Jill Ker Conway (born 9 October 1934) is an Australian-American author, best known for her autobiographies, in particular her first memoirs, The Road from Coorain. She was also Smith College's first woman president, from 1975-1985, and now serves as a Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Conway was born in Hillston, New South Wales in the outback of Australia. Together with her two brothers, 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.
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 an unfortunate diving accident, while trying to extend the farm's water piping.
Initially 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.
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 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, Conway sought a trainee post in the Department of External Affairs, but the conservative all-male committee was intimidated by her and she was refused for being, as she learned later, "too good looking" and "too intellectually aggressive."
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. 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 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.
In 1975 Conway became the first woman president of Smith College, the largest women's college in the United States. Located in Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith is a private liberal arts college and is the only women's college in the U.S. to grant its own degrees in engineering.
One of 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, 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.
Conway also created the Ada Comstock Scholars program. This program allows older women, often with extensive work and family obligations, to study part-time. These women can take classes for a Bachelor's degree at Smith's at a slower pace over a longer period.
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 in Hillston. 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 realising there is a bias against women, after being denied a traineeship at the Australian foreign service.
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