"Just as soon as I had time," Jill Ker Conway pledged years ago, "I'd try to write a lively picture of the way a woman's mind developed and how her intellectual vocation is formed."
Readers first caught a glimpse of that lively picture in The Road from Coorain, the story of a bright, strong girl's childhood on a remote Australian sheep farm (Jill was seven before she first saw another girl child); then subsequently her adolescence, navigating family tragedy and educational challenges with her brothers and their widowed mother in Sydney. True North rejoined Jill's life as she embarked on graduate studies at Harvard, then followed her Canadian husband to an academic career in Toronto - until 1975, when Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, recruited Conway to redefine and redesign the distinguished 100-year-old institution.
A Woman's Education recounts Conway's ten-year term as Smith's first woman president, boldly applying her lifetime's scholarship and passion to juggle the concerns of students, parents, faculty, and alumnae. As one Ivy League school after another went coeducational, Smith resolutely maintained its independence, reinventing itself under Conway's leadership to create academic programs in line with the new realities of women's lives. On campus, the irrepressible enthusiasm of Smith's student body energized her efforts; at home, her husband's manic depression grew worse by the year.
"Her path as President of Smith College gives us an insider's view not only of the institutional side," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted, "but the personal demands and their burdens. It is a fascinating and important story."
Dave: Always the first question people ask when I tell them about your new book is, "How could Smith not have had a female president until 1975? Hasn't it always been a women's school?"
Jill Ker Conway: It's always been a women's college. It's hard for people to believe today, but having a male president was thought of as being the guarantee you would have the most academically rigorous institute imaginable. It wasn't until the 1970s and the upsurge in the feminist movement that the trustees decided they must have a woman president. And there I was.
Dave: It seems like such a no-brainer now.
Conway: Places like Wellesley and Vassar had women presidents, but they always had a male chairman of the board and a male treasurer who ran the finances. At Smith, from about 1900 on, there was always a woman chairman of the board; the male president worked for a female board of trustees, pretty much. But the thing to realize is that there were always males in authority in these women's institutions.
At Wellesley, which had had women presidents for a long time, there was a much greater representation of women on the faculty than there was at Smith. But since the 1880s or 90s, Smith had had educators from Harvard or Yale, and when they thought about building a faculty, they recruited their friends.
Dave: That was another surprise for me - 70% of the faculty at Smith was male when you took over - though it makes sense when you read the book and see how those people got their jobs.
In True North, you write about graduating from Harvard with the highest honors and not being offered academic positions that the men you had just beat out were getting. One would think, from a distance, that a place like Harvard would have been more enlightened.
Conway: They certainly were not. By the time I finished up at Harvard I was married to a Canadian and going to Canada, but some of my friends who were graduate students in History or Literature were just told, "It's going to be very difficult to get you a job, and of course it won't be possible here."
There would be days in the various scholarly departments when recruiters from outside would visit, and students would post their curriculum vitae if they wanted to be interviewed. One of my woman friends put hers up, and it was taken down. She was told, "I'm sorry. You can't post that here."
But I have to tell you - and I think I describe it in True North - when I was at The University of Toronto and became the chairman of a search committee for a position in History, I got letters back nominating women, and they would always say at the end, "I would never have suggested Ms. X or Ms. Y had it not been for the fact that there was a woman chairman of the search committee." So it was a very closed system for a very long time.
Dave: You do an excellent job of showing how personal experience dictated so much of your politics and your activism. For example, all the work you did at Smith to attract older students, not just eighteen-year-old incoming freshman. Again, it seems very basic when you think about it today, but at the time you had to convince people that adult education was a worthwhile endeavor for a college to take on.
Conway: My mother, whom I'm very much like, never got to finish high school, so I grew up with a woman who was starved for formal education and who educated herself quite marvelously through a very serious program of reading. But she was always conscious of the fact that she'd never had a formal education. She was widowed very young, at forty-four, and it would have been a dream if she could have gone to college and had that experience. She would have thrived.
She did try to study part-time at an Australian university, but people didn't take older women, sort of suburban housewives, seriously, so she never really settled down to do it.
When I got to The University of Toronto I chose to teach in the evenings. There would be a whole day schedule, then another in the evening for part-time students. I'd look at these women and I'd think of my mother; they would have worked all day as a secretary or a filing clerk or in retail sales or something like that, then they'd arrive on campus already tired. They just wouldn't have the energy to really do their best work.
Thinking about my mother, trying to counsel these women, convincing them to give themselves a bit more time...even if it was economically difficult they could develop so much of their own intellectual power that they'd benefit later. It all made me think, When I get to Smith, I'm going to see that we lead the way in showing people that women over twenty-five can be serious scholars and that the whole experience of an undergraduate education can be just as transforming for them as it is for an 18-22 year-old. And it's so clear that that's the case.
Dave: I found it particularly interesting how much trouble you had convincing people that marketing was important. To many people, marketing is a dirty word, a form of selling-out. And it can be. But marketing something you believe in is alternately a way to produce positive change. It's why I'm here at Powell's, because I like the place.
Conway: It all depends on what you're marketing. If what you're marketing is a first-rate education that people wouldn't otherwise know is available to them, that's a very important thing to do. If you are marketing wonderful books and making them available to people who might only have a junky bookstore close by them, that's a wonderful thing to do, too. Growing up in the outback of Australia, I can't tell you what it was like to get our parcel from the lending library - just such joy. It brought another world into our environment.
The thing about marketing a first-rate, eastern, liberal arts college in the day I was doing it was that they drew their student population entirely from prep schools, places where everybody knew what Smith and Harvard and Williams and Dartmouth were. You didn't need to market to them because they already knew about it. But as the possibility of applying opened to people in little rural villages in the south or remote farming communities somewhere, you had to have some way of letting sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds and their families know this was available, and you had to do it in terms they would understand. If you sent off the standard old catalogue of the Smith curriculum with very dry titles for the courses and no description of what they were about, how were they supposed to know that they might like this education?
Marketing is always equated with commercialism, and that's thought of as a dirty word. But commerce does good things, too, as well as bad.
Dave: In A Woman's Education you recall thinking, "Just as soon as I had time, I'd try to write a lively picture of the way a woman's mind developed and how her intellectual vocation is formed." That objective so accurately sums up these three books.
Conway: That was my dream, and in part it's because we do have a lengthy tradition of male writing about education, going back to classical times. We don't have anything similar from women.
There are great women writers, medieval nuns, who describe a spiritual formation, but no descriptions of the excitement of learning and discovering what one's own intellectual style and interests are, finding the right mentors, growing and understanding a discipline. That isn't written in a female voice, and I really wanted to do that.
I can remember when I was an undergraduate at The University of Sydney I would read all these male memoirs and descriptions of educations - there's a whole genre of "life at Oxford or Cambridge books" - and I'd think, I wonder what it's going to be like for me. If you don't have a cultural tradition in which to fit, I suppose you're free in the sense that you have a blank page to work with, but in another sense you're at sea in interpreting what's of real significance.
I particularly wanted to create this narrative because I know from teaching young men that they draw on that tradition, and young women don't have it. It makes understanding their education a lot more difficult. And of course because of my own strong convictions about how much one learns and grows after age twenty-two, I wanted to chart that through a professional career.
Conway: It's absolutely marvelous. She's writing with beautiful, elegant irony about the oppression of her family, the exploitation of the women in her family, and her life with a basically gay male community with whom she and her brother set up house after her father died.
As I wrote in When Memory Speaks, I always wish she'd once been able to get in an absolute flaming rage about what had happened to her - sexual exploitation by her step-brother and so on. Perhaps she wouldn't have had those terrible depressions that eventually carried her off.
But you must read it because she's a very great writer; she has this phrase about "moments of being," when the current of life seems clear. Those are so well woven into fiction in To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and so on. You can really see where they come from.
Dave: I've only read her fiction, and it's breathtaking. Of a class that you half-believe it's not a person writing this...
Conway: ...a force of nature.
Dave: I appreciated your analogy in A Woman's Education between the idea of "a room of one's own" to a college of one's own. Fifteen years after you left Smith, what's the role of women's colleges today?
Conway: It's still very much to provide an environment where women who are so-minded can be taught by a first-rate faculty in their own institution, which they and the alumnae own and have created. That's a very energizing experience, as I tried to explain in this book.
Secondly, it's very powerful to hold those institutions up as benchmarks for the rest of society. When people like to say for instance that women don't do well in physics or mathematics, it's helpful to point to the number of women PhDs produced in those fields by women's colleges and how well the women have performed in their careers.
Also, it's very important to have women's colleges as an organized lobbying force in higher education. So much educational policy, especially about public support, federal and state loan programs, and so on, is set entirely with male careers in mind unless there's a powerful organization there lobbying.
And I have another concern, which to me is very important and is highlighted by the tragedy of September 11th: American women's colleges have been greatly concerned with women's education around the world. They have founded institutions for women in India, China, Burma, and elsewhere. Their founders and leaders for many years believed that a women's position in the Western world was not safe while women were so terribly discriminated against in other cultures.
Those great women's institutions and their networks around the world still offer a way of mobilizing energy and resources to deal with education elsewhere. I know that's been very important to me. All those great women's schools - Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Barnard - they all have a solid contingent of women's students from around the world. Those students are leaders when they go back.
All those roles are still as important as the day I got to Smith.
Dave: Beyond issues of equality and freedom, the most straightforward argument you put forth is that to waste the potential of half a population, any population, is horribly lacking in foresight.
Conway: Everybody acknowledges that the abolition of slavery was a huge source of increased productivity for industrializing societies. When you develop free markets and labor and give people freedom to develop their talents, they're more productive.
The same goes for having totally segregated labor markets when women don't get the education and the skills to rise in responsibility and power and earnings. It's exactly the same argument, but people always think that an increase in access to the labor market or to political power for women will damage men. They think of it as a zero-sum game instead of increasing results for everyone. It's very hard to shake that.
Dave: In When Memory Speaks, you write about the traditional female role in biography as one that has been acted-upon; the women are rarely the actors. You became quite involved in business and economics when you were at Smith, and of course it's clear from the book why those skills were integral to the job. You've always created opportunities for yourself. How did you get on your first board?
Conway: When I came to Smith, it had only seventy-four million dollars in endowment. We were experiencing very high inflation; during the Carter years, we had 18-20% inflation. The cost of heating and lighting the campus had quadrupled in the previous six months. And there'd been a big shift in the capital markets; Smith's endowment was not invested to produce optimum returns. So, high inflation, shrinking value to the endowment, and very low returns from it...Quickly, I had to figure out how to get more operating support.
I knew from being part of running The University of Toronto that the average research university - a Harvard or a Yale - got about 15-20% of its operating money from corporate contributions. I thought, There's a new source, so I got together with Smith's networks and called the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies that were big donors to education, and I asked them why they didn't support women's colleges, and whether they would. Almost always, they would say, "Nobody's ever asked us. And yes, certainly we will."
But the net result was that I had been talking to all these CEOs just at the time that they were under a lot of pressure to recruit women to their boards. So there was an unintended consequence of my fundraising: they didn't know many women CEOs, and I'm sure when it came up they said, "I know someone who was around just a few weeks ago asking for money."
I actually received quite a few invitations to join corporate boards, but I chose the ones where I knew I would learn something that I needed for the job I was doing.
I went on the board of Merrill Lynch because I needed to understand how to manage an endowment, and I wanted to understand the investment world. I'm fascinated with economic history and wanted to understand capital markets in their modern form.
I went on one of IBM's boards at the World Trade Corporation, which is outside the United States, because I wanted to understand information processing and how it was going to affect the lives of my students.
I went on the board of a consulting company, Arthur D. Little, because it's basically a bunch of PhDs who have to make a profit for their owners at research and development and management consulting, and I was interested to see how they did it.
Those were all assignments I took on because they taught me things I needed to know.
Dave: You saw T.S. Eliot read!
Conway: Yes, I did! The most marvelous experience. His poetry is one of the shaping intellectual forces of my life. Still is.
I never dreamed that I would see him in the flesh and hear him read, but I did. He came to Cambridge quite regularly in the late fifties and early sixties. I heard Robert Frost read at Harvard, too. And other people: W.H. Auden...
Dave: At the time, was Eliot as influential as he is considered now? Did you assume that forty years later his reputation would remain as lofty?
Conway: He was. For the postwar generation, Eliot, Pound, and Yeats had been the most influential poets. There was a period in the late seventies and early eighties when they were out of popularity, when there was much more interest in the Victorians, but they've come back into favor again.
Dave: At McGill, in Montreal, where I went to college, they offered full semester courses on Eliot, Pound, and Yeats. One of the things I appreciate now about the education I received there is that we read nothing but classics. Yeats and Eliot were contemporary, as far as that formal, British educational outlook was concerned. They'd written during this century! I resented such a stodgy perspective at the time, but I'm so glad now for having read all those texts.
Conway: You probably had an education much like I had as an undergraduate in Australia. In that British mode, it's not important to study the immediate present. People feel there's no critical assessment. You read that for pleasure, but it's not Literature.
Dave: Do you read for pleasure much these days?
Conway: All the time. I tend to read autobiography and biography.
I think the art of biography is flourishing at the moment. If you think about the recent biographies of Jefferson, of John Adams, of Harry Truman (which is absolutely fabulous)...wonderful recent one of Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee...a wonderful one of Edna St. Vincent Millay...
And of course it's been an extraordinary period of memoir. That's what I read, plus poetry. I read for pleasure, also, things I loved at an earlier stage in my life. I might spend time reading James Joyce or George Eliot. If I haven't looked at that work in thirty or forty years, I'm a totally different reader coming to the text.
Dave: So what now? You're at M.I.T.?
Conway: I teach very part time at M.I.T., one course with a couple colleagues in the spring semester. I split my life up into time for writing, which is very early in the morning, a little bit of teaching, then a lot of work on philanthropic boards, foundations of one kind or another, and corporate boards. And I devote a good deal of time to small, not-for-profit organizations that don't have much fundraising capacity or don't have strong governance, trying to help them get started.
Dave: Are you working on a book now?
Conway: I've been writing murder mysteries with a friend. We publish them under a pseudonym [Clare Munnings]. So I'm trying my hand at fiction, and that's a lot of fun. I don't know what I'll write next. This Volume Three is the end; that's what the memoir was meant to be.
My late husband was working on a memoir when he died, so at the moment I'm at work on editing that, and I'll probably write the last few chapters. Other than that, I can't tell you. Maybe something about my avocation, which is gardening and landscape design, or it might be about education, maybe religious reflections. You never know what you'll want to write until it starts writing itself in your head.
Jill Ker Conway met an overflowing audience in the Pearl Room of Powell's City of Books on November 16, 2001, answered questions, and read from A Woman's Education.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State