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Toronto Feminist university president Jill Ker Conway blazed a trail in academia

Author Jill Ker Conway returns to Toronto for a visit with friends and family in November, 2002.

Fred Lum/Globe and Mail

Growing up on a giant sheep ranch in the remote grasslands of Australia can shape a young girl’s whole life.

“In a labour-scarce society with a shortage of human energy, there is no room for social conventions about women’s work,” Jill Ker Conway, who grew up in just such a place, once noted. “The work had to be done. It never crossed anyone’s mind that you didn’t work up to your competence.”

By the time she made that observation, in 1975 and thousands of miles from her birthplace, Dr. Conway had proved the point. She had recently left her position as the first female vice-president at the University of Toronto to become the first female president of Smith College, the prestigious women’s institution in Northampton, Mass.

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And she was still early in a career filled with accomplishments. After a decade leading Smith, she wrote three acclaimed memoirs, among other books, and championed feminist causes and ideas. In 2013, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by then-U.S. president Barack Obama.

Dr. Conway died Friday at her home in Boston, Smith College announced. She was 83. No cause was given.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s current president, said in an interview that she was struck not only by what Dr. Conway did for the college, but also by her multiple roles as feminist, author, scholar and woman of influence on the boards of companies such as Nike and non-profits including the Kellogg Foundation.

“One of the things I really like about Jill’s life as a model,” Dr. McCartney said, “is that she had different chapters in it.”

Jill Kathryn Ker was born Oct. 9, 1934, in Hillston, New South Wales, in southeastern Australia, and grew up in nearby Coorain, where her parents, William and Evelyn A’Dames Ker, had a 32,000-acre sheep ranch. Her father died when she was 10 and, at 12, Jill was sent to boarding school.

She later enrolled at the University of Sydney and received a history degree in 1958. In 1960, she made the crucial decision to leave Australia for graduate school in the United States.

“I’d arrived at the choice by exhausting all the possibilities of interesting careers in Australia,” Dr. Conway wrote in True North (1994), her second memoir, “discovering, one by one, that they were not open to women.”

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She enrolled at Radcliffe College and shared a house for a time with other women from overseas who were doing graduate work. They came to call her Mother Superior for her skill at negotiating with the landlord and her general organizational abilities.

While working toward her PhD, which she received at Harvard in 1969, she served as a teaching fellow, working for a Canadian-born Harvard professor named John Conway. They married in 1962.

Her feminist convictions extended to the marriage.

“Young women are trained to think they should marry someone who is a great romantic love,” Dr. Conway told The Globe and Mail in 2002. “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.”

The couple moved to Canada in 1964, when he was hired for a senior position at York University and she took a teaching post at the University of Toronto. She became a dean in 1971 and a vice-president in 1973.

Dr. Conway took over the Smith presidency at a time when the college was facing complaints that women were being discriminated against in faculty hiring and promotions. It was also a period when the very idea of a college for women was being questioned and Smith was trying to transform itself into something less antiquated and more competitive.

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Susan Bourque, who was a professor of government at Smith at the time and later became provost, said Dr. Conway had a knack for handling the various constituencies involved in these issues – faculty members, students, alumni, board members – perhaps influenced by her husband’s background as a Second World War veteran.

“I think Jill took from John’s military experience a kind of tactical mind,” she said in a telephone interview. “She thought of things as long-term campaigns rather than immediate vanquishing of a foe.”

Among the changes Conway oversaw was an upgrading of the college’s sports teams and facilities – a change she led by example, not only by being the No. 1 fan at basketball games and other contests but also by personally pursuing physical fitness, especially through swimming.

“If you wanted to see the president,” Dr. Bourque said, “you learned to get up early and meet her at the pool.”

Dr. Conway also understood that a woman’s education can often be interrupted by marriage, childbirth or economic realities. At a time when many universities had not yet focused on non-traditional students, she began the Ada Comstock Scholars Program (named for a Smith alumna) for students seeking to resume studies they had abandoned.

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In 1985, Dr. Conway – who said her life seemed to be on a schedule of a major change every 10 years or so – left Smith to devote time to writing. Her first memoir, The Road From Coorain (1989), which became a bestseller, told of her life in Australia up to the point of her decision to leave. Fuelling that decision, she wrote, was an episode in which she and two male friends applied for the Australian version of the foreign service; the men were accepted while she was not.

“It chilled me to realize that there was no way to earn my freedom through merit,” she wrote. “It was an appalling prospect.”

Verlyn Klinkenborg, reviewing The Road From Coorain in The New York Times, called it “the work of a writer who relentlessly tugs at the cultural fences around her until they collapse, leaving her solitary under an immense Australian sky, enlarged to herself at last.”

The PBS program Masterpiece Theatre used the book as the basis for a film in 2002.

True North picked up Dr. Conway’s story where the first book had left off and took it up to her move from Toronto to Smith. Then, in 2001, came A Woman’s Education.

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“She writes knowledgeably about all disciplines as a good college president should,” William R. Everdell wrote in his review in the Times, “but never misses what women’s scholarship has done, including reshaping entire fields like anthropology and economics.

“A philosophical empiricist and ethical universalist,” he continued, “she gracefully picks her way over the rocks of ‘essentialist’ feminism and through the eddies of cultural particularism. A knowledge of history – and a good sense of humor – help her keep her balance.”

John Conway died in 1995. She leaves no immediate survivors.

After leaving Smith, Dr. Conway was a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Program on Science, Technology and Society. Besides her memoirs, her books include When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography (1998), which explores the ways memoirs by men and by women differ.

She was the editor of several books as well, including Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women (1992) and In Her Own Words: Women’s Memoirs From Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States (1999).

Although much of Dr. Conway’s writing focused on women, she knew that limited definitions and opportunities affect everyone.

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“Sex-role stereotyping has hurt men as much as women,” she told The Boston Globe in 1975. “For me, liberation means the full range of human traits can be displayed by either men or women without social penalties.”

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