Jill Ker Conway: A Life
Born in 1934 in Hillston, New South Wales, Australia, Jill Ker Conway lived and worked on her family's 32,000-acre sheep farm in the Australian outback until her father drowned when she was eleven. Distraught and in debt due to a three-year drought, her mother moved Conway and her two brothers to Sydney. Unused to formal classes and playmates, Conway found the local public school rough going. The British manners and accent instilled by her parents provoked taunts and jeers. Her mother sensed her discomfort and quickly transferred her daughter to Abbotsleigh, a prestigious private girls' school, where Conway found intellectual challenge as well as social acceptance. There she first encountered the idea that "women could achieve."
College followed at the University of Sydney, where Conway began her lifelong study of history. Upon graduation in 1958, she sought a prestigious trainee post in the Foreign Service, but her intellectual bravado proved unnerving to the all-male committee who refused her application. Instead she traveled to Europe with her mother who, though a pillar of strength during Conway's childhood, had become emotionally volatile and controlling. This last trip together cemented Conway's decision to strike out on her own. Shortly after, she applied and was accepted into the history program at Harvard University, where she assisted Canadian professor John Conway, who became her husband and mate until his death in 1995.
Conway received her Ph.D. in 1969 and taught at the University of Toronto from 1964 to 1975. She served as Vice President from 1973 to 1975, when she became the first woman president of Smith College in Massachusetts. Since 1985 she has been a Visiting Scholar and Professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She serves on the boards of Nike, Merrill Lynch, and Colgate-Palmolive, and as chairman of Lend Lease Corporation. She has recounted her personal journey in a trio of autobiographies, The Road from Coorain (1989), True North (1994), and A Woman's Education (2001). Her research as a historian has focused on the role of feminism in American history, resulting in such books as The Female Experience in 18th- and 19th-Century America (1982) and Women Reformers and American Culture (1987) Learning About Women: Gender, Politics, and Power (1989, with Susan C. Bourque and Joan W. Scott). She currently lives in Boston.
In an interview with The New York Times, Conway said that she writes "to communicate to people very directly about the authenticity of women's motivation for work, about how a person strives to find some creative expression. The moral of my mother's life was that while she had challenging work, she was indomitable and when she didn't, she fell apart. It's very much the vogue to talk about women as developing their moral consciousness through a connectedness to mother, but I think that's misleading. My book [The Road from Coorain] is deliberately a story of separation -- of independence and breaking away."
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Memoirs of Girlhood | Jill Ker Conway | Production Notes
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