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Conway, Jill Ker (1934–) - U.S. History, Autobiography

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Jill Ker Conway was born October 9, 1934, to William Innis Ker and Evelyn Mary (Adames) Ker in New South Wales, Australia. Historians and general readers both are familiar with her childhood story, which she recounted in her best-selling autobiography, The Road from Coorain . In the book she recalls growing up on Coorain, a sheep station named by the aboriginal people of Australia to mean “windy place.” Her father, of Scottish descent, raised thousands of sheep on this land granted to him as a veteran of World War I. Her mother, of English descent, was a trained nurse and a “modern feminist,” according to her daughter, who made of their isolated outback ranch a comfortable and charming home.

After five years of drought on the sheep farm, her family faced despair. When Conway was eleven years old, her father drowned, either by accident or by suicide, and she and her mother moved to Sydney. Since she had learned to value education, “a gift beyond price” on a chore-filled farm, Conway excelled in her first school experience, a private girls’ school in Sydney. Her academic success, however, did not bring social success. “My family and school friends agreed that I was ‘brainy,’” she later wrote. “This was a bad thing to be in Australia. People distrusted intellectuals.”

At the end of her first full year of study at the University of Sydney, which she attended holding a Commonwealth Scholarship, Jill Ker Conway led her class in history. She became interested in the history of Australia, which had been fairly neglected. Because of her interest in Australia’s role in postwar international politics, she, along with two male friends, applied for admission to the Australian Department of External Affairs as a trainee. Of the three equally qualified candidates, the two men were accepted; Conway was not. She was, she learned, “too good looking” for the job. “This one blow of fate,” she recalled in her autobiography, “made me identify with other women and prompted me, long before it was fashionable to do so, to try to understand their lives.”

Jill Ker Conway graduated from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s degree and a University Medal in 1958; she returned there for a master’s degree in Australian history, and then left Australia to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard University; she earned the degree in 1969. Conway’s first academic job was at the University of Toronto, where she moved up the ranks to associate professor. She also served as the university’s first vice president for internal affairs.

Much of Conway’s scholarship has focused on women’s lives. Her dissertation, later published, was The First Generation of American Women Graduates . Another of her interests, mythic images, led to a series of lectures on myths and national culture. In 1975, because of her academic accomplishments and advocacy for female faculty and female students, Conway was named president of Smith College. She was the first female president at Smith, the nation’s largest privately endowed women’s liberal arts college. While there she established the Society of Scholars Studying Women’s Higher-Education History, raised funds for the education at Smith of welfare recipients, and increased Smith’s endowment from $82 million to $220 million. After a decade at Smith she left to become visiting scholar and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jill Ker Conway has been widely recognized for her accomplishments, having been granted honorary degrees from sixteen colleges and universities in Canada and the United States. She is also a trustee of Hampshire College, the Northfield Mount Hermon School, the New England Medical Center, and the Kresge Foundation. The work she will most likely be best remembered for, however, remains The Road from Coorain , which fellow academic and popular writer Carolyn Heilbrun called “one of the few heroic stories of girlhood.”

Jill Ker married John James Conway, a professor she worked with at Harvard, in 1962. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1982. She has been back to Coorain only twice since 1960, feeling that leaving was the right thing to do, “but I still feel very deeply rooted in the back country and the bush.”

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