In Memoriam

Jill Ker Coway

In Memoriam: Dr Jill Ker Conway AC

Dr Jill Ker Conway’s raw intelligence, robust character, and deft, analytical mind propelled her through a remarkable career in education, academia, and business.  Formative years spent working the harsh land of a sheep station in outback New South Wales fostered a fierce determination to shrug the shackles of endemic gender discrimination, and lead her to become a trailblazing women’s rights advocate. Yet it was her thoughtful, poignant reflections on life amid this dusty, arid vastness, vividly chronicled in her best-selling autobiography, The Road from Coorain, that truly cemented Jill’s place as an Australian literary icon.

“Time manages the most painful partings for us. One has only to set the date, buy the ticket, and let the earth, sun, and moon make their passages through the sky, until inexorable time carries us with it to the moment of parting.”

Jill’s early life was, in fact, punctuated by painful partings. She lost her father in a tragic accident on the family farm when she was just 10, and was sent from her cherished Coorain home to boarding school at 12. Her brother died in a car accident when she was 16, then at 24 she parted with her first true love, an American venture capitalist, with a tearful farewell at the Pan Am terminal in Sydney. Jill’s indomitable spirit, and the inexorable passage of time saw her safely through.

But it was a departure of a different kind that would forever alter the course of Jill’s life, and culminate in her appointment as the first woman president of Massachusetts’ prestigious Smith College, and her being named Time’s ‘Woman of the Year’ at just 40 years of age.

“I’d arrived at the choice by exhausting all the possibilities of interesting careers in Australia, discovering, one by one, that they were not open to women…so my setting out was not exactly the departure of a conquering hero, but more the ambiguous result of deciding that I needed to get away from Australia, to view life from a different perspective.”

Frustrated and suffocated by the lack of opportunity for an ambitious young Australian woman, Jill decided to pursue graduate study abroad. Glimpses of American culture had opened her eyes to a more fluid and progressive interpretation of her own place in society, and to the potential of what could be achieved through hard work and talent. In 1960, Jill applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the U.S, and less than a year later, found herself wandering the halls of Harvard’s Radcliffe College.  The unconventional teaching methods instantly appealed. Students were invited to critically engage with material, rather than simply read and accept the conclusions of others.  For the first time, Jill was forced to step back and ask herself exactly why she wanted to study history.

“Why was I an historian? One wasn’t just born curious about history. The reason was I’d grown up having to know why things were the way they were. The droughts and sudden swings of fortune of my childhood in the Australian outback meant that I was preoccupied by questions of free will and determinism. Coming to consciousness during the war made me interested in the conflict of ideas and ideologies, and curious about where they came from.”

The educators were passionate and eccentric; one particular favourite of Jill’s would deliver his lectures with the dramatic flair of a Shakespearian soliloquy. This intellectual nourishment was intoxicating, and Jill found herself re-examining everything she had learned about history through an entirely new lens.

“Since I craved understanding more than any other intellectual delight, each flash of insight was a heady new fix for a boundless appetite… I could scarcely attend a lecture without some new insight about the history of the Australian colonies exploding in my mind like a firecracker. This was what I’d wanted from the study of history – the flash of understanding, the new insight, the notion that one was living with reality, not some dusty myth from the past.”

Jill Ker Conway by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson Credit - National Portrait GalleryJill Ker Conway by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson
Credit – National Portrait Gallery

Jill went on to earn a PhD in History in 1969. While at Harvard, she had fallen in love with Canadian professor and WWII veteran John Conway, whom she described as “totally and spontaneously liberated”. They married, and moved to Canada, where Jill took a teaching post at the University of Toronto.  As a shrewd and innovative administrator, Jill rose swiftly through the ranks there to become a dean in 1971, then vice president in 1973. Privately, she helped John battle through severe bouts of manic depression, and in the midst of one particularly bad episode, reaffirmed the importance of her independence.

“His moral integrity, courage, and devotion to humanistic learning were certainly my compass point, the true north one needed to set directions on this continent. But I now knew there were going to be times when I’d have to navigate alone.”

In 1974, Jill was visited by the committee charged with finding a new president for Smith College, one of the most illustrious women’s liberal arts institutions in the world. Busy with a life “learning to swim in the choppy seas of administrative life”, she gave little thought to the idea of a move back to the U.S., but, at John’s insistence, accepted an invitation to visit the campus. The atmosphere of Smith’s campus was enchanting, and Jill couldn’t help but compare the sights and sounds of Connecticut Valley to those of Toronto.

“I left a grey city to see a campus ablaze with crocus, daffodils, scilla, and rich strawberry and cream magnolias. Brighter than the spring flowers were the faces of the young women I saw everywhere. I could spend months at a time at the University of Toronto without ever hearing a female voice raised. Here the women were rowdy, physically freewheeling, joshing one-another loudly, their laughter deep-belly laughter, not propitiatory giggles. I was entranced.”

In 1975, Jill became the first woman to be named President of Smith College. Under her leadership, new programs were introduced to improve access to education, the sports teams and facilities were upgraded, and the college’s endowment nearly tripled. A decade later, Jill retired to devote time to writing, publishing three best-selling memoirs. She also began trailblazing a new path through corporate America, joining the boards of Merrill Lynch, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive, Community Solutions, and becoming the first female chairman of global property group, Lendlease. Her presence on the Kellogg, JFK Presidential Library and the John and James L. Knight foundations became the setting for addressing issues of exclusion. Her progressive values extended to directorship; for example, before agreeing to join Nike, Jill insisted on a campaign to stimulate interest in sport for girls, chaired a corporate social responsibility committee, and regularly visited Nike factories in Asia to check the working conditions of the primarily-female workforce.

Jill’s innovative leadership and pioneering views on corporate social responsibility brought international recognition and accolades. Over the course of her career, she received thirty-eight honorary degrees and awards from North American and Australian colleges, universities and women’s organisations. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal, and her country of birth appointed her an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia for “eminent service to the community, particularly women, as an author, academic and through leadership roles with corporations, foundations, universities and philanthropic groups”.

In an article for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, her words on contemporary Australia were characteristically thoughtful:

“Today Australia is rich in resources and part of the dynamic Asia Pacific market and its financial institutions are global players. But today my rural world is in decline even though we know that there will be a serious problem of feeding the world’s population within several generations. So my hope is for a political climate a little more focused on the future, and a little less comfortable with the wealth that comes from feeding the carbon economy.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents a 2012 National Humanities Medal to Australian-American author Jill Ker Conway during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. Conway is recognized for her contributions as a historian and trailblazing academic leader. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)President Barack Obama presents a 2012 National Humanities Medal to Australian-American author Jill Ker Conway
Credit – Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Jill passed away at her home on the first of June, 2018, on a warm, cloudy day in Boston.  In accordance with her wishes, half of her ashes rest in a small private cemetery beside John’s, near their beloved house and garden in Massachusetts; the other half were scattered by the big tree, beside the driveway into the house at Coorain.

“As I walked out to the plane in the balmy air of a Sydney September night, my mind flew back to a dusty cemetery where my father was buried. Where, I wondered, would my bones come to rest? It pained me to think of them not fertilizing Australian soil. Then I comforted myself with the notion that wherever on the earth was my final resting place, my body would return to the restless red dust of the western plains. I could see how it would blow about and get in people’s eyes, and I was content with that.”

Dr Jill Ker Conway AC
1934 – 2018