Women's History Month essay from Jill Blair

March 08, 2019

Today's Women's History Month essay is from Jill Blair:


For Women’s History Month 2019, I’d like to honor Dr. Jill Ker Conway. She may not be a household name, but she’s a woman worth knowing. Jill Ker was born in 1934 in the outback of Australia and grew up on the family’s sheep farm. She didn’t receive formal schooling until the age of 14. With this humble beginning, few would expect that she’d become the first woman president of Smith College in 1975. I first learned Dr. Ker Conway’s story when my professional mentor gave me a copy of Dr. Ker Conway’s book A Woman’s Education. I’ve returned to this book—as well as the other two books of Dr. Ker Conway’s memoir—whenever life has left me feeling disoriented, uncertain of my next move. At a time when the world was grappling with the role women should play in society, Dr. Ker Conway bridged a gap between 1950’s expectations and 1970’s feminism, quietly (yet forcefully) challenging norms and cultivating new pathways for the next generation of women. There was no example for her to look to as she helped redefine women’s education or as she and her husband built a marriage based on mutual respect and cooperation. She learned to trust her own intuition, listening to her own voice whenever the path forward was unclear. But don’t let that characterization mislead you; she did not over-romanticize her success or give into sentimentality, rather her example provides an alternative perspective on ambition, intelligence and self-determination.

Over forty years after Dr. Ker Conway became president of Smith, we’re still grappling with many of the same questions: How does society perceive intelligent and ambitious women who pursue leadership? Why do institutional policies make it so difficult for individuals of any gender to create lives that reflect their internal values and desires? How can women change the rules rather than just try to “beat the men at their own game”? I’m sad to say that Dr. Ker Conway passed away last year. With so many of these challenges now so immediately present and overwhelming, we could use Jill Ker Conway’s voice and leadership. I’m glad her words continue to live in the books stacked on my bedside table.


Dr. Jill Ker Conway was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2013.