Jill Kathryn Ker Conway

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Jill Kathryn Ker Conway

Jill Kathryn Ker Conway (born 1934) was a historian interested in the role of women in American history. She became the first woman president of Smith College in 1975.

Jill Kathryn Ker was born in Hillston, New South Wales, Australia, a small town 75 miles from her parents' sheep station, on October 9, 1934. She earned her B.A. and a university medal at the University of Sydney in 1958 and received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1969. Her unpublished but widely-cited dissertation, "The First Generation of American Women Graduates," an intellectual history of Jane Addams and other progressive women reformers, almost single-handedly rekindled scholarly interest in women's contributions to Progressive Era America.

While attending Harvard University Jill Ker met and married John Conway, a history professor in whose course she was a teaching assistant. She followed him to Toronto, where he became one of the founders of York University and she joined the faculty of the University of Toronto. There she lectured on American history while completing her dissertation. Jill Conway rose to the rank of associate professor in 1972. From 1973 to 1975 she served as the first woman vice president for internal affairs at the University of Toronto.

In the mid-1970s, Toronto, like other major universities, was struck with student rebellions, giving Conway an opportunity to demonstrate her cool and unflappable administrative style. In 1975 she was appointed the first woman president of Smith College, the largest privately-endowed college for women in the United States. For this achievement, Time magazine named her one of its 12 "Women of the Year." Conway's appointment heralded a change in leadership of the so-called Seven Sisters Colleges, and as a result of this breakthrough all of them became headed by women by the early 1980s.

Initially, Conway found herself at the helm of a prestigious but flagging educational institution. In the early 1970s, Smith, like the other Seven Sisters, suffered a decline in status as bright women flocked to the newly coeducational Ivy League universities. Conway helped to restore Smith's luster as the premier women's college in the United States. A superb fund-raiser, she increased the endowment from $82 million to $220 million. To accomplish this, Conway became a peripatetic president, criss-crossing the country to solicit alumnae, foundation, and corporate support. Her executive abilities were well recognized, as she served as director of IBM World Trade Americas/Far East Corporation, Merrill Lynch, and on the board of overseers of Harvard University. Despite a hectic administrative schedule Conway maintained her commitment to teaching and scholarship. She taught a course on the "Social and Intellectual Context of Feminist Ideologies in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century America." In 1982 she published The Female Experience in 18th and 19th Century America.

In the first portion of her presidency, Conway changed the college from a genteel institution which eschewed feminist ideals into a women's college that respected and reflected feminist values. Through a strong financial aid program, Smith for the first time admitted older, working women and welfare recipients as Ada Comstock scholars. Conway expanded the career development office and took pride in promoting the "old girl" network among alumnae. She endorsed the expansion of athletic facilities, enabling Smith to become the first women's college to join the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Conway articulated a concern that Smith tenure more women faculty, and she frequently publicized the plight of women scholars and the value of women's institutions in educational journals. While not in favor of a women's studies program at Smith per se, Conway did encourage the development of the Smith College Project on Women and Social Change funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Out of her presidential budget she helped launch The Society of Scholars Studying Women's Higher Educational History, a group of researchers studying women's intellectual history.

Some highly publicized conflicts erupted in the closing years of Conway's presidency. In 1983, following student and faculty protests, Conway had to inform the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, that she could not guarantee that Kirkpatrick would receive her honorary degree and be heard as the commencement speaker without incident. The ambassador declined the offer to speak and was given her degree by the Smith trustees in a private ceremony. When newly unionized food-service workers tried to organize Smith's Davis Student Center acrimony developed between the workers and the administration. The unionized workers claimed they were being unfairly treated by a "paternalistic and male dominated" management. The dispute was quietly settled.

While funding for privately endowed, small, liberal arts colleges diminished throughout the early 1980s, Conway's capable leadership allowed Smith College to survive and grow. In an era that some term "post-feminist," Conway's contributions to women's higher education and her sponsorship of separate women's institutions made her an important spokeswoman for contemporary feminism. By the end of her presidency Conway was perturbed by a new generation of women students, less overtly feminist but strongly career-oriented. According to her, this change in the attitudes of the Smith student body was "the only disappointment in a decade." She called for women students to retain an interest in service to society and not to embrace unthinkingly high-earning professions. In this she remained faithful to the ideals of the social feminists of the Progressive generation whose careers she so well illuminated in her pioneering research. Conway also served as a visiting scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In March of 1996, she succeeded to vice-chairman of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and in February of 1997, Conway was made a member on the Board of Trustees at Adelphi University in New York.

Further Reading

Jill Conway is listed in Canadian Who's Who (1984) and in Who's Who of American Women, 14th edition (1985-1986). Conway is discussed in "Women of the Year: Great Changes, New Chances, Touch Choices," Time (January 5, 1976); Elizabeth Stone, "What Can an All Women's College Do for Women," Ms (1979); and Hal Langur, "Jill Conway," Daily Hampshire Gazette (June 27, 1985).

Two fascinating autobiographies recount Conway's life—from her childhood in Australia, and her decision to come to the United States (The Road From Coorain, 1990), to her life in the United States up until she was about to assume the presidency at Smith College (True North, 1994). □