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Laying the foundation

Mary, Persis and Theresa Giles are much more than an East Campus residence hall's namesake—they are Duke's first three female graduates.
Mary, Persis and Theresa Giles are much more than an East Campus residence hall's namesake—they are Duke's first three female graduates.

Flustered and teeming with excitement, about 100 first-years walked through the doorway, climbed some stairs and stepped into the Giles common room. From the outside, Giles looks like any other East Campus residence hall. But the century-old dorm bears a special namesake—that of the first three female graduates of Duke University, who were enrolled in a grand total of one course during their academic careers.

Mary, Persis and Theresa Giles wished to study at Trinity College like their younger brother, E.S.F. Giles, Jr. but the school was all-male. Their attempt to enroll at Trinity was denied. Desiring to learn the same material their brother was learning, the Giles sisters asked E.S.F. to tutor them after his classes. E.S.F.'s attempts to teach his sisters brand-new course material were futile, and the sisters turned to their neighbor, Trinity law professor Lemuel Johnson, who tutored the sisters after his classes. Other Trinity professors followed suit. The Giles sisters eventually attended one class with men, taught by Trinity College president Braxton Craven during their senior year.

Eventually, the Giles sisters had completed enough coursework to take the exams required by students wishing to graduate. They passed, and made history by becoming the first female students to receive Bachelor of Arts degrees from Trinity College in 1878. Today, the Giles sisters are considered to be Duke's first-ever female graduates.

Although women continued to receive instruction through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, no official college existed for them until Alice M. Baldwin became launched the Woman’s College in 1924 to expand academic, social and professional opportunities for women. Giles Residence Hall was completed in 1928 and the Woman’s College opened on East Campus in 1930.

The Woman’s College could afford to be more selective in its choosing of students, accepting 31 percent of students in 1959 compared to Trinity College’s 49 percent during the same year. To tap into the area's best talent, The Woman's College hosted a “College Night” at local high schools to encourage intelligent, highly-achieving students to apply and established an interviewing process for prospective students.

The Women’s Student Government Association established a Social Standards Committee to impose restrictions on the students. The committee wrote a freshman guide each year to inform them about how to be the “ultimate Duke Duchess,” cautioning them to keep “good taste” in their adherence to dress and behavioral rules, dorm hours and visitation rules, dating values and other traditions. In 1959, the WSGA noticed that students met these rules with “ridicule and rebellion,” and the regulations disappeared by the late 1960s.

An article published in The Chronicle in 1972 noted that, “The main thing the Woman’s College did for women was to support them. The cumulative effect on women’s education was significant in supporting the educational aspirations of women.”

It takes two

But when it came time to decide on the proposed merger between Trinity College and The Woman’s College, not all were convinced it was the right move. The same Chronicle article quoted William H. Willis, a professor of Greek, saying “When you have a particularly successful enterprise, you back it.” He was not the only holder of this belief, nor was he the only one to vote down the merger between Trinity College and the Woman’s College for this reason. Faculty at the time emphasized how the Woman’s College could not eliminate its weaknesses—including a dean staff curtailed in its authority and insufficient counseling services—by merging with a college less successful and complete with its own array of concerns.

Others found that having abolished rigid limitations on women’s dress regulations, dating hours and recreational activities, East Duke had asserted itself as a potent force on campus that proponents of the merger were too willing to eradicate.

However, individuals like Jane Philpott, Dean of Undergraduate Instruction of the Women’s College in 1972, believed that women could only reach exposure to new challenges and discover their potential in traditionally male-oriented fields if the merger took place. Similarly, unification of undergraduate concerns had occurred in the early 1950s with the completion of the Allen Building, the formation of a Student Union and the union of student government organizations to form the Associated Students of Duke University. It seemed like the difficulties that the colleges faced separately would improve if the colleges combined, which they began to do in 1969 before the Board of Trustees approved the change.

“My perception is that the feeling was that more could be done for women living on their own campus, with their own organizations, developing their own leadership skills as well as participating in co-educational activities,” William Griffith, vice president for student affairs, said to The Chronicle that year. According to Griffith, “social” education needed a new approach that required the merger of campuses.

The merger made administrative procedures more efficient, represented undergraduate concerns more effectively, and unified these under a Vice Provost and Dean of Trinity College while keeping women’s concerns on the fore with a Director of Career Education For Women.

A draft of one of former President Terry Sanford’s speeches states, “You young people are on the march. Especially the women. I’m not sure I understand all of what the women are into, but I’m for it.” Sanford goes on to admit that although he cannot say with certainty that his audience will save the world, he thinks a unified effort might come close to doing so.

‘Are we there yet?’

This effort came over a decade later with the Coalition for a Women’s Center at Duke, a group that specified the University’s need for a centralized campus space that could be used for student group programming and as a source of help and support. The coalition’s proposal developed a plan of action that included holding programs and workshops, providing counseling and support services, promoting women’s culture and working on policy changes to increase the number of women faculty members, develop athletic opportunities, facilitate child care and promote women’s health education.

However, the coalition also noted the limitations to such resources in that females will continue to have an unequal learning experience as long as societal norms continue to favor men.

“Having unequal positions between men and women disadvantages both sexes equally,” freshman Giles resident Aron Rimanyi said. “I think establishing hierarchical systems within society that don’t actually correspond to biological realities are damaging to people who ostensibly benefit from those systems because they are given a false sense of privilege that does not actually correspond to their future prospects.”

In an effort to battle these norms and compensate for them to an extent, Women’s Studies director Jean O’Barr guided the group of undergraduate women to research and publish a report. The Women’s Center was founded in 1989 and serves the student body today with a weekly Women’s Collective, supportive resources, and a space that serves campus student organizations.

“Being a female, the ‘less-privileged’ identity, you see yourself less in things,” said Jaclyn Dobies, a senior and leader of the Women’s Collective. “If you can’t see someone who looks like you in what you aspire to be, then you won’t get there as easily.”

Former President Nannerl Keohane tackled women’s status issues again in 2002 with her creation of a Steering Committee for the Women’s Initiative, a project that formed questions and methodologies and oversaw the gathering of data in order to gauge the status of women at Duke and devise policy recommendations to improve the experience for everyone who works or studies at Duke. Keohane noted in the Women’s Initiative report that trends outside the University sphere allowed Duke to incorporate women more effectively, especially because women had achieved “more than token representation” in almost all the professions.

“I think there’s a really ironic phenomenon at play in the Woman’s College,” said Colleen Scott, Director of the Baldwin Scholars Program. “Professional options in the ‘50s and ‘60s were quite limited but the research shows that they had tons of confidence and seemed to leave Duke and conquer the world. Now, women have the professional options but not the confidence that they had in the Woman’s College days.”

The report implies that this is because older alumni who graduated from the Woman’s College seemed to balance their professional and familial futures while more recent alumni had to choose, noting the necessity of a change of expectations. Senior Baldwin Scholars deal with these issues head-on in their seminar class, but Scott encourages them to pursue their desired career before forming imaginary hindrances in the shape of a partner or a family.

Keohane shared a similar view in the report:

“Gender would not be irrelevant in such a world, nor sexual excitement and romance. But gender and sex would not spill over into all areas of life and make it impossible for men and women to live, work and study together as equals, and for women to flourish as human beings.”

Room for progress is evident today. In the classroom, many women feel hesitant to speak up out of fear that others will find them unintelligent. In science, technology, engineering and math classes, many women feel their voices are ignored and that they have to prove themselves.

“I found that with some girls, especially the quieter girls, their voices would be squeezed out of the conversation,” freshman Giles resident Hannah Wang said. “It’s more damning for a girl to be quiet than a guy because there’s an automatic assumption that a guy might have something to say but would be holding back, or would appear thoughtful or brooding.”

Sexual violence, eating disorders, gender discrimination, socially degrading jokes, the notion that women must exhibit effortless perfection to obtain status and double standards perpetuate inequality on campus and at universities nationwide.

However, some students have acknowledged and devised methods to improve women’s status at Duke. According to Scott, the only recommendation of the Women’s Initiative Report that still holds today is the Baldwin Scholars Program, a program adapted from one at the University of Richmond that provides a class of 18 women each year with two required courses, a residential experience that mimics the Woman’s College experience, and a summer internship. Named for Woman’s College Dean Alice M. Baldwin, the program also funds speaker events and a fall break trip hosted by the Women’s Center, in addition to promoting campus-wide activism.

Similarly, although Duke Student Government has had consecutive three female presidents, leadership in organizations campus-wide varies and contributes to women’s lack of confidence.

“There are barriers to female leadership; it’s hard in college to identify them because people think, ‘Oh, we’ve had three female presidents in a row so there’s no issue with gender at Duke,’ but the executive board and senate are dominated by males,” said junior Lavanya Sunder, president of DSG. “Never, ever turn down a leadership opportunity if you think you can handle it because we have to go after as many as possible if we want to increase leadership representation on campus.”