Ladies First

In the Fall of 1972, 900 students packed into Page Auditorium to listen to President Terry Sanford deliver his opening remarks to the inaugural class of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. In many ways, the group of fresh-faced first-years gathered that night resembled those who had come before them—privileged, white Southerners at a regional university whose star was beginning to rise nationally. But there was one characteristic that made this class different: among their ranks were 300 women who would attend Duke alongside their male colleagues for the first time.

The University had established the Woman’s College in 1924, and in 1972, administrators had decided that Duke would become fully co-educational, merging the historically all-male Trinity College with the Woman’s College.

 “I hope you will be dissatisfied and will find ways to express that dissatisfaction,” Sanford told the sea of faces assembled in Page that evening. “Not only dissatisfaction with Washington and national affairs, but also with this campus.”

One of the women listening to President Sanford speak that night was Kimberly Jenkins, Trinity ’76 and currently one of the 12 women members on the Board of Trustees. The campus she walked on to as a freshman in Fall 1972 was far from the perfect model for co-education. Walking across Main West Quadrangle, Jenkins remembers being appalled to see fraternity boys—perhaps not yet accustomed to women on their turf—lounging on benches outside their dorms and holding up cards to rate girls as they walked past.

One day Jenkins turned the corner, ripped out a sheet of notebook paper and made her own rating cards. She marched back to the offending bench, gave the boys a thorough look-down and handed each their own card.

They were equal parts amused and impressed at her gusto. One even asked her on a date. “I think men were aware that this was ridiculous what they were doing,” Jenkins said. “They liked a woman who said it in a humorous way—here’s how it feels.”

From verbal skirmishes on the quad to the 2003 Women’s Initiative, the University has been grappling with how to integrate women into campus life since the 1970s.

The 2009-2010 school year has been notable in many ways: a woman at the head of Duke Student Government for the first time in a decade. A female contender in the first-ever Young Trustee election. Two new women’s housing initiatives. A new sexual misconduct policy that mandates the reporting of rape on campus. Panhel’s refusal to participate in the fraternity-sponsored Derby Days.

But are these mere examples of individual women swimming against the cultural tide, or is that tide really turning?

It was Feb. 9, 2010, and senior Chelsea Goldstein was exhausted. That day, she hoped, the blistering work of campaigning—parading herself before student organizations and plastering bulletin boards with pithy campaign slogans— would pay off and she would be chosen as the next Young Trustee.

That day marked the first time in the position’s 38-year history that the Young Trustee would be elected by the entire student body. But for Goldstein, a former DSG senator, vice-president and presidential candidate, the inner workings of student elections were old hat.

So that morning, despite a near-unanimous chorus of student group endorsements backing her, Goldstein was cautious. She was an improbable victor. If she won, she would become only the second female Young Trustee of the decade, and one of a very small number of women to win a major campus election—just five of the 38 DSG presidents since the University went co-ed have been female. 

But the stats beg the simple question, “Why?” This wasn’t 1972. In 2010, nearly 50 percent of undergraduates were women. Few students could say they didn’t know a number of driven, smart and personable women capable of sitting atop the student government or representing undergraduates on the Board of Trustees.

“For whatever reason, I think women… are quite comfortable with that behind-the-scenes role,” Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek said. They don’t feel this need to or desire to embrace that top-level position.”

In fact, a female DSG presidential candidate has been present on only four of the last 10 ballots. It remains unclear why the ones who emerge from “behind the scenes” to run are usually unsuccessful. Senior Awa Nur, who was elected to the position last year, is a notable exception: none of the women who have run in the last decade won that race. 

In Goldstein’s four years with DSG, she said, it “definitely always felt like an old boys’ club.” Some two-thirds of DSG senators are men, and many are also members of fraternities.

The social power of fraternities is palpable: every weekend, legions of boat-shoed boys in a rainbow of Lacoste polos invite the student body into their West Campus sections, cans of warm beer in hand and a soundtrack played loud enough to make teeth chatter.

Their political power is less visible. The percentage of fraternity members in student government barely exceeds their share of the University as a whole. But Goldstein said she watched as older members of fraternities mentored younger brothers to help them ascend the ranks. And she observed how fraternity members formed a backbone of support for candidates during elections.

With a pool of voters only a few thousand deep, such connections could spell the difference between success and narrow defeat. Because the networks with the strongest ability to garner support were all-male—sororities don’t live together and therefore, typically, form looser associations—the group most disproportionately hurt was women.

That day, Goldstein found herself sandwiched on the ballot between two male candidates. Senior Zach Perret was a brother in the Kappa Alpha Order and senior John Harpham was a member of selective living group Wayne Manor. Both candidates would be able to tap into those houses and Greek-affiliated students generally.

All three candidates were highly qualified, Goldstein knew, but she hoped to leverage something that they could not.

“Part of choosing a Young Trustee is that you want to contribute to a diverse Board, and to have someone who has lived the life of a female on this campus is very different than to have someone who has lived the life of a man,” she said.

Late on the night of the election, Goldstein received a phone call from Executive Vice President Gregory Morrison. She had 1,051 votes. Harpham had 1,054. She had lost.

“It’s very difficult for [women] to win a prominent campus-wide election,” she said, “Because we just don’t have those close-knit groups backing us up.”

But for every rule there is an exception. Senior Awa Nur is the first female DSG president since 1999, interrupting a seemingly permanent succession of men at the top of student government.  “Greek men have a whole network,” she said. “It’s been very hard for women to break through.”

But she also attributed her success in part to her own close-knit living group—the Baldwin Scholars. The Baldwin program chooses around 20 women in each freshman class for three years of mentoring, leadership development and a sophomore year residential experience in Crowell.

Programs like the Baldwin Scholars, now in its sixth year, try to cultivate visible female leaders on campus, said Brenda Armstrong, Woman’s College ’70, professor of pediatrics, Associate Dean of Medical Education, and Director of Admissions for the Duke Medical School. In her years as an undergraduate, she remembered, the closeness of the Women’s College fostered a similarly supportive environment.

Today the University must re-cultivate that commitment to providing mentorship and support to all female students. Baldwins are one avenue, but at a much deeper level the University “must look at how we do or do not groom our exceptional women for roles that are going to be important outside their undergraduate experience.”

And although DSG is not the only place that a student can learn skills like networking and public speaking, it provides a crucial training ground for the corporate and political worlds, Armstrong added. Women who choose to forgo roles within such organizations, whether out of hesitance to assume a visible leadership position or difficulty navigating the established social order, are missing out in significant ways.

“If Duke is going to be true to saying that they’re interested in issues of leadership development of women, then we need to be honest with ourselves that we really have not done as good of a job as we should have by now,” she said.

The second floor of the Allen Building is unlike most students wander down in the course of their academic career: there’s the plush carpeting, the handsome dark-oak furniture, the grandfather clock, and the offices of some of the most powerful administrators at Duke. Take a look at the gold-framed directory outside of the lobby, however, and one might notice something else: there are few names of women among the ranks of the University’s most senior officials. President Richard Brodhead, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, Provost Peter Lange, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld, and on and on.

There is nevertheless at least one woman in the Allen Building who spends a significant amount of time unpacking the problems of female undergraduates. Donna Lisker was the director of the Women’s Center for eight years before she assumed her current post as associate dean of undergraduate education.

“When you look at the fact that Awa is the first female DSG president in ten years, it makes no sense given the talent in our student population,” Lisker said. “But some students have said to me, ‘Well, look at the Allen Building.’ And they’re not wrong there.” 

Among the 28 administrators Duke lists as executive leadership, only five are women, although they do reign over important parts of the University. Nancy Andrews was the first female in the nation to be named dean of a top-10 medical school. Jo Rae Wright is vice provost and dean of the graduate school. Tracy Futhey is the vice president of information technology and chief information officer. And Pam Bernard, the force behind the new, mandatory rape reporting policy, became vice president and general counsel for the University in 2006.

Brodhead, for his part, said he is acutely aware of how important women have always been to the fabric of the University. After all, he found himself on the short list for the presidency in November 2003, just as Nan Keohane—Duke’s first female president—was taking her leave and chairing the 2003 Women’s Initiative.

“I myself went to an all-male college, but Duke’s history is a history of being a college for women and for men,” he said in the office that he inherited from Nan.

But in the present, the lack of women—specifically women at the very top—troubles Brodhead as well. Although he said he takes gender and race into account when looking to fill upper-level positions, at the end of the day, he must choose the best candidate for the job.

“To tell you the truth, I wish there were more [women] now,” Brodhead told TOWERVIEW.  “I’m used to working with more. And yet at the same time I will tell you that Peter Lange is as good a provost as there is at any university in America. And so I am very happy with the quality of the talent on this team—but it remains a work in progress.“

Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, Trinity ’76, is the most visible female administrator for undergraduates—an institution unto herself, clocking in with almost 30 years in the Gothic Wonderland, first as student then administrator. Over the course of her career at Duke, Dean Sue has witnessed dramatic cultural changes transform the lives of women at the University. On the whole, there have been marked improvements, she said.

Yet, there is also something to the symbolic importance of a strong female presence—or lack thereof—at the upper level of the University.

 “I do sit back and look at our current senior leadership—all exceedingly capable and dedicated people… and wonder, ‘Why are they all men?’ And wouldn’t it make a positive difference if there were women represented at the senior level?” she said. “I’d like to see more—not just as an administrator, but as an alum.”

However, increasing the representation of women might be harder than it looks. Take it from a surprising source—someone who undoubtedly recognizes the importance of gender diversity in higher education: Keohane. Bringing issues that impacted women to the forefront of the University’s consciousness remains a lasting part of her legacy. Still, Keohane was far from satisfied.

“Certainly we tried hard to recruit more women to positions of leadership while I was there, but we didn’t have a great record,” Keohane said. She emphasized that although attracting women to upper-level administration is emblematic of a University’s commitment to diversity, it will not solve all of its cultural ills.

“It’s a very important thing to do,” she told us. “But it’s not a cure-all.”

In the mid-1990s, Donna Lisker, newly minted Ph.D. in hand, landed her first job, as an assistant director at the Women’s Center of Virginia Tech. She came into her position at the same time as a male colleague who had also just earned his Ph.D and worked on the staff of Virginia Tech’s psychological services.

At the outset of their careers together, Lisker decided to look up each of their publicy listed salaries.

Check, check. Good news: they were almost identical.

Two years passed, and again, out of curiosity, Lisker decided to look again. This time: a difference of $5,000.

“It may not sound like that much money but you know, we were both young and accrued over a long career, $5,000,” Lisker said. “That’s huge.”

She took the issue to her supervisor, the vice provost, who was just as perplexed as Lisker, given that there was no apparent reason for the disparity. After investigating further and finding no answers, the vice provost gave Lisker a 12 percent raise to close their earnings gap.

Gender discrimination today lives in subtleties and old attitudes. Men need frequent raises and the money to provide for families.

Popular wisdom holds that women don’t share these needs.

“We tend to think about the women’s salary as shoe money or something,” Lisker said, laughing. “There are just as many women as men who are the sole support or the primary support for their families, but as a culture, we haven’t gotten to the point yet where we think about that.”

 At Duke, too, it appears that some of most harmful instances of sexism and gender discrimination reveal themselves in the social norms that govern how women should behave.

Case in point: the collective sigh of relief heard around campus when the Women’s Initiative put a term to the psychological pressure confronting Duke women for years: “effortless perfection.” For the last seven years, it has struck a chord with undergraduate women struggling to excel in an academically and socially competitive environment, and make it look easy to boot. There are standards of how to look and how to dress and how to curry favor with boys.

Men on campus feel these pressures too, administrators said. But for whatever reason, it appears the cult of “effortless perfection” has had particularly destructive effects on women.

Seven years later, it appears that much of the cultural pressure remains the same.

Kimberly Jenkins has given dozens of talks on campus centering around being a woman at this University, but on the eve of an address to the Panhellenic Association, she was especially nervous.

“What I saw happening at Duke today is a lot of women demeaning themselves in a bid for affection and attention. I saw the pain that came from that,” Jenkins said. “And I worried that they wouldn’t relate to that. I thought they might laugh me out of the room. “

Instead, at the end of the lecture, Jenkins hung back for an hour as girls lined up, one after another, to talk to her. They did relate, they did understand and many thanked her for tackling the taboo topic of sexual double standards.

 “These double standards are alive and well and they’re having a huge impact on men and women,” Jenkins said.

It is evident from talking to power players like Jenkins, Lisker, Keohane and Dean Sue that they care deeply about these issues. And they agree that change has to come from the ground up.

“I wish women today would speak up more,” Jenkins said, recalling that day 30 years ago when she went toe-to-toe with the fratstars of the 1970s. “What I see today is women accepting some of this so quietly and in silence. I just don’t understand.”

Similarly, in focus groups for the Women’s Initiative, Lisker heard endless amounts of talk about the booze-fueled hook-up culture at Duke. As an administrator, Lisker’s hands are tied.

“I’m not going to do anything about it. What am I going to do? Say that the administration is instituting a dating policy?” she said. “The change has to be grassroots. You can attack structures that are inequitable as an administrator, but the behavior change has to come internally.”

Main West is the boardwalk of Duke’s campus, the prime real estate that thousands of students jostle for each year in RoomPix. And standing on the quad, it’s easy to see why: Gothic stone, abundant greenery, a dozen eateries within a five-minute walk, and the priceless ability to sleep an extra 10 minutes before Orgo lecture starts. 

But another feature defines the landscape of West. It is the home of nearly every selective residential community on campus, from fraternities to the substance-free dorm to selective living groups.  

To senior Mary Caroline Dyke, something felt odd about this arrangement—less than half of West’s 24 living groups accepted women. And when it came to social life, things were even more skewed. Of the 11 housing sections that did have women, only three—Mirecourt, Maxwell, and Brownstone—were not academically oriented in some regard. So when a Saturday night rolled around, odds were that if you wanted a party, you’d be putting on heels and tottering over to a fraternity section. 

“[I] specifically made the connection between physical living space and social power,” she said. “That’s what fraternities have on this campus.” 

Last fall, the issue of women and housing surfaced in Dyke’s PUBPOL 140 class, “Women as Leaders.” Professor Rachel Seidman, associate director of the Duke Center for History, Public Policy and Social Change, had given her students a rather unusual final. They had to work together as a group to translate what they had learned in the class into something tangible on campus. It became clear that there was one problem that had resonance for nearly every member of the class: the dearth of female-oriented housing on campus. So they came up with the radical idea to submit a proposal for a new, all-female dorm on West. 

Meanwhile, seniors Alyssa Dack and Casey Miller had watched for four years as their sororities shuffled through rented meeting rooms and competed with other student groups for space on campus, and they were fed up. The membership of the Panhellenic Association—the umbrella group for nine Duke sororities—comprised a third of female undergraduates, and yet they had not one single meeting or living space to their names. 

Dack and Miller wanted to know why. So they began to meet with administrators, and almost immediately they had de-bunked a Duke urban legend. You know that story about how sororities don’t have housing on campus because of a so-called “brothel law” that prevents large groups of women from living together? Turns out it is 100 percent myth. 

In fact, the administrators whom Dack and Miller approached told them that the reason sororities didn’t have housing was merely that they’d spent years locked in internal squabbles and never come forward with a solid proposal. Now that the women had figured that out, however, administration was more than willing to push through the changes. And when Dyke and her class presented their own proposal for a non-selective women’s housing option in Few, they found themselves similarly stunned by the enthusiasm from the top. 

“The administration is very aware of gender problems on campus,” said junior Laurel Sisler, a member of Dyke’s class. “But what they expressed to us is that change has to come from the students or else it’s never going to work.” 

So they grabbed that initiative and took off running. Soon the class had crafted a proposal for an all-female section in Few, the Women’s Housing Option. WHO would be associated with the Women’s Center, but not attached at the hip. It would focus on women’s issues and promote a dialogue about gender on campus, but it would also be a space to relax and a venue for parties. And most importantly of all, WHO was to pioneer a relatively new model of housing for Duke: non-selective group living. They would choose the women who filled their dorm at random from the applicant pool.

By February, the trajectories of both WHO and the Panhel housing proposal reached an anticlimactic apex: they were unceremoniously approved. WHO was granted 48 beds in Few. Panhel took over two apartment buildings on Alexander Avenue. And a month later, both groups had easily filled their spaces. 

But the women involved know that if they want to make a difference in the long term, they will need more than just 48 beds on West and a block of Central apartments. The small victories will need significant support and expansion in coming years to go head-to-head with the Greek alphabet soup on West. 

“If we really want to change social culture it’s not about bringing women together and segregating them,” Sisler said. “It’s about bringing it into the whole student body.”

 “At Duke I met people who like me felt trapped by the games they were supposed to play, and I learned that I didn’t have to play them. I could refuse to wear clothes that weren’t comfortable, to contort my hair and paint my face, to pretend to be demure, and to let my decisions be made for me,” Chronicle columnist Nancy Stewart wrote in 1972.

Forty years later, Stewart’s words still resonate on this campus, both in articulating the social pressures faced by women at Duke and underlining the spirit of resistance that those same women have always exhibited. This school year has witnessed a powerful jolt of resistance from undergraduate women that extends beyond simply identifying and complaining about the same old issues.

“The only way that people ever resist the things they don’t like about campus culture is by resisting them,” Brodhead said.

But history can’t be understood while it’s happening. It’s unclear whether this is an earthquake or merely a tremor running through campus.

“You revert to the status quo pretty quickly,” Lisker said. “It’s great to see a groundswell of activity like we have this year, and I don’t want to be skeptical or cynical. I hope it will continue but only time will tell.”


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