|Jill Ker Conway
9 October 1934
Hillston, New South Wales, Australia
|Died||1 June 2018
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Alma mater||University of Sydney|
|Notable works||The Road from Coorain|
|Notable awards||National Humanities Medal 2012|
|Spouse||John Conway (d. 1995)|
Jill Ker Conway AC (9 October 1934 – 1 June 2018) was an Australian-American scholar and author. Well known for her autobiographies, in particular her first memoir, The Road from Coorain, she also was Smith College's first woman president (1975-1985) and most recently served as a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2004 she was designated a Women's History Month Honoree by the National Women's History Project.
Ker Conway was born in Hillston, New South Wales, in the outback of Australia. Together with her two brothers, Ker Conway was raised in near-total isolation on a family-owned 73 square kilometres (18,000 acres) tract of land called Coorain (the aboriginal word for "windy place"), which eventually grew to encompass 129 square kilometres (32,000 acres). On Coorain, she lived a lonely life, and grew up without playmates except for her brothers. In her early years, she was schooled entirely by her mother With the aid of correspondence class material for her primary school and early grade school education.
Ker Conway spent her youth working the sheep station; by age seven, she was an important member of the workforce, helping with such activities as herding and tending the sheep, checking the perimeter fences and transporting heavy farm supplies. The farm prospered until it was crippled by a drought that lasted seven years. This and her father's worsening health put an increasing burden on her shoulders. When she was eleven, her father drowned in a diving accident while trying to extend the farm's water piping.
Initially Jill Ker Conway's mother, a nurse by profession, refused to leave Coorain. But after three more years of drought, she was compelled to move Jill and her brothers to Sydney, where the children attended school.
Ker Conway found the local state school a rough environment. The British manners and accent ingrained by her parents clashed with her peers' Australian habits, provoking taunts and jeers. This resulted in her mother enrolling her at Abbotsleigh, a private girls school, where Ker Conway found intellectual challenge and social acceptance. After finishing her education at Abbotsleigh, she enrolled at the University of Sydney, where she studied History and English and graduated with honours in 1958. Upon graduation, Ker Conway sought a trainee post in the Department of External Affairs, but the all-male committee turned down her application.
After this setback, she travelled through Europe with her now emotionally volatile mother. In 1960, she decided to strike out on her own and move to the United States. At age 25, she was accepted into the Harvard University history program. There she assisted a Canadian professor, John Conway, who became her husband until his death in 1995. Ker Conway received her Ph.D. at Harvard in 1969 and taught at the University of Toronto from 1964 to 1975. Her book True North details her life in Toronto.
From 1975 to 1985, Ker Conway was the president of Smith College. After 1985, she was a Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received thirty-eight honorary degrees and awards from North American and Australian colleges, universities and women's organizations.
Throughout her career, Ker Conway served as director on a variety of corporate boards. These include stints of more than a decade on the boards of Nike, Colgate-Palmolive, and Merrill Lynch.
Conway died on 1 June 2018 at her home in Boston at the age of 83.
In 1975, Ker Conway became the first female president of Smith College, the largest women's college in the United States. Located in Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith, a private liberal arts college, is the only women's college in the U.S. to grant its own degrees in engineering.
One of Ker Conway's most notable accomplishments is a program she initiated to help students on welfare. At the time, many students who were also welfare mothers were not pursuing higher education, as accepting a scholarship would cause them to lose their welfare benefits. The students were forced to choose between supporting their children or furthering their education. By not giving them scholarships but paying their rent instead, Ker Conway circumvented the state's system. She also gave the students access to an account at local stores, access to physicians and so on. ABC's Good Morning America profiled graduates of the program, giving it national exposure. Eventually the state of Massachusetts, convinced about the importance of the program, changed its welfare system so that scholarship students wouldn't lose their benefits.
Ker Conway also launched the Ada Comstock Scholars program, initially proposed by her predecessor Thomas Mendenhall. This program allows non-traditional students, many with work and family obligations, to study full or part-time, depending on their family and work schedules. These women can take classes for a bachelor's degree over a longer period of time.
Ker Conway started writing her first memoir after leaving Smith College, during her period at MIT. The Road from Coorain was published in 1989 (ISBN 0-394-57456-7) and details her early life, from Coorain in Australia to Harvard in the United States.
The book begins with her early childhood at the remote sheep station Coorain near Mossgiel, New South Wales. Ker Conway writes about her teenage years in Sydney and especially her education at the University of Sydney, where university studies were open to women but the culture was focused heavily on the men. She describes her intellectual development and later her feelings when she realizes that there is a bias against women; based upon her sex, she is denied a traineeship at the Australian foreign service.
In 2017 the John and Jill Ker Conway residence for veterans was opened in Washington DC.
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