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A Woman's Education

A Woman's Education

4.5 2
by Jill Ker Conway

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The acclaimed author of the best-selling The Road from Coorain and True North now gives us the third book in her remarkable continuing memoir—describing the pleasures, the challenges, and the constant surprises (good and bad) of her years as the first woman president of Smith College.

The story opens in 1973 as Conway, unbeknownst to her,


The acclaimed author of the best-selling The Road from Coorain and True North now gives us the third book in her remarkable continuing memoir—describing the pleasures, the challenges, and the constant surprises (good and bad) of her years as the first woman president of Smith College.

The story opens in 1973 as Conway, unbeknownst to her, is first “looked over” as a prospective candidate by members of the Smith community, and continues as she assesses her passions and possibilities and agrees to the new challenge of heading the college in 1975. The jolt of energy she gets from being surrounded by several thousand young women enables her to take on the difficulties that arise in dealing with the diverse Smith constituencies—from the self-appointed protectors of the great male tradition of humanistic learning to the equally determined young feminists insisting on change. We see Conway juggling the needs and concerns of faculty, students, parents, trustees, and alumnae, and re-defining and redesigning aspects of the college to create programs in line with the new realities of women’s lives. We sense the urgency of her efforts to shape an institution that will attract students of the 1990s and beyond.

Through it all we see Jill Ker Conway coping with her husband’s illness, and learning to protect and sustain her inner self. As the end of a decade at Smith approaches, we see her realizing that she has both had her education and made her contributions, and that it is time now for her to graduate.

Editorial Reviews

Readers of Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain and True North will be gratified that the third volume of her memoirs does not lag. Conway's account of her tenure as the first woman president of Smith College is rich, candid, and full of diverting asides. Feminists, antifeminists, academicians, and inveterate skeptics will all find this adroitly written book an education in itself.
F Baron Harvey
Jill Conway gives the reader that rare glimpse of a whole person tacking historic events. Her language is clear and crisp, her observations astute, her understanding of history remarkable, even as she is making it, yet all this from a woman's point of view—not only about success or failure, but the larger issues of living. Ultimately, Jill Conway, like any great author, leaves us better off for our journey through A Woman's Education. Her deep respect for life, her careful, honest, open exploration of how we live our lives and her unrelenting belief in a set of values that have the power to take root in people and institutions makes us take stock of our own lives. She does this graciously, joyfully, and enjoyably.
Shelly Lazarus
A Woman's Education provides a rare insider's view of what it means and what it takes to be a college president, as well as a unique perspective on an institution many of us have come to know and love.It was the first thing I handed to Carol Christ, the moment after she was elected the new President of Smith College.
John Kenneth Galbraith
Jill Ker Conway is the the first to have written of years as a college or university president. In this book, nonetheless, she has set a standard to which all in the future will have to conform. In diversly interesting English, with penetrating insight and memory, she has told of the problems and prospects of leading amuch admired college. And of doing it very well. No one can think that they have a full understanding of women's rights, scholarly conflict, required personal commitment and true accomplishment who hasn'tread these pages. And further, no one can know what enjoyment was missed. On education, not to say also personal biography, it is truly the book of the year.
Carolyn Heilbrun
To be president of Smith from 1975 to 1985 required guts and resilience; Conway met the challenge. Her compelling account of that roller-coaster ride prompts amazement. There is much to marvel at here; my favorite gem is her portrayal of the aging male conservative faculty defending their cozy turf.
Margaret F. Mahoney
This masterful story interweaves lives with institutional history and modern times. The backdrop is arenowned woman's college that was fated to be hidebound by tradition until it captured a president whose past dictated her future and that of the college. Challenged by the opportunity, she led courageous innovations and, amazingly agile in neutralizing foes, and intellectually honest, she chose to act on whatmattered most to the long-term viability of the college. In the process, she captured the imagination and support of a disparate gang -- students, trustees, faculties, and administrators. It is a poignant tale ofpersonal and professional courage that should be read because it is all so human and so profound. Lessons are there for the young and the old because she dares to tell the truth.
Mary Patterson McPherson
As a Smith alumna and a fellow laborer in the groves of women's colleges, I found Jill Ker Conway's book both absorbing and touching....Her educational vision and personal courage stood her, and eventually the institution she served so well, in very good stead. A Woman's Education is an engaging personal study of a complicated period in the women's movement and in the development of selective women's colleges.
Mary Maples Dunn
In A Woman's Education, Jill Ker Conway continues her fiercely introspective and fearless study of her own life, public role and intellectual development. It is a compelling story of an active, ambitious and intellectually forceful woman who has shaped her own life. And along the way, she provides an invaluable and frank history of how a women's college met the challenges of the second wave of feminism under the direction of a thoroughly independent thinker who was determined to build a modern, feminist institution. As her successor, I was constantly aware of my debt to her, and found her own story of her years at Smith entirely fascinating and instructive.
Nannerl O. Keohane
Jill Ker Conway continues the absorbing and beautifully crafted account of her life's journey with herexperiences as president of Smith. As always, her autobiography is an excellent read for anyone who cares about interesting lives, thoughtfully described. This particular volume should appeal to anyone who has ever wondered what college and university presidents actually do, and why anyone would want such a job. Jill gives her own answers to these questions with candor, humor, and acute attentiveness to the multifaceted nature of the sometimes bizarre and apparently impenetrable office of the president.
Publishers Weekly
Conway's goals and visions as the first female president of elite Smith College during an era in which many women's institutions were going co-ed are the focus of this plainspoken and gracefully written third volume of her memoirs (following The Road from Coorain and True North). When Conway, then age 39, took the helm of Smith College in 1975, she knew that her determination to make Smith competitive as "an avowedly modern feminist institution" would be a difficult challenge. In addition, she faced the disapproval of most of the entrenched senior male faculty, as well as academic infighting and tensions between the faculty and the board of trustees. She is candid about the problems in her decade there, revealing as well her own misgivings and vulnerabilities and the stresses of her personal life. Learning quickly that she had to be a political strategist, mediator and fundraiser, Conway took as her main mission the need to convey the liberalizing qualities of single-sex education for women seeking to develop their identities. Despite alumnae criticism of the strong lesbian presence at Smith, she was also outspoken in her passionate defense of gay rights as a fundamental feminist issue. Yet she also records her intellectual differences with much of the ideology of the feminist movement. There are poignant passages, when Conway describes her "losses" and her husband's accelerating manic depression, but the main thrust is her forceful argument about the superior ability of women's colleges to liberate students from the shibboleths and constraints of the male-dominated point of view prevalent at most other institutions. Whether or not readers agree with her analysis, they will respond to herhigh ideals, courageous spirit and humanistic philosophy. (Oct. 29) Forecast: The Road from Coorain created a core audience for Conway that goes well beyond Smith alumnae and feminists. Whether this more focused and cerebral book will attract an equal number of readers is an open question, but Conway's articulate presence on talk shows during her eight-city tour could move a sizable portion of the 40,000-copy first printing. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Smith College's first woman president, who was born in New South Wales, Australia, and is currently a visiting scholar and professor at MIT, continues the memoirs she began in The Road from Coorain and True North. This latest work starts with Conway's move from Canada to Northampton, MA, in 1975, to assume her duties at Smith and ends with her decision to step down in 1985. Conway arrived at the women's college at a time when single-gender schools were falling prey to coeducation. She brought new energy to what some considered a stuffy, old-fashioned institution yet kept its integrity. Conway describes the events of her decade of leadership with a mixture of humor, intelligence, and insight. The reader is treated to tales of dissatisfied faculty, the joys of gardening, and the illness of Conway's husband. Having read Conway's previous memoirs is not a prerequisite to enjoying this work, as she relates enough of her earlier years to fill in the gaps. Those interested in education and women's studies will be drawn to this work. For most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/01.] Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Autobiographical lessons from the education Conway received as the first female president of Smith. In her When Memory Speaks, Conway observed that "what makes the reading of autobiography so appealing is the chance it offers to see how this man or that woman negotiated the problem of self-awareness and has broken the internalized code a culture supplies about how life should be experienced." This volume, the third installment of the author's life (The Road from Coorain; True North), centers on the realizations and accomplishments Conway made in her decade (1975-85) at Smith's helm. Viewing her calling as a "latter-day Christine de Pizan," Conway sets about building an educational system that opens the doors of intellectual maturity to all women while avoiding the presidential pitfall of losing her autonomy to the institution. Her achievements are impressive. Conway's inspired vision as a reformer of education not only enabled older women to return to college decades before catering to the nontraditional student came into vogue, but extended financial aid to welfare mothers and greatly expanded athletic programs to women, convincingly refuting the elitist assumption that women, sport, and academic prowess don't mix. Most of this memoir does not detail the process by which this social historian achieved her goals; rather, it analyzes the psychological and intellectual effects of that experience. One might have hoped for a little more balance between method and meaning, given both the pioneering nature of Conway's actions and the instructional tone of some of her reflections. Occasionally readers may feel in the midst of a primer for administrators of higher ed-not necessarily a flaw here, but a surprising emphasis for a writer so attuned to the emotional underpinnings of autobiography. Theoretical generalizations aside, these are engaging scenes from the most public chapter of an accomplished feminist's life.
From the Publisher
“An exceptional story. . . . Crisp and engaging.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Jill Ker Conway is a woman of extraordinary character, ability and ambition. One might hope to learn from her memoir how such talent emerges, and how it finds its best employment.” –The New York Times

“A lively book [by] a woman of strong convictions and forceful personality.” –The Boston Globe

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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2 MB

Read an Excerpt



On a stormy day in November 1973, I walked back across the campus to Simcoe Hall, the University of Toronto's administration building, which nestled behind the dome of Convocation Hall, looking out across a spacious circle of green, toward the amazing Victorian excess of University College, the gentler lines of Hart House, the men's union, and the nondescript international style of the overcrowded humanities library. The tout ensemble symbolized all the contradictory things I loved about the University. The scale and classical façade of Convocation Hall spoke about the national aspirations of Canada's oldest university. The aggressively Victorian mien of University College announced the weight the founders gave to its secular leanings, which opposed the church-affiliated colleges that made up the rest of the University. Every outrageous gargoyle and buttress proclaimed Darwin and Spencer. Hart House's graceful arches showed the Oxbridge loyalties that had shaped the university's intellectual aspirations, and the overcrowded and nondescript library announced the wave of expansion that had swept over the university in the baby boom years. I never looked at them all without an affectionate pleasure for the three-dimensional representation they provided of the frustrations and challenges of running part of this large and untidy institution.

But this afternoon my usual pleasure was replaced by exasperation at the day's interviews. I'd been reviewing the budgets of University services all day, telling everyone the unwelcome news that there would have to be severe budget cuts and personnel layoffs in the next fiscal year. Everyone knew the reductions were caused by declining Ontario government support for the University, but nonetheless the bearer of bad tidings always has to hear out the complaints of the victims, complaints I sympathized with even though I had to be firm about the cuts. It had been painful to tell my old physician friend that in his last years as head of the health service, he must scale back its quality. And the offbeat countercultural types who ran the best counseling service for youthful drug users around had looked at me knowingly as though they'd always expected that it was inevitable that I'd let them down someday.

So I didn't climb the stairs to my second-floor office at my usual pace. Still deep in thought about finance and politics, I came in the door to find my secretary poised by my desk. Petite and dark, with eyes that flashed, she was, to me, a kind of muse, her arms forever laden with mail and folders, her dazzling smile always urging me on. Though easily fifteen years my junior, she treated me with affectionate firmness, as if she were my mother.

As I signed the mail, she began rattling off details of my flight to Ottawa, who was to meet me, where the evening's dinner meeting was, all the while stuffing things into my briefcase. As she rammed the last folder in, she gave me a brilliant smile. "There's another letter from a search committee in there," she said, gesturing toward the bulging briefcase. "It's an American one. I hope you don't do it."

I was heading out the door, laden with luggage, when I stopped to ask the usual question. "Any news?" She broke into peals of laughter. "He's still there," she said, "and no one's got cholera yet." She was giving me the
daily bulletin on the determined emeritus professor who had barricaded himself in his office in the University library, refusing to move to the new space allocated to emeriti. He'd survived in his old office for six weeks, apparently without benefit of plumbing, using most of his time to bombard my office with wonderfully crotchety memoranda, which we all loved to read.

I was, as usual, late at the airport, necessitating a sprint through the elongated terminal for the Ottawa gate. So by the time I collapsed, puffing and sweating, into my seat, I'd forgotten the conversation. Then, as we waited for the obligatory deicing required by the early storm, I came across the letter from the Smith College Presidential Search Committee. Something of an anticlimax after being inspected so transparently almost six months ago. It contained an invitation to meet with them as soon as possible, signed by Robert Morgenthau, who I knew to be the much-respected Manhattan District Attorney. I glanced down the list of committee members, spotting the noted art historian we'd met in May at the MacLeishes', and a Harvard professor of Tudor history, who was an old graduate school friend of my husband's.

Once the plane took off, there was no more time to think about it, because I had to read the papers for my late-afternoon meeting and collect my thoughts for the dinner speech I was to make. Later, when I called John in Toronto to say good night and mentioned the belated appearance of the letter, he was instantly alert and said I must definitely meet with the Search Committee. I didn't want to change my life or the job I loved, but to please him, I answered the invitation affirmatively and set my disapproving secretary to work making arrangements, her cheeks pink with indignation, and the straightness of her back a powerful reproach.

The night before meeting the Search Committee at the Century Association in New York, I dined there with John's and my old friend and confidant, Stephen Graubard. Steve was a friend of John's from graduate school days, a historian of modern Europe, someone who'd known me since my teaching fellow days in his and John's course at Harvard. He was an enthusiastic advocate of thinking seriously about going to Smith, or some institution like it.

"Look," he said over the Century's bad dinner and excellent wine, "you've begun working in academic administration. I doubt that you'll settle for just a history department again. You should come back to the United States. There's more to be achieved here in the private system, much more than you'll be able to do in Canada."

Steve's advice and concern with my career, and John's and my happiness, recalled our years together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, years among the happiest of my life. After dinner, we slipped easily into talk about our circle of mutual friends. His affection and friendship made it seem easier to move again.

The next day, back in one of the private dining rooms at the Century, I enjoyed the initial interview. It was a welcome change from my role as budget cutter for all the parts of the University of Toronto that reported
to me. The group was pretty much what I'd meet on a Canadian governing board, but their mood was different. Faculty, the student member, and trustees alike wanted to talk about achieving greatness. How did I think
Smith's pioneering history and mission could be restated, redefined, enlarged to make it the outstanding leader in women's education for the next quarter century? I was talking to a group of energetic and affirmative people about building academic excellence and serving the cause of women, the things closest to my heart. They seemed to take it for granted that resources could be raised for any program of excellence.

It was seductive to talk with people for whom education was the highest priority, rather than one in a competing set of interests politicians traded off. I began to sense the contemporary energy and drive of an institution I knew mostly from its history. The interview hummed with vitality. They were easy to talk to about my historical work, and startled by my outsider's perception that it didn't matter in the least that all the Ivies were going coeducational. I knew there were enough bright women needing an education to go around. Besides, I thought that a women's college that drew from the best high schools around the country might be a more interesting place to attend than one peopled by graduates of exclusive prep schools who might now be lured to Harvard and Princeton. We got along well.

As is always the case, a headhunter's beguiling call or a meeting with a search committee interrupts the breakneck flow of the present and sets one musing about past and future. So I went back to Toronto puzzling about where I was in life, and where I ought to be going. The question of leaving Toronto required not just the superficial check we make in a busy life to see where a midcourse correction to the current plan might be necessary, but the deeper wrenching kind of examination that goes with the decision to pull up roots and start again somewhere else.

If invited, I'd be facing a decision that would change my life course and John's. For someone thirty-nine, a move from Canada back to the United States would be more than just another academic move. It had political ramifications at many levels. I'd left Australia for the United States thirteen years before in search of wider opportunities. When I'd met and married a Canadian historian at Harvard, it had closed the circle for me to move back to the British Commonwealth world. I loved the United States and its dynamism, its intellectual drive, its passion for getting things done, but I valued the old British sense of fair play that infused Australian and Canadian political values. Stephen Graubard was right that one could have more influence from within the American private educational system. The question was one of service. Where did I belong?

Certainly the British world wasn't my only political commitment. I was a feminist, and that was a universal cause, to be served wherever the environment offered the greatest opportunity for leadership. It was a heady time in the feminist movement in 1973. But I knew feminism was a cyclical phenomenon, so one could have the greatest impact by strengthening the institutions that kept it alive in all environments, and I knew they were in the United States.

When I looked back on my life, the story of my coming of age was easy to tell. It was the story of the bright rural child carried by education to graduate school at Harvard and the academic profession in Canada. I'd met the ideal mate at Harvard. A teacher of genius, a fellow historian, a man with deep roots in my own British Commonwealth world, a quicksilver character of such charm and wit that people of all ages and backgrounds came under his spell. He was also a man of deep spirituality, for whom, as for me, art, music, and literature were
important routes to understanding the human condition. I loved his effervescent humor, his extraordinary talent with words, and the gaiety that went with seeing life as ultimately tragic. And it was important that he wasn't exclusively an academic. He'd been an infantry officer in the Eighth Army in 1939—1945, and he'd grown up working summers in logging camps in remote parts of British Columbia. We'd begun our life together with high hopes and the absolute commitment that the marriage would be arranged so that I could fulfill my dream of full-time professional work as an historian.

We'd done all that. But a look at where I was in midlife called up a much more complex picture. For one thing, there had been painful, bruising losses as well as gains in the decade since I'd married and begun my absorbing academic career. The life plot I'd had in mind at marriage to a brilliant academic husband had stubbornly refused to materialize. There weren't the dreamed-of children, because I could get pregnant but not carry a fetus to term. Each set of hopes soon dashed was like having a stone where the heart should be.

And then, as my brilliant but mercurial husband's moods collapsed into long, profound, heartbreaking depression, I had something more serious to worry about than infertility. In the urgency of struggling for maturity to handle these somber chapters, I'd scarcely noticed the many possible paths opening in my professional life. But they were substantial, and the invitation from Smith's Search Committee brought them home to me in a concrete form by presenting the choice between the United States and Canada.

I could see that the Smith Board's interest was logical. I'd made my reputation as an historian writing on the history of women's education in the United States. I'd studied the historical circumstances and motives that produced the characteristic American pattern of coeducational higher educational institutions and elite colleges for either a male or a female student body. So I'd had many years to reflect on the ways educational institutions could foster or impede equal treatment for women.

And more recently, I'd become involved in academic administration. At thirty-seven, I'd surprised myself by setting aside the book I was enjoying writing and becoming a Vice President of the University of Toronto. While in that role, I could still pretend that I'd soon be back in my office in the History Department, getting ready to teach again. But to decide to become a college president would be to permit such fudging no longer. If I became president of an American liberal arts college with a distinguished feminist history, I'd have to commit to do it for a reasonable period of time, and that would involve a decision that would change John's and my life permanently.

I knew from observing the people I most admired who were a generation or so older than I that an adult life can be made a work of art. It's a slowly emerging design, with shifting components, occasional dramatic disruptions, and fresh, creative rearrangements. I thought of Archie and Ada MacLeish tossing away professional successes in the United States to live in Paris in the 1920s as poet and singer. Or some of my favorite members of the Harvard faculty, who'd changed countries for political or scholarly reasons. Now I'd arrived at a moment to scrutinize my life's design, and to decide how I wanted to develop the canvas. The process was helped by the arrival of a large packet of financial and academic information from Smith that confirmed that the job was doable, at least in the near term. Smith lacked a significant endowment, but its operating finances were in reasonably good order.

It was a scrutiny that for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons I was going to have to undertake pretty much alone. John was convinced I should make the move, but only I could assess whether this was a real calling--a
vocation that would call out the best in me. In the next few weeks, the scrutiny went with me everywhere. It was the subtext of my stream of consciousness at meetings of the University's governing board, on weekend hikes with John over the Bruce Trails along the Niagara Escarpment outside Toronto, at the seasonal round of Christmas parties, while shoveling the winter snow.

My life had gone at such a pace since leaving Australia, and I had moved about so much, that there hadn't been time for taking stock or dreaming about the future. I'd been preoccupied with a freshly breaking present. Graduate school examinations, producing a doctoral thesis, marrying someone my family didn't approve of, moving to Canada, coping with John's long hospitalization for depression.

When I cast up the accounts on the matter of staying in Canada or moving into a new institution and a more public role, I thought the negatives clearly predominated. I was by nature solitary. Born on an isolated sheep
station, virtually an only child while my brothers were in boarding school, I needed the quiet of libraries and the comfort of losing myself in some research project. The sounds I liked best were the subdued rustle
of manuscripts and papers in an archive, and the hushed background voices of a library staff careful not to interrupt. I could manage being with people constantly, but I found it exhausting, an inheritance of a childhood where we could go months without seeing another human being come by the homestead.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Jill Ker Conway was born in Hillston, New South Wales, Australia, graduated from the University of Sydney in 1958, and received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1969. In 1962 she married John Conway and moved with him to his native Canada. From 1964 to 1975 she taught at the University of Toronto, where she was also Vice President, before going to Smith College. Since 1985 she has been a visiting scholar and professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She serves on the boards of Nike, Merrill Lynch, and Colgate-Palmolive, and as Chairman of Lend Lease Corporation. She lives in Boston.

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A Woman's Education 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
oldmanmarco More than 1 year ago
A Woman's Education is the final of three volumes of enormously satisfying memoirs by Jill Ker Conway (the first being The Road From Coorain, and the second, True North). This final volume deals with Conway's decision to accept the position of President of Smith College, the first woman to be appointed as head of this renowned educational establishment. Conway's enduring study of educational opportunities and conditions in women's education made her magnificently suited for the job. In an understated, almost muted performance in this position, Conway brings about significant beneficial changes at Smith College, not least of which is the shift from the traditional male-dominated decision-making at the college to more and more women decision-makers. A Woman's Education also describes Conway's steady maturity at the leadership helm of the college. At the end of ten years, she faces other, deeply personal decisions that will shape what she wants to do with the rest of her life. If you have not read these memoirs, do yourself a favor--read The Road From Coorain, True North, and A Woman's Education for a rich and rewarding literary experience!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Taking high level professional positions necessarily leads to compromises in one's personal life. Dr. Kerr Conway describes her adjustments to dealing with the complexities of a university from a distance and shows how she adjusted her life to these pressures both personally and professionally. She articulates an educated, feminist perspective that is truly honorable and helped her to succeed in a variety of endeavors. She also shows how she made life metamorphoses throughout her continuing development. One is left with a wish to know her better as a person and a professional. On the other hand, this is not a great book about learning to be an academic administrator, it is a better book on learning to be a person.