch that covered thousands of acres on a windy desolate plain. The nearest neighbor was 50 miles away, and much of each day was spent on horseback herding sheep.

Her father, William Ker, died when she was 10. The maiden name of her mother, Evelyn, is alternately spelled Adames or A’Dames, and in her memoirs, Dr. Conway often examined the strained relationship between mother and daughter.

In evocative prose that earned readers and fans worldwide, Dr. Conway described the terrain that defined her childhood.

“On the plains, the earth meets the sky in a sharp black line so regular that it seems as though drawn by a creator interested more in geometry than the hills and valleys of the Old Testament,” she wrote in her first memoir. “Human purposes are dwarfed by such a blank horizon.”

Upon learning that her father had drowned in a work accident, “my eyes began to fill with tears,” Dr. Conway wrote. Her mother, however, “looked at me accusingly. ‘Your father wouldn’t want you to cry,’ she said.”

Dr. Conway’s mother then brought her to Sydney, where her education changed from Saturday morning correspondence courses to a formal school.

“I was as intellectually precocious as I was socially inept,” she wrote of those years. Because of her sheep ranch background, “I never understood the unspoken rule which required that one display false modesty and hang back when there was a task to be done.”

She graduated from the University of Sydney, where she took honors courses “because I loved them,” never intending to seek an academic life, she told the Globe in 1975. Instead, she wanted to work as a lawyer or in the foreign service.

Though she graduated first in her class, gender discrimination blocked her path. She recalled that she wasn’t allowed to apprentice “with the kind of firms my male friends were offered,” and she was rejected by what was then Australia’s Department of External Affairs, its foreign service.

Taking a year to travel in Europe, she briefly considered modeling. “I thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll try this,’ ” she said in 1975 with a smile, adding: “I never got a modeling job.”

Returning to the University of Sydney as a graduate student, she became interested in American history and went to Harvard for doctoral studies.

Arriving in September 1960, she found that “in the intellectual community of Cambridge I was taken seriously as a scholar” — a departure from back home. “In Australia, the perception of me was first as a woman, then maybe with a mind.” Her doctoral dissertation was on “Women Reformers and American Culture.”

As part of her work as a teaching fellow at Harvard, she took over a section of a large social science course taught by John J. Conway. They married in 1962. Nearly two decades her senior, John was a history professor and college administrator. He also was a World War II hero whose right hand had been blown off while he was protecting the men in his command.

“The woman who marries a much older man can become a target of the Pygmalion syndrome,” she later wrote. “But I didn’t. I had the good sense to marry a teacher of genius when I still had a lot to learn about the self and work.”

They moved to Toronto in 1964 when he began teaching at York University. At the University of Toronto, she rose from lecturer to become vice president for internal affairs.

Dr. Conway’s husband died, at 79, in 1995. She leaves no immediate survivors.

Smith College said a funeral will be held next Saturday in St. Mark’s Church in Conway, Mass., and that a campus memorial gathering will be announced.

Through much of her career, Dr. Conway’s ambition was driven by the echo of her father’s oft-spoken words: “Do something, Jill. Don’t just put in time on this earth.” Yet she was always known for her impeccable presence, and for her exceedingly polite demeanor.

“As far as personal style goes, you can’t escape your past,” she said with a laugh in a 1988 Globe interview. “Until the day I die, I’m going to look like a nice English lady going to take tea with the vicar.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.