Jill Ker Conway: Reflections on the chapters of her life
Taking a long-range view of a woman’s life
Photo courtesy of Smith College
Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all tangible and intangible things you have created. Individuals who structure their careers around autonomy, mastery, and purpose will have a powerful body of work.
Pamela Slim, Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (p. 7)
A girl from the Outback, who grew up to become one of my role models, died this month. Dr. Jill Ker Conway served as the first female president of my alma mater, Smith College, from 1975 until 1985. Even though our paths only intersected the one time I heard her speak on campus, I followed her career. I felt a kinship with her due to our shared connection to both Australia and Smith College. Although not a student during her tenure, I benefitted from her legacy. Her death gave me the opportunity to reflect on the lessons I take from her life and career.
As both a scholar of woman’s history and in designing her own life, Dr. Ker Conway took the long-range view on women’s lives. She modeled for women a life divided into distinct chapters during her 83 years. All woman can learn from her body of work and the chapters of her life.
Fail fast and learn from it.
The Australian government passed Jill Ker Conway over for a job in the foreign service. Even though she graduated at the top of her class from the University of Sydney. The sexist hiring committee presumed that the attractive woman would marry and no longer want the job. Her failure to get that job was one of the best things that never happened to her.
Jill Ker Conway didn't acquire the mistaken belief that in life some people are winners while others are losers. Instead, she understood that life is an infinite game from which you can learn and improve. Only when the foreign service passed her over, did she look for an alternative solution for career and country.
With a bias to action, she briefly capitalized on her looks by studying modeling at a fashion school in London. Her next pivot took her to graduate studies in history at Harvard University. Her education at Harvard University led to her career as a trailblazing educator and her marriage to a fellow historian, John Conway.
Find a true partner for marriage.
I didn't marry until I met a man who was willing from the get-go to support my desire for a separate professional life. People always said to me, 'How lucky you are to have a husband who supports your separate career,' and I always say, 'It wasn't luck.' Young women are trained to think they should marry someone who is a great romantic love. You should really marry someone who respects your working self and creative ability and wants to enter into a relationship where each supports the other. And that's not the romantic story.
Jill Ker Conway in an excerpt from a 2002 Globe and Mail article
She and her husband took turns choosing where they should live, influenced by career opportunities. After their marriage, they moved to Toronto. Later, they moved to Northampton, Massachusetts for Dr. Ker Conway to assume the post of president of Smith College.
I am fortunate that I too found a true partner for marriage. Together, we fulfilled my longheld dream of living and working in Japan.
Modeled living life with different chapters
Scholar. Author. Advocate. Corporate board member.
Jill Ker Conway’s life proved that women don’t need to be limited by one career or mode of work. During each new chapter in her life, she leveraged existing skills and experiences. While, at the same time, developing new ones. She brought the same long-range view of feminist history to designing her life.
Scholar and educator
Jill Ker Conway earned her doctorate in history at Harvard University. Cambridge was a far cry from her early correspondence school education in the windswept Australian Outback. First, she worked as an academic with a focus on women’s history. Next, the trailblazing educator served as the first female president of Smith College from 1975 to 1985.
I am grateful for the following legacies of her tenure at Smith College:
- All subsequent presidents of the college have been women.
- She oversaw the construction and creation of the indoor track and tennis facilities. While playing tennis on those courts, a member of the athletic department encouraged me to join the team.
- She championed the Ada Comstock Scholars Program, for untraditional aged students. These scholars inspired me with their eagerness to learn and finish their education.
- Comparative Literature, which was my major, didn't exist at Smith until her tenure.
Three chapters after Smith College
Jill Ker Conway deliberately divided her life into thirds when her academic life ended.
First, Jill Ker Conway devoted herself to writing her memoir trilogy. I immediately read her best-selling memoir, The Road from Coorain (1989) upon my acceptance at Smith College. In this book, she recounts her childhood on an isolated 32,000-acre sheep ranch in Australia. I liked knowing that a president of the college I would soon be attending had been born in Australia like me. She also brings us into her decision to leave her homeland in pursuit of a graduate degree. It's incredible that a girl from the Outback, who had not met another girl her age until she was age seven, went on to become president of a woman’s college.
I read her next two memoirs after college. True North, published in 1995, covered her academic career before Smith College. The final book in the trilogy, A Woman’s Education, published in 2002, addressed her term as president.
Jill Ker Conway also wrote fiction with Elizabeth Topham Kennan, the former president of Mount Holyoke. Under the pen name Clare Munnings, the two wrote a mystery/thriller titled Overnight Float set on a fictional college campus.
ADVOCATE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
An adult life...is a slowly emerging design, with shifting components, occasional dramatic disruptions, and fresh creative arrangements.
Jill Ker Conway
Jill Ker Conway’s next pivot was to think about and advocate for the environment. She did so as a visiting professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society.
In her final chapter, Jill Ker Conway used her governance expertise, gained at Smith College. She served on boards of both corporations, nonprofits, and foundations.
Her memoirs didn’t sugar coat the life of an ambitious woman.
Jill Ker Conway’s memoirs depicted the ups and downs of her life as an ambitious and intelligent woman. She doesn’t leave out the hard facts such as being discriminated against as a woman or her husband’s struggle with manic depression. She takes risks and has adventures in her quest for knowledge and career advancement.
With her experience as a memoirist and as a scholar of woman’s history, Jill Ker Conway further explored woman’s autobiographies in:
- When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography
- Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women
- In Her Own Words: Women’s Memoirs From Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
She helped pave the way for aspiring female memoirists, such as myself, to share their truth.
How many chapters will be in my obituary?
The obituaries about Jill Ker Conway inspired me to ponder my life. How many chapters will be in my obituary? How do I want to be remembered by my husband, son, relatives, friends, and community? What will my legacy be?
If you, like me, are considering a new chapter in your life or career, I recommend the following books:
- Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte
- Designing your life: How to build a well-lived joyful life by William Burnett and David J. Evans
- Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together by Pamela Slim
Also published on Medium.