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, Coorain (aboriginal word for "windy place"), which was eventually expanded into 129 square kilometres (32,000 acres). On Coorain she lived a lonely life, and grew up without playmates except for her brothers. She was schooled entirely by her mother and a country governess.
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 lugging heavy farm supplies around. The farm prospered until a drought that would last for seven years. This and her father's worsening health put an increasing burden on her shoulders. But this ended abruptly when she was 11 and 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, to allow them to lead a normal life.
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 deals about her time in Toronto.
From 1975–1985 Ker Conway was the president of Smith College. Since 1985 she has been a Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received thirty-eight honorary degrees and awards from North American and Australian colleges, universities and women's organizations.
Throughout her career Ker Conway had served as a 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. She is also a member of the board of ImagineNations Group.
One of Ker Conway's most notable accomplishments is a program she instigated to help students on welfare. At the time many students who were also welfare mothers were not pursuing liberal arts as accepting Smith's scholarship meant losing 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 even 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 created the Ada Comstock Scholars program. This program allows non-traditional aged women, often with extensive 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 at Smith's at a slower pace over a longer period.
Ker Conway started writing her first memoirs after leaving Smith College, during her period at MIT. The Road from Coorain was published in 1989 (ISBN 0-394-57456-7) and deals with her early life, from Coorain in Australia to Harvard in the United States.
The book starts off 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 described her intellectual development and her feelings realizing there is a bias against women, after being denied a traineeship at the Australian foreign service.
Ker Conway was appointed an Companion (AC) in the General Division of the Order of Australia on 10 June 2013 for her eminent service to the community, particularly women, as an author, academic and through leadership roles with corporations, foundations, universities and philanthropic groups. On 12 June she was removed as a 'Companion' and invested as an 'Honorary Companion' of the Order of Australia due to not having Australian citizenship.
Conway, Jill; Kealey, Linda; Schulte, Janet E. (1982). The female experience in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America: a guide to the history of American women. New York: Garland Pub. ISBN9780691005997.
Conway, Jill (1987). Utopian dream or dystopian nightmare?: Nineteenth-century feminist ideas about equality. Worcester, Massachusetts: American Antiquarian Society. ISBN9780912296890.
Conway, Jill; Scott, Joan W.; Bourque, Susan C. (1989). Learning about women: gender, politics and power. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. ISBN9780472063987.
Conway, Jill (1989). The road from Coorain (1st ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf Distributed by Random House. ISBN9780749303600.
Reprinted as: Conway, Jill (1992). The road from Coorain (2nd ed.). London: Minerva. ISBN9780749398941.
Conway, Jill (1992). Written by herself: an anthology. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN9780679736332.
Conway, Jill; Bourque, Susan C. (1995). The Politics of women's education: perspectives from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN9780472083282.
Conway, Jill (1995). True north: a memoir. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN9780679744610.
Conway, Jill (1992). Written by herself: autobiographies of American women: an anthology. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN9780679736332.
Conway, Jill (1992). Written by herself: women's memoirs From Britain, Africa, Asia and the United States, volume 2: an anthology. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN9780679751090.
Conway, Jill (1998). When memory speaks: reflections on autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN9780679766452.
Conway, Jill (1999). In her own words: women's memoirs from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN9780679781530.