NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Jill Ker Conway, The First Female President Of Smith College


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're going to remember Jill Ker Conway, who influenced many women as a feminist, memoirist, women's history scholar and the first woman president of Smith College, one of the largest women's colleges in the world. She served in that position from 1975 to 85. Conaway died June 1 at the age of 83. We'll hear excerpts of my three interviews with her recorded between 1989 and 1998. We talked about establishing her career at a time when many doors were closed to women, how she became a feminist, how she married historian John Conway in spite of the fact she had always thought marriage would be the wrong choice for her and how she later dealt with his depression and then his death.

Our first interview was recorded in 1989 after the publication of her first memoir, which became a best-seller and a touchstone book for many women. Titled "The Road To Coorain" (ph), it covered her childhood growing up on a remote sheep farm, which her parents ran in the Australian outback where she was physically and intellectually cut off from the world. The book ends with her decision to leave Australia in 1960 when she was 25 to attend graduate school at Harvard, hoping to find more opportunities for women in the U.S. than she'd found in Australia.


GROSS: So you grew up in a very isolated setting.

JILL KER CONWAY: Totally - our next-door neighbors were, oh, about 50 miles away on one side...

GROSS: Oh, boy.

CONWAY: ...And about 20 miles another and 10 or 12 in another direction.

GROSS: Your first schooling was through a correspondence course.

CONWAY: Yes, it was - my mother thought I could do two years in one, and she told the correspondence school that, but they thought there were two children on the place, so they sent the first lesson of the first grade and the first lesson of the second grade and continued in installments all the way through the year. It wasn't - it wasn't clear to me that it was work of a different degree of difficulty. So we didn't know until the end of the year.

GROSS: I love what you say about studying alone in isolation, that you were introduced to study as a leisure time activity. It sounds like you never really grew to dislike education in the way that so many children who go to schools do.

CONWAY: For me, it was sheer pleasure. I was doing hard, physical labor on the sheep station. And I worked at that four days a week, and on the fifth day, on Friday, I got to sit down and do my school. And it was such a treat because I had been given my own pot of tea, and Friday was a baking day, so there would be great smells of fresh-baked scones and cookies coming from the kitchen. And I felt totally indulged, and I've never felt about learning any other way.

GROSS: Were you sure that you would go to college?

CONWAY: It was very clear in my family because my mother was such a feminist that I would. And interestingly, the stereotypes of our gender worked in my favor in my family because it was expected that my brothers would probably not go to university and would - since our father was a rancher that they would take up life on the land, too. And that meant that they would begin that right after school.

GROSS: You went to the University of Sydney first, yes?

CONWAY: Yes, I did.

GROSS: And then you thought about what to do next. You decided you didn't want to go to school in England because you'd feel like a colonial there. You applied to Harvard and started living in the United States. Did you find that there were more opportunities for women?

CONWAY: Oh, goodness, yes. Well, I arrived at the Harvard graduate school. I lived in the graduate residence where there were several hundred other women all getting Ph.D.s and all enormously bright and interesting people drawn from all over the world. And I found the director of my graduate studies who told his students that the contribution of women to American intellectual life was as important as men's and handed out lists of women whose lives needed to be studied and whose intellectual histories needed to be written and so forth. And that was just a new world for me.

GROSS: What set you in the direction of being a college administrator, first a vice president at the University of Toronto, then the first woman president at Smith?

CONWAY: Well, I was born at the right time. I was - just finished my Ph.D. and beginning life as a professional historian just at the point when there was an enormous expansion of higher education in the United States and Canada. I went to Canada with my husband who was taking part in planning and building a new university in Toronto. And myself - I joined the history department the University of Toronto in the process.

I suddenly discovered one day that although I had joined the history department at the University of Toronto with a group of young men all trained in American doctoral programs like me, I was the only one who wasn't being promoted, and I found that I was also quite severely discriminated against in my salary. And so I just got in a rage, went and confronted the department chairman and the dean with this information, and they very quickly rectified the situation. But when I was finished, I realized that there were loads of other women faculty who were in much more jeopardy protesting such things than I. So I began organizing the women faculty, and before I knew it, I was in a leadership role that I just stumbled into. And very shortly thereafter, there was a change in the university administration and I sort of had to put up or shut up, and so I accepted a position as one of the university vice presidents. And so I sort of backed into it and then found out I really loved it.

GROSS: The interview with Jill Ker Conway that we just heard was recorded in 1989 after the publication of her first memoir, "The Road To Coorain." We're going to continue our remembrance of her with the interview we recorded in 1994 after the publication of her second memoir, "True North," about setting out for Harvard alone, leaving behind her suffocating family and a culture hostile to aspiring women. For the first time, she found friends she could talk to without censoring her words or emotions. And she found her niche as a scholar of women's history. To her surprise, she fell in love with and married the historian John Conway, even though she'd always thought that marriage was not for her.


CONWAY: I was such an anomalous person in my native Australia, and I think it would have been very difficult for me to fit into a conventional Australian marriage. John Conway was already a professional scholar. He wasn't somebody who wanted a wife to make a comfortable domestic environment for him. He wanted a partner in sort of major intellectual tasks, and that was a relationship that I thought I could handle. I wasn't absolutely certain that I could ever settle into being the helping wife who's always typing her husband's manuscripts and managing somehow or another to create the right environment for somebody else to blossom in.

GROSS: Early on into your marriage, you realized that you both had a lot of mood swings. You had always had depressions, and you realized he had very serious depressions, too. And you write about during some of those depressions he'd become almost unrecognizable, quote, "as though a stranger had replaced my sensitive and loving husband with someone obsessed by demons of rage, tormented by suspicion." It must have been very unsettling, especially early on when you saw changes like that and wondered, you know, who he was becoming.

CONWAY: Well, you know, I had grown up with a neurotic family, and the thing that I think that gave me was the capacity to live through other people's moods and keep my own balance. I wouldn't recommend that as a good training for anyone, but it turned out to stand me in very good stead. And my husband was so open and direct about facing the problems he had to deal with very deep mood swings that when he came out of them, we would always be able to analyze what had happened. And I gradually learned that at those points, I just had to wait for him to reappear as his usual, positive and constructive self. But, you know, we all manage to live with somebody with acute physical ailments, and those problems of emotional swings are no different.

GROSS: He had shock treatments during one bout of depression. What were the effects of that?

CONWAY: Well, I think that is - as I say in the book, I think of electric shock therapy as the ultimate example of the engineering mentality and the sort of idea of the technological fix. It damages people's memory. And for someone who was a professional scholar, it had a devastating effect because a lifetime of learning was lost. He couldn't recall it.

GROSS: Did he lose that memory permanently?

CONWAY: Not permanently, but for a very substantial period of time.

GROSS: Like, years? Or...

CONWAY: Yes. Yes, indeed.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1994 interview with Jill Ker Conway, feminist, memoirist and the first woman president of Smith College. She died June 1. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're continuing our remembrance of Jill Ker Conway, a feminist, memoirist and the first woman to serve as president of Smith College. She died June 1. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with her in 1994 after the publication of her second memoir, "True North," about leaving Australia, where she grew up on a sheep ranch in the Outback, and moving to the U.S. to attend graduate school and launch her academic career. In 1964, she took a teaching position at the University of Toronto.


GROSS: When you were at the University of Toronto, you became something of an activist. You started organizing women on campus around women's issues such as equal pay. You went in and basically demanded to know why you weren't being given a promotion.

CONWAY: Yes. That's right. You know, my experience fits exactly with the social science textbooks. Women are supposed to experience their first serious discrimination seven years after initial employment, and mine came in six and a half years. So I was right on schedule. And when I did call a meeting of women faculty at the university, I discovered that it wasn't just a question of discrimination in pay within rank, but very differential rates of promotion and access to research, support and so forth.

GROSS: Well, you went on to be appointed the first woman vice president at the University of Toronto, but after you got that position, you figured you were probably a disappointment to the feminist proponents of women's studies on campus. Why did you oppose women's studies programs?

CONWAY: Well, it's a basic difference in strategy and what one thinks will be an effective mechanism for changing institutions. I thought that the most important thing was to transform the program of instruction of conventional departments and schools. I mean, I wanted the law school to study the legal treatment of domestic violence, or the school of architecture to study transportation and how the way it's scheduled in a city affects how women can move around. You know, just when poor mothers need to collect their children from school is just when the bus schedule is at its least helpful and so forth. Or, I wanted the medical school to spend more time researching heart disease in women.

We didn't know about the frequency of breast cancer back in those days. And I thought those things were as important for the university to become committed to as creating a separate academic program which would study women's experience in a cross-disciplinary way. I believe that working in those professional schools might have more immediate impact on the lives of a great many women.

GROSS: One of the things that a lot of professional women have had to deal with is balancing being a mother and being a professional. You weren't able to have children. You had hoped to have children, but a medical problem prevented that. And I wonder how you coped with that at different stages of your life.

CONWAY: Well, I found it a most absolutely devastating experience at the time. But, you know, another part of growing up in life is learning that not everything is always going to work out the way you hoped it would and that one has to adjust and find the creative response to whatever constraints your experience in life. That was something I had to do about not having my own biological family. We simply acquired a surrogate family of many other young people who were not our biological children.

GROSS: Seems like so many things that happened to you in your life just led you to become more and more independent.

CONWAY: (Laughter). Well, I suppose that's one way of...

GROSS: Becoming independent, right?

CONWAY: (Laughter). Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter). I want to talk some more about how you planned a relationship of equality with your husband. I'm talking, for instance, about how you decided to divide up your money. I mean, you had an arrangement planned for that, at least early on in the marriage. You want to describe that?

CONWAY: Yes. You know, it's always interested me, so many families where there were young children, and a very highly educated wife would say to me, Janie can't afford to work. By the time we replaced her work in the house and bought the clothes that she'll need to have a professional life, she won't be earning any money. And I was always fascinated that it was assumed that the woman alone was responsible for replacing her domestic labor.

My husband and I made an agreement early in our married life that we would figure out what it cost us to run our household, including the domestic help, and then we would each contribute to that household budget proportionately to what we earned. So my husband was supporting far more of the cost of replacing my domestic labor than I was, and we each had our own disposable income after that to do whatever we wanted with.

GROSS: Now, what was the logic in your relationship of keeping your income separate, as opposed to just putting it in one big joint account?

CONWAY: We both felt very strongly that we should be able to plan anything that related to our professional lives, travel, even vacations, using our own resources. The fact that we were married and shared a common dwelling and a partnership in life didn't mean that we ceased to be individuals in other ways.

GROSS: Did that continue to work for you?

CONWAY: It always has.

GROSS: So you're still doing it that way?

CONWAY: Yes, indeed.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you this. When you had a best-seller and I imagine you made a, you know, fair amount of money, did you feel guilty keeping most of that in your account, not, you know, splitting it up or anything?

CONWAY: Not at all. I mean, it's always been part of our married life that what you earn outside what's required to maintain your joint household is yours.

GROSS: You know, something else that a lot of people find very intriguing, such as myself, is that you had this, like, 10-year plan...

CONWAY: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: ...With your husband. Explain how that works.

CONWAY: Well, we agreed very early on that every 10 years, the other person would get to say where you lived so that one person's career would always be primary, but we would take turns. We didn't want to have a commuting marriage, which was the other solution people tried to adopt. But we both really cherished the experience of living together and didn't like being parted, and so we solved the problem that way. And we have been married for a little more than 30 years now, and we're just coming up to the beginning of another 10-year period of mine. I'm thinking about what we're going to do.

GROSS: So does this mean you have to move?


GROSS: I mean, can you just say, let's stay where we are this time?

CONWAY: If you're like what you're doing, you can stay where you are.

GROSS: Your husband's 18 years older, and I think that 18 years is a lot bigger a gap as you get older. And I'm wondering if that's been affecting the relationship at all or if that's something that's been weighing on you at all as you watch your husband get older.

CONWAY: If you live with somebody who's almost a generation older than you, it can work in two ways. That difference can be stressed, or it can be very easily bridged. My husband is chronologically 18 years older than I am, but in a lot of ways, he's psychologically a good deal younger. He's much more naive and, in many ways, much more open to experience and much more spontaneous so that, in fact, his chronological age is a lot more advanced than his psychological age. And I'm the reverse. So he's a very youthful 78-year-old, and I'm probably quite a mature 60-year-old. I can imagine that it would be very difficult living with someone whose energies were really terribly depleted and obviously declining so that one's life experience became very different. I think it's really very interesting to live very close to somebody who's having to struggle to come to terms with the issues of their own mortality and so forth - a valuable experience, which I'm glad to have had.

GROSS: You must worry about losing him.

CONWAY: Of course I do. Everybody shouldn't be worried about that every day of their life, though. I mean, we all live poised on the brink of eternity.

GROSS: Jill Ker Conway recorded in 1994 after the publication of her second memoir, "True North." The year after that interview was recorded, her husband, who was 18 years older than she was, died suddenly after suffering a stroke. Jill Ker Conway died June 1 at the age of 83. We'll continue our remembrance after a break. Also, our rock critic Ken Tucker will review the debut album by Lindsey Jordan, who's just one year out of high school. And Justin Chang will review the new sequel to the animated film "The Incredibles." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering feminist, memoirist and the first woman president of Smith College, Jill Ker Conway. She died June 1 at the age of 83. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 1994 after the publication of her second memoir, "True North," about her life after leaving Australia, where she grew up on a sheep farm in the remote Outback, physically and intellectually cut off from the world. In 1960, at age 25, she moved to America to attend graduate school at Harvard. She wrote her thesis on women's memoirs and eventually wrote three memoirs of her own. It's a literary form she had strong opinions about.


GROSS: I want to ask you about writing memoirs. You know, there's that whole idea that the writer is ultimately a traitor, that if you're writing personally, you're betraying the people who are closest to you because you're writing about them, too.


GROSS: And I'd love to know how far you feel comfortable going in your own memoirs when it comes to the lives of other people - your mother, who - you write about all the problems you've had and...

CONWAY: Well, I don't think my mother is diminished by depicting the tragedy of her life because I start out in "The Road From Coorain" showing people this absolutely wonderfully powerful, rich joyful, creative woman. And to chronicle her deterioration as a result of a society that had no place for an older woman and taught a widow to think of her life as over doesn't seem to me to diminish her, it just really emphasizes the tragedy of her life. And other people, people who are living, I always show what I've written about them. And if they don't like it or didn't, I would either leave it out or change it or find some other way to say what I wanted to say. In fact, nobody has ever asked me to change anything.

GROSS: You must really believe in the memoir as an important form.

CONWAY: Yes, I do. I think that it is, in many ways, the form of narrative that is most gripping to contemporary readers. I think we read it the way 19th century people read Dickens or Hardy or somebody like that. And I think it's because it's in writing memoirs that we are obliged to say what the total constellation of all our roles means to us. And that's the real dilemma of the modern consciousness. We have this sense of an inner core of being which is us, which looks out and comments on life and experience - and which is part of, but not subsumed by all the roles that we play.

I think modern moral philosophers think that you really can't judge a life without looking at the total sum of all the roles that are intertwined within it and trying to interpret what they all add up to. And I think that's the aspect of the modern consciousness that really resonates when we read a memoir. We want to see somebody else telling us what it's all added up to because we want to be able to do that for ourselves.

GROSS: Have there been any liabilities for you to become a more public person, which is what you've become since writing your memoirs? Because I think a lot of women and a lot of men in positions of authority, like you were as the head of a college, would try very hard to not let the people who they work with know a lot of personal things about them. For a lot of people, that's a strategy for maintaining a certain dignity and respect and power within an organization.

CONWAY: Well, you know, if you tell the story of your life, it is no more fanciful and no more interesting to people than all the fantasies they have about you. So you might just as well have your say on the record, too.

GROSS: That interview with Jill Ker Conway was recorded in 1994, after the publication of her second memoir, "True North." We recorded our third and final interview in 1998, after the publication of her book about memoirs and autobiographies titled "When Memory Speaks." I asked her a question she asks in that book, why do so many people write their life stories?


CONWAY: Well, I think it is part of the development in our culture which says that there's really no central point of view from which to look at the world today so that everybody's story is relevant in some way. And so now, we have memoirs written by very young people. Once upon a time, you only wrote toward the end of your life. They're written by people of every ethnic and class background and every sexual orientation, whereas once upon a time, that terrible experience of poverty would have been fictionalized by a Dickens. Or the absolutely appalling experience of incest would have been turned into a novel. Now, we have lost most of those senses of what it's appropriate to talk about in the first person, and so much that was previously fiction is now presented as a memoir.

GROSS: I think, you know, memoirs tend to have a certain coherence and shapeliness that real life lacks.

CONWAY: Absolutely.

GROSS: Real life is usually, you know, very much a muddle...


GROSS: ...Particularly, as you're going from one experience to another and, you know, it doesn't have that coherence that a narrative has in book form. And I'm wondering, you know, you've written two memoirs. Did your life take on a shapeliness in book form that it didn't seem to have in real life? What was the difference between your life in that shapely form of the book and your life as it felt like as you lived the parts that you later wrote about?

CONWAY: Well, I think the important thing to remember is that in shaping that narrative, drawing that out of the ebb and flow of very different kinds of experience, you choose the things that seem meaningful to you at the time you're writing. And naturally, what you put into the narrative is shaped by what are important issues to you at the moment of composing that life plot and describing it. So I think if I look back at "The Road From Coorain", at the point at which I wrote it, the relationship with my mother, who had recently died, and the reasons why I left Australia were absolutely compelling to me.

And so the narrative of my life takes its form around those issues. And, of course, since I'm a strong feminist, I also wanted the narrative to drive home the point that I'm writing about two generations of Australian women who couldn't contribute what they might have to their society because of their being female. Were I to write that story today, you know, I've come to a much different understanding of my mother, partly from being widowed myself. And the things that drove me out of Australia seem less important to me, and I would probably construct the narrative quite differently.

But that doesn't mean to say that it wasn't true at the time I wrote it. And if I think about the second volume of my memoirs, "True North," one of the things that I wanted to convey as clearly as I could was that it's possible for a professional woman to form a very deep and powerful marriage relationship and yet retain a bounded identity and a strong professional self and not experience those two things as in conflict. And I'm still close enough to that experience that I'd want to tell that story the same way.

GROSS: You would tell that story the same way.

CONWAY: Yes. Yes, indeed.

GROSS: Now, how...

CONWAY: You know, if I were in another life phase completely and struggling with other issues of meaning in my life, I might tell that one differently, too. But I'm not at the moment. I'm in the same life stage that I was when I was writing that.

GROSS: Your husband passed away since we last...


GROSS: ...Spoke. And I was very...

CONWAY: That's right.

GROSS: ...Sorry to read about that. You just mentioned that you would tell your mother's story differently now, having experienced losing your husband, as she had lost hers. What would be different in how you told her story now based on what you've experienced?

CONWAY: Well, you know, at the time, before I'd had this experience, I attributed her excessive and overwhelming lifetime of grief as incomprehensible to me. I couldn't understand how she did not have the energy and drive, as a powerful and very strong woman, to get herself together and take up life again. Having lost my own husband, I can see what a temptation that is, although it's not one I've succumbed to. I understand how it might happen.

GROSS: Do you plan on writing another memoir?

CONWAY: One day, I will. But you have to be in another stage of life from the one you're writing about in order to know what's significant. You know, we fuss a lot about experiences, which, at the time, seem important, and with hindsight, seem not so important. And we often overlook, at the time, something that's very significant and shaping, so you have to be in another stage of life to know what the shape of your previous one was.

GROSS: I think, also, when we're in a certain - when we're in the stage of life that we're talking or writing about, we're much more defensive about the actions that we took.

CONWAY: (Laughter) That's right.

GROSS: ...Much more involved in justifying what we've done.

CONWAY: That's right. I mean, that's why the memoirs of statesmen written right after they lose office are so terrible because...

GROSS: Yes, right?


GROSS: Well, Jill Ker Conway, thank you very much for talking with us.

CONWAY: It's a great pleasure, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Jill Ker Conway, recorded in 1998 after the publication of her book about memoirs, called "When Memory Speaks." In 2002, she wrote her third memoir, titled "A Woman's Education," about serving as the first woman president of Smith College. She died June 1 at the age of 83. I'm grateful for the opportunities I had to speak with her.


GROSS: After a break, our rock critic Ken Tucker will review the debut album by Lindsey Jordan, who's just one year out of high school. She records under the name Snail Mail. This is FRESH AIR.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly states the title of Jill Ker Conway's 1989 memoir as The Road to Coorain. It is The Road from Coorain.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 14, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story incorrectly states the title of Jill Ker Conway's 1989 memoir as The Road to Coorain. It is The Road from Coorain.
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.