Pivotal moments come in many guises. For Jill Ker Conway — historian, feminist, author of nine books, first woman president of Smith College, and visiting professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society since 1985 — a defining episode occurred in 1957 in her native Australia. The top student in her graduating class at the University of Sydney — and the only woman in the honors course — Conway was refused a post in the Australian Foreign Service, while two of her classmates, both men, were accepted.
As she wrote in her 1989 best-selling memoir about her early life in the outback, The Road from Coorain, the reason for her rejection had nothing to do with talent and everything with gender: “‘Too good-looking’ was one report. ‘She’d be married within the year.’ ‘Too intellectually aggressive’ was another assessment. “That episode set Conway on a lifelong course devoted to increasing women’s access to power.
The subsequent stepping stones in Conway’s journey followed with Harvard graduate school, where she arrived with “a major question in my mind. How is it that we had the better part of 100 years of access to higher education for women, and so little results in professional or political life?”
Dedicating herself at Harvard to exploring 19th-century feminists, she went on to teach American history and serve as vice president for internal affairs at the University of Toronto, and in 1975 became president of Smith College. The challenges in her 10-year tenure there included dealing with “a predominantly male faculty threatened by having a feminist woman as president and very resistant to change,” she says, adding that a major external challenge was keeping Smith a woman-only college at a time when pro co-education forces were swelling.
“If the instructor doesn’t hear a woman when she speaks or doesn’t call on her when she raises her hand or directs her to marginal topics because she’s not to be taken seriously, co-education is no answer whatsoever, ” she comments.
Since Smith, Conway’ s intellectual home has been MIT. For the past three years, she has been teaching the cross-disciplinary graduate course, “Eco-crisis or eco-myth,” which deals with the intellectual origins of environmental thought; Conway focuses on eco-feminism — “the body of thought that regards the trash we dump in the environment and the destruction of habitats as a mainly Western, male-inspired activity,” she explains. It is one she profoundly disagrees with because it posits an essentialist view of gender roles. Teaching at MIT is “great fun,” she notes, “because it’s a wonderful testing of assumptions — testing somebody whose training is in history with an engineer to [see if there’s] even a shared definition of an event.”
Conway also spends a good deal of time in the corporate universe: She is chairman of Lend Lease Corporation, a global real estate financial services firm, and sits on numerous boards, including Nike, Inc., Merrill Lynch and Co., Inc, and Colgate-Palmolive Co. Citing the similarities between being a corporate player and an historian, Conway asserts that “historians are trained to use a style of reasoning that looks for the origins of things and traces their development over time.
They can often spot a long-term trend that management doesn’t notice because it is so focused on the moment. It also means you are able to bring a more nuanced and sophisticated notion of causation to organizational change and competitive situations.”
Conway credits her early childhood experience on a remote Australian sheep farm with developing her “instrumental approach” to work. “I was the only female child in my family. Our neighbors were miles away. The only people who worked on the place were men, so I didn’ t have any females to observe or model myself after,” she says, adding that “most women are not trained to be instrumental in their thought patterns. They’re trained to be expressive. And though those are not genetically-based traits, they do influence how people interact at work.” The instrumental approach means acting on the universe, she explains, “not waiting to be asked to dance.”
THIRD WORLD FOCUS
These days, Conway is taking her lifelong commitment to empowering women outside the realm of academia. Still involved in women’s education, she now focuses on the Third World. She helped found Global Alliance, an affiliate of the International Youth Foundation (IYF), which uses worker surveys to learn what a predominantly female factory labor force needs to advance beyond factory work. “The Western-style education that’s usually exported to the developing world is based on a total misunderstanding of women’s roles,” she says, citing that “in a country like the Philippines, women run all the small businesses, but the business education is for men.”
Working with IYF and factory owners, Conway helped devise surveys to determine the women workers’ true needs and interests. Based on these surveys, approximately 9,000 Thai workers are receiving health care information and education; another 40,000 Vietnamese and 60,000 Indonesian women workers will receive similar programs next year. Such numbers testify to the power of Conway’s pivotal moment of discrimination 40 years ago in Australia, occurring to a singular soul, transmuted to global proportions.