The role Jill Conway played in shaping women's and others' education (opinion)

Jill Ker Conway died this summer, on June 1. Obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Canada’s Globe and Mail and Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald followed a few days later, all struggling to capture the essentials of a life and mind that defied categorization.

An historian of American feminism and the first female vice president of the University of Toronto, Conway was little known outside academic circles until her appointment as the president of Smith College in 1975. Following the successes of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement had made important strides, as formerly all-male Ivy League institutions and male liberal arts institutions had either begun to admit women or were in the process of doing so. Where would that leave women’s colleges -- and the storied women’s liberal arts college Smith, in particular? What role might they play? Surely, their survival dictated going coed.

The appointment of a woman -- the first in the Smith’s history and a feminist at that -- almost 100 years to the day after the college admitted its first students, challenged that easy assumption and made national headlines. Time magazine would name Conway, together with Barbara Bush, a “Woman of the Year.”

Conway insisted that men and women should have equal access to any education and career, given their equal intellectual gifts and the strength of women’s bodies. Her argument was not just moral but also pragmatic: our society could not afford to squander the minds and skills of half its members. Smith College should support women at all stages of their lives. Further, it was not enough that a woman received an education equal to that of any man. The institution must undertake in the curriculum to address the existential questions that women encounter when social expectations deprive them of opportunity or push them in directions at odds with realizing their full potential.

Smith’s students and alumnae greeted her appointment with unalloyed joy. But Smith’s senior, mostly male, faculty members did not. They were comfortable teaching the canon, and the only acceptable change for many would have been to go coed. They made things quite difficult for Conway. But over the course of a decade, with the support of a handful of mostly junior faculty (the leader of whom, Susan Bourque, would many years later become Smith’s provost), foundations, her board and various allies in the Five Colleges (including her close friend, Mount Holyoke’s president Elizabeth Kennan), she outflanked the old guard. When she decided to leave Smith in 1985, she left a profoundly changed institution.

As with the other big decisions she took, relinquishing the presidency of Smith was a considered step, followed by a leap into the unknown. She wrote that she did not want to land in an academic program or department. Studying other people’s texts no longer satisfied her; she wanted to write her own. And that is what she did, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively, she seemed determined to explore the range of careers that opened up to her as a result of her presidency of Smith -- a reaction, perhaps, to her early experience of being closed out of governmental and other nonacademic careers in her native Australia. She became a businesswoman. She explored corporate governance, serving nearly 30 years each on the boards of Nike and Merrill-Lynch. She also founded a nonprofit and served on many nonprofit and educational boards.

Literally, she wrote text. After leaving Smith, she would produce three beautifully written memoirs that sketched the details of her first 50 years. Those works amplified her fame. The first, the bestselling Road from Coorain, told the story of her early childhood on a remote farm in the Australian outback, growing up homeschooled in virtual isolation. She was sent to boarding school at age 10 after the sudden, unexpected death of her father. She blazed through undergraduate studies at the University of Sydney.

The second, True North, details the phase of her life that begins with her decision to move to the United States: “I’d arrived at the choice by exhausting all the possibilities of interesting careers in Australia discovering, one by one, that they were not open to women.” She would ultimately receive her Ph.D. in history from Harvard University for her work on feminism in American history. There, she and John Conway, charismatic Harvard professor and decorated Canadian war veteran, fell passionately in love. Over family objections about the age disparity between them, they married and moved to Toronto. Jill Conway taught at the University of Toronto, where she quickly became professor, then dean, then first female vice president of the university.

Her third memoir, A Woman’s Education, sketches the decade beginning with her 40th birthday in 1975, when the couple returned to Massachusetts so that she could assume the presidency of Smith.

Her memoirs brought her even more fame. Deservedly.

They are well worth rereading today, and not just because of the beauty of the writing and the subtlety of Conway’s thought. She did more than write her own text. In fact, after writing her first two memoirs, she wrote When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography, a book about the literal act of writing one’s own text. In that book, she explores why autobiography is the most popular form of fiction for modern readers, and how society and culture context shape not just options but also how one thinks of those options and one’s life. She examines how that plays out differently for men and for women of different races, writing in different times and societies, and notes, “So we should read feminist memoirs as conscious acts of rebellion.”

Reading any of Conway’s memoirs, especially A Women’s Education, as an act of rebellion has much to say about higher education today. Her insistence that Smith truly welcome all women and honestly prepare them for the world they would encounter outside the college challenges all educators to think through how that translates for our own students, and her experiences changing Smith offer us a model for institutional change. She reminds us that the marginalization of women or any group, and the closure of careers to them, harms everyone. Lastly, her writing teaches us that power resides not just in what you say, but how you say it.

Thank you, Jill Conway.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College.

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Why academe should honor prickly women (opinion)

You may see them in the women who won’t back down. You may see them in the colleagues who ask “pointed” questions. You may see them as the loud voices taking up all the space in the room.

They are known throughout history as the “killjoys,” the “ice queens,” the “hysterics,” the “ball-busters.” They are the “Prickly Women” -- the women who don’t let things go, who stand up for themselves and others, and who question the status-quo of structural inequities and outdated institutional practices. They stick out decidedly among the “bro-hood” of academic administration.

Despite the negative connotations and perceptions they incite, Prickly Women have exactly the kind of insight and persistence needed as the crises in higher education continue to mount. We argue that among the deluge of advice being tossed around to address those crises, one of the most radically simple solutions would be to identify your Prickly Women and listen to them.

They are not the newly minted Ph.D.s, nor are they the “up-and-comers” who bring much needed enthusiasm into the conversation about higher education. Prickly Women have been through the wars. They have seen colleagues fall or be pushed out. They have seen the fast fixes thrown like darts at a wall to see what sticks. They have most likely been among those darts -- among those members of underrepresented groups invited to join the hallowed halls of academe only to be left to their own devices

There are many of them, and they are not all the same. They each have their own challenges and battles. They are black, they are white, they are Latinx, they are Queer. They are moms, they are single, they are able-bodied or not.

Their identities intersect in a myriad of ways. They are not always allies nor are they always friends. But if you look around your institution for mid-career professionals, you will find Prickly Women with tales to tell and scars to show. And, you will see they have been systematically silenced -- and relegated to do the hard, thankless service work that keeps institutions running.

It is almost redundant at this point to talk about the stereotypical, angry female colleague or leader. The literature is full of evidence to show us that our image of Prickly Women is an entirely constructed one. They are the product of stereotypes that suggest women hold the floor longer than their male colleagues; that they are prone to irrational, emotional outbursts; that they are angry when providing constructive feedback. They are “bossy” leaders, those who incite mistrust should they take on the mannerisms of their male colleagues.

In fact, you may begin to see them as men should their anger be expressed across their faces. They are in a catch-22: if Prickly Women take on the feminine role of care-giver, they are seen as weak and less serious; if they adopt the confidence and “agentic behavior” lauded in their male colleagues, they become bitches. In other words, traditional gender roles deny them access to academe, while betraying those roles relegates them to the sidelines as people worthy of admonition and punishment. In fact, even the crisis in higher education today has been blamed on Prickly Women. A recent article suggests that one reason trust in higher education may be eroding is the number of women who have joined its ranks and obtained success.

But instead of dismissing Prickly Women, we must embrace them. The metaphor itself shows the value of Prickly Women -- they are sharp, they cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.

What Prickly Women have to offer is the ability to let go of what is not working, the willingness to try new things, the ability to listen to others without feeling threatened, and the courage to be leaders when needed and followers when inspired. They are keenly aware of their own limitations while still capable of valuing the strength in others. At this point in their careers, they convey and respect vulnerability, the kind that draws unlikely partners together to combat common foes.

Prickly Women on campuses have deep institutional memory and history. They have knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They see why shiny, new programs aren’t the answer to your problems; they see what the “boring” time-tested programs have to offer. Prickly Women know who the players are, they know what the games are, they know what the rules are and when and how to break them.

Prickly Women very likely have strong, robust networks of prickly pissed-off colleagues and they know how to engage those networks to get the real work done. They want others to succeed and are good mentors who have “seen it all.” Prickly Women are perceptive; they have vision. Their ideas are informed by the people working anonymously on college campuses. Prickly Women have a strong desire to simplify institutional bloat and to find synergies with what is already working on campus. This desire to synthesize comes from Prickly Women’s voracious reading; they are always on the lookout for scholarship that makes them better mentors, instructors and colleagues.

Prickly Women are not interested in reinventing the wheel, and they are not after your power.

Prickly Women work hard. They are scrappy; they will sacrifice even when given little praise. They still have a lot of time left in the academic gig, and despite it all, they still want your institution to thrive and have contributions to make.

Contrary to popular opinion, they do not have thick skin. They can be hurt. If you mistreat Prickly Women, they may curl up in defensive hedgehog positions and you will lose some of your best unknown, uncelebrated, and un-championed resources. Above all, Prickly Women are full of empathy, passion, and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need in the landscape of higher education today.

Don’t grind them down. Don’t ignore them. Make them your allies. Use their sharpness, pointedness, prickliness to your advantage. Don’t fear Prickly Women. Find and engage them.

And, if you are a Prickly Woman, find your prickly comrades. Take comfort among their ranks. Build an altar to the feats of Prickly Women everywhere. Persevere.

M. Soledad Caballero is associate professor of English, and Aimee Knupsky is associate professor of psychology, at Allegheny College.


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In Praise of Prickly Women

Small steps women in academe should take to support each other (opinion)

Entire systems must be fixed, but for now, we can all take some small, immediate steps to improve the work environment for our female colleagues, writes Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt.

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