In Memoriam: Professor Jill Ker Conway

June 19, 2018 by Nicholas Terpstra

Dear Colleagues,

Many of you have already heard the sad news of the recent death of our former colleague Jill Ker Conway (1934-1918).   We are planning an appropriate memorial, likely in the fall when more of you are back, and will send information about that shortly.  Yet it’s important that we also now mark her passing and celebrate her extraordinary contribution to our Department and University, to our discipline, and to the academy generally. 

Conway taught American history in our Department from 1964-1975.  More than that, together with Natalie Zemon Davis, she pioneered the teaching of women’s history both here and across North America.  She shared her path breaking syllabi in the field, wrote and edited numerous monographs and collections that provided the intellectual resources for further research and teaching, and mentored a group of graduate students who went on to become some of the field’s leaders in universities around the world.  Conway herself moved on to become the first woman president of Smith College (1975-85).  In recognition of her many intellectual achievements and broader contributions, Barak Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal in 2013.

Alongside her academic publications, Conway wrote three volumes of a memoir that took her from a youth on an outback sheep farm in Australia, to her time in Toronto, to her work in the US.  Read True North (1995) to get a better idea of the kind of place she arrived at, and the much transformed place she left – beyond her teaching, she rose to become the first female Vice President of U of Toronto in 1973, and was an advocate of securing equal pay for female faculty, expanding day care, and promoting women’s studies among much else.  It has to be admitted that Conway’s drive for gender equality in the academy was triggered in part by the discrimination that she experienced in our Department. 

We were privileged to have a colleague of her depth, convictions, energy, and drive.  For more information on her remarkable career and contributions, please see the following links:


Nicholas Terpstra,
Professor & Chair
Department of History
University of Toronto