Former Smith president discusses global feminism in annual Myser lecture

Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10

Myser Initiative Lecturer Jill Ker Conway with Myser Endowment Benefactor Patricia Myser '56, who created the endowment with her husband John. Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10.

Dr. Jill Ker Conway's Myser Initiative lecture

The fifth annual lecturer and award recipient of the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity was honored April 14 at St. Catherine University as a transformational leader, a scholar and a woman of faith.

Dr. Jill Ker Conway — the first woman president of Smith College and a memoirist and scholar whose works have touched academics and the public alike — holds 39 honorary degrees and was a visiting professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's program in science, technology and society for 22 years.

But it was her frank assessment of contemporary culture that mesmerized the audience at The O'Shaughnessy. Conway, a historian who earned her doctorate at Harvard University, said that Facebook, text-messaging and other forms of digital communication have "trapped" people in the moment, causing them to "lose their relationship with the past."

She also lamented "a world increasingly divided into rich and poor nations." Noting that women in low-income countries tend to invest their earnings in their children's nutrition — "ensuring a stronger workforce in the future" — she said that wealthier countries like the United States must work to "secure a just return on women's labor."

That also would be a good initiative for St. Catherine University, with its historic focus on women's education and leadership, Conway said: "I urge you to explore the empowerment of women globally."

In a wide-ranging talk titled "Physical and Spiritual Geography: The Inner Climate of the Mind," Conway touched on the three memoirs that have earned her widespread acclaim: The Road from Coorain, True North and A Woman's Education. The books begin with a difficult childhood in New South Wales, recount her education and marriage to Professor John Conway (her "truth north"), and conclude with her career in academia at the University of Toronto and Smith College.

"I was motivated by how women describe or chronicle their lives," she said of her first memoir, published in 1989. Many women, she said, attribute their good work and successes to luck rather than to their own drive and talent.

Conway acknowledged the timing of her speech during St. Catherine's "Year of the Liberal Arts" by describing the influence of a broad-based, well-rounded education on her own life and career. "The liberal arts teach you what language is," she said, "how powerful it is and how to analyze it critically."

Women's voices, women's roles

Her own hardscrabble beginnings were defined by nature and marked by tragedy, as described in a book review by School Library Journal: "Conway spent her first 11 years in the windswept grasslands of Australia, where her father owned 30,000 acres of arid land. Though his ability to understand the land was extensive, an eight-year drought finally defeated him, and he committed suicide. A few years later, Conway's oldest brother died in an automobile accident. The two deaths plunged her mother into depression."

A question-and-answer session led by Dr. MaryAnn Janosik, dean of the School of Professional Studies and the Graduate College at St. Kate's, moved Conway off-script and into sometimes controversial territory:

  • On women finding their voices: "You must have the courage to speak about what you feel passionately. Women also have a voice in writing. I lost mine when I went to Harvard for a Ph.D."
  • On feminism: "I am definitely a feminist. Our culture has not respected women's intellect or their ability to solve social problems. It is hurtful to me to see women denigrated, [especially] to see young women defined by their physical attributes. There are economic, political and psychological forces in our society that we cannot accept."
  • On women's role in the Catholic Church: "The Church is a mystical institution — and a male-led institution, as many are — but it hasn't stifled the voice of women religious."

She urged the audience of students, alumnae, professors and staff members to honor and remember the "self-directing communities of women in the Catholic Church" and not to "overlook [them] in focusing on the male hierarchy."

Next year's Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity award and lecture is tentatively slated for Thursday, April 19, 2012.

By Amy Gage