For a brief time, the ranch prospered, entirely dependent on the amount of rain that fell. The family experienced World War II by listening to radio reports. Jill’s mother organized women into a Red Cross group. When Jill’s brothers were sent to school in town, Jill was taught from correspondence courses. Soon she was reading everything in sight, and her father needed her more as a station hand. Jill rode out with him every day, checking fences, mustering sheep, doing cleaning and maintenance. She became an expert in the year’s round of crutching and sheering of the sheep, hanging out in the sheds with the men as they processed and graded the wool.
Years of drought began to pile up, however. Jill’s father died in an accident in 1944 and it soon became clear that the family could not stay on the station. Jill and her mother moved to Sydney, where the boys were in school, leaving the sheep station to a manager. Slowly the years of privation were tempered by a comfortable life. Jill too went to a formal girls boarding school where the students bathed and changed before dinner into green velvet dresses. “I was as intellectually precocious as I was socially inept,” she writes.
Jill’s mother made good decisions about the sheep station, but she was turning in on herself. When Bob, Jill’s beloved eldest brother, died in a car accident, her other brother was sent out to the sheep station and Jill was left alone with her mother again. “My mother’s devotion to me, the self-denial which had sent her to work to educate me properly, her frequent references to the fact that I was her consolation for her past tragedies, weighed on me like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.”
Jill attended the University of Sydney, in love with history. Here too, she was at the top of her classes, though it surprised her how much history was taught as coming exclusively from Europe. Jill made friends, but in her head she heard her father: “Do something, Jill. Don’t just put in time on this earth.” She hoped, like her friends, to be accepted into the Australian Ministry of External Affairs. When her male friends were accepted and she was not, she was outraged. She abandoned Australia and applied for graduate study at Harvard. Leaving for America also solved the problem of her mother’s dependence on her.
In two subsequent memoirs, True North  and A Woman’s Education , Conway describes the success of her writing on American women reformers of the nineteenth century, particularly Jane Addams; her marriage to John Conway, a Canadian veteran and educator; and her growing interest in administration, culminating in her becoming the first woman president of Smith, a woman’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1975 to 1985.
Conway’s work was always groundbreaking and she describes how she felt about things very directly. At a time when many colleges were becoming co-educational, she writes: “It seems to me that the cozily domestic, introduced too early in youthful development had the effect of obliterating or muting civic and social responsibility. My nineteenth century feminist theorists about social evolution had all worried about where and how commercial society could instill social values that went beyond personal satisfaction and self-interest. I agreed with them that the development of the civic virtues tended to be slighted in exclusively commercial societies, and that leadership and the talent for action came from an education which did not take the paired couple as its social norm.”
Conway’s success is an engaging tale. She never forgot her mother, either. “She was the reason I’d never stopped trying to expand women’s opportunities.” But after ten years at Smith, she decided to begin writing these fine memoirs. She also taught classes at MIT and sat on many boards, one of which built the John and Jill Ker Conway residence for veterans in Washington, DC. The building opened in 2017, just before her death in June, 2018.
“Fearless and elegant,” Conway’s colleagues at Community Solutions called her. Conway surprised herself about how much she liked organizing and managing. She considered it her duty to listen, but then went ahead and made decisions in terms of her own large-minded vision. You can hear her in her own words here. I loved her conservative/radical political positions which I find very close to my own. I also appreciated her ability to parse complex issues and express them. She makes me take my own intellect more seriously and believe intellectual work might be worth the struggle.