The Shorthand Guide to the History of Women's Groups at Duke

Xinchen (Michelle) Li

Although Duke has long been a pioneer in the education of women, recent years have witnessed its increasing promotion of women’s studies, women’s entrepreneurship, and activism. As a launching piece of Phoenix Magazine, this article will briefly go over the history of women’s education at Duke and how our magazine will continue to advance and expound upon this history.


Trinity College Period


1) First A.B. Degrees to Women


Duke University was first founded in 1838 in rural Randolph County, North Carolina and was then known as Brown’s Schoolhouse. With the support of the Methodist Church, the academy was renamed Trinity College in 1859 and moved to Durham, North Carolina in 1892, located on today’s East Campus. 


At its emergence, Duke was not a co-ed university; the first U.S. college that accepted women was Oberlin College in Ohio, which became co-ed in 1837. It was not until then did equal rights to education (for women and ethnic minorities, etc.) entered national public discourse.


During Duke’s Trinity College Period, three sisters—Mary, Theresa and Persis Giles—became the first women to earn A.B. degrees at Duke. The Giles Residence Hall on East Campus was named in their honors. Originally from Jones County, North Carolina, the three sisters worked as local school teachers while their brother studied at Trinity College. The sisters desired the education their brother was receiving, and sent in applications to Trinity College with this very hope. However, their applications were initially rejected, but this did not stop the sisters: they privately studied under Professor Lemuel  Johnson and other professors, and eventually completed all the Trinity College coursework. In 1878, they received their hard-earned bachelor’s degrees and partook in the college’s commencement. In 1885, Trinity conferred the degree of Master of Arts upon the three Giles sisters, making them the first female recipients of both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Trinity. 


Although Trinity College  was not officially open to women until later, the Giles sisters’ experiences at Trinity College nonetheless marked the genesis of co-ed education at Duke. 


2) Washington Duke and First Female Students


After the relocation of the college in 1892, the Board of Trustees voted to allow formal admission of women as full degree candidates. This decision made Trinity college an outstanding example among U.S. colleges in the 1890s and put it in line with two new universities that opened their doors to men and women as fully co-ed institutions: Stanford University in 1891 and the University of Chicago in 1892. 


Of the four women enrolled, three were faculty children. Washington Duke, a Methodist philanthropist who provided the initial endowment to the college, closely followed these students’ progress. In a two-page letter to President John C. Kilgo in 1896, Washington Duke pledged $100,000 in endowment to Trinity College under the condition that the school “ open its doors to women, placing them on an equal footing with men.” 


Washington Duke’s endowment enabled the construction of a residential dormitory, named the Mary Duke Building in memory of Duke’s only daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who died at the age of forty. The establishment of this dorm attracted a significant number of female applicants. By 1904, 54 women were enrolled in Trinity College. 


According to the Duke Library Archives, no documentation exists that explains the motivation for the proviso attached to the gift. However, there was no doubt that Washington Duke’s donation laid the foundation for women’s education at Duke University. 


Early Duke University Period


Women’s College and Trinity College of Arts & Sciences 


In 1924, the son of Washington Duke, James B. Duke, founded Duke University, and Trinity College became the undergraduate college for men, which was located on the new West Campus. In 1930, the college for undergraduate women opened on East Campus, where it stayed until 1972 when the two colleges merged to create the co-ed Trinity College of Arts & Science. 


Modern-day Progress


  1. President Keohane and the Women’s Initiative 


The appointment of Nalnnerl O. Keohane as Duke’s president in 1992 was a significant milestone for women’s education at Duke. Keohane was Duke’s first female president and the second female president of a major research university (Before her, Hanna H. Gray served as the president of the University of Chicago).


During her 12 years at Duke, Keohane promoted research on women’s studies and feminist activism. In 2002, Koehane appointed a Women’s Initiative Committee made up of 16 faculty members—which she chaired—to study Duke’s climate for women. The 2003 Women’s Initiative report was the first well-rounded report on women’s statuses at Duke. It acknowledged the uniqueness of the female experience, shedding light on women’s work-life balance, professional development, safety and security, etc. The report revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of women’s education at Duke. A key finding of the report was that Duke’s female undergraduates often “feel pressured to be perceived [as] effortlessly perfect.” Consequently, these female undergraduates tended to suffer from anxiety and were often self-critical. 


2) The Baldwin Scholars Program 


Echoing the findings of the Women’s Initiative, President Keohane oversaw the launch of the Baldwin Scholars Program in 2004. With the goal of empowering female undergrads and teaching them skills to combat unrealistic social expectations, the program selected 18 first-year female students each fall and provided them with a four-year experience characterized by collective, supportive living experiences, academic seminars, internship programs and other invaluable resources. 


3) Women’s Forum and Women’s Weekend


Duke Alumni Association have also begun initiative to examine the female experience at Duke including the  Women’s Forum and Women’s Weekend. Women’s Forum features both formal conversations among alumnae surrounding current events, social issues, and personal and professional development, as well as informal networking gatherings. It has established groups in more than 20 cities nationwide. Women’s Weekend, is a yearly weekend-long event that features keynote speeches, workshops and social networkings among Duke alumnae, faculty members and students that aim to foster a more interactive and creative space for female leaders to grow and develop their abilities. 


Duke’s historical support for female students, faculties and alumnae has laid the groundwork for the launch of Phoenix Magazine. On the one hand, we hope to inherit this legacy and further empower the new generation of women at Duke. On the other hand, as an entirely student-organized group, we hope to provide a platform for the voices of all students. We also wish that our endeavors will bring fresh ideas and exciting changes to our beloved campus.