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Speeches & Media

A Life, In Chapters

Jill Ker Conway left valuable lessons about women’s lives and friendships 

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2018

In October of 2013, just moments before I took the stage to deliver my inaugural address, Jill Ker Conway approached me to see how I was doing. Perhaps she was remembering her own inauguration. Perhaps she could tell I was nervous. There were close to 2,000 members of the Smith community, my family and friends—many of whom had traveled thousands of miles to be there—waiting to hear what I had to say about Smith’s future and what I planned to do as Smith’s newly appointed eleventh president. Jill took my hand, looked me in the eyes and told me, “Everyone who should be here is here for you. They support you. They believe in you.” 

Jill’s kindness, her warmth, her gentle encouragement were just what I needed on that important day. Having served as Smith’s president for 10 years, from 1975 to 1985, she understood the significance of the moment and what was to come. I was grateful to have her at my side, cheering me on as only Jill knew how. 

Five years after my inauguration, on October 18 of this year, I gathered with hundreds of other colleagues, friends and community members in Helen Hills Hills Chapel to honor Jill’s memory. She passed away on June 1, leaving a legacy as an inspiring leader and true champion of women’s lives, history and education. 

I count myself very blessed to have known Jill and to have felt the light of her friendship. I first met Jill shortly after I had accepted the president’s position. She invited me to tea at her home in Boston. She was warm and welcoming, and she let me know that she was invested in my success, which continues to be a source of strength for me.

Soon after this first meeting, I read all three of Jill’s memoirs, a trilogy that collectively form an autobiography, with each volume demonstrating Jill’s predilection for deep self-reflection. Her first book, about her childhood, gives us a window on where Jill got her sense of adventure. In the second, Jill shares the source of her true north—her soulmate, John Conway, as well as her career as a scholar and college leader. Her third book, A Woman’s Education, in some ways reads like a book on leadership with lessons on trusting oneself, finding allies and adhering to a strategy. But there is a more important lesson about a life well lived, as Jill teaches us to think about life unfolding in chapters.

For Jill, a scholar whose work focused on the history of women, it was particularly important to model her belief that women can hold many roles over the course of a lifetime. She once told an interviewer that in composing her memoirs she wanted to write something that was different from traditional women’s memoirs, in which, more often than not, the story ends with a marriage. By Jill’s own example as a historian, college president, board member and memoirist, we know that a woman’s life is far more complex, nuanced and richly textured, or, as she once described it, “a slowly emerging design, with shifting components, occasional dramatic disruptions and fresh creative arrangements.”

I see this expressed in the stories alumnae share in class notes and during Reunion about the trajectory of their own lives. One alumna recounted her experiences as a community and political leader, then as an entrepreneur and writer. Another alumna reflected on her decision to change careers midlife, from education to biochemistry, and take up competitive cycling for the first time in her life, while also singing in a band during her spare time. A member of the class of 1977 described ending a long marriage and finding new joy and inspiration in the transition. “For a while, I wasn’t sure what this next phase would bring,” she wrote, “but I intend to embrace whatever comes my way.”     

Each life chapter comes with a lesson. From Jill, I learned to trust myself and to not worry about the naysayers as I lead and support important new initiatives at Smith. I also learned the value of friendships and of women helping women. Jill herself wrote astutely about friendship, as in this excerpt from True North: “Some friendships in life sustain themselves only at a particular life stage, products of some mutual developmental problem to be resolved together, or of some external circumstance, like being housed in the same dormitory in boarding school. Others grow out of a deeper spiritual and philosophical affinity, which continues throughout life.”

Over the years, I wrote to Jill from time to time, sharing news of the college as well as some of the stories that alumnae had sent to me about her impact on their lives. Two summers ago, she invited me up to her home in Conway, Massachusetts. Before dinner, we walked arm in arm through the grounds around her home. It was a moment of profound sisterhood that continues to sustain me. 

I am deeply grateful for the time I had with Jill, short as it was, but still, in my mind, enough to fill an extraordinary chapter of my own life.