Outrageous Ambitions: How a One-Room Schoolhouse Became a Research University

Women at Duke

Although Trinity College didn’t formally admit women until 1892, they have been part of teaching and learning from the earliest days of the school. Duke has a proud history of cultivating female leaders, scholars, and teachers.

Tintype picturing Irene Leach Craven, tutor at the Union Institute (later Duke University) and wife of Trinity College president Braxton Craven.  Braxton Craven carried this tintype with him throughout his life.

Irene Leach Craven

Irene Leach Craven

Irene Leach graduated from the Union Institute on the day it opened, making her the first female graduate.  She worked as a tutor and instructor at the Union Institute in the late 1830s and early 1840s.  In 1844, she married Braxton Craven, the first president of Normal and Trinity Colleges.  She was a tireless supporter of the school and its students.  This tintype was carried by Braxton Craven throughout his life.

From the Craven-Pegram Family Papers collection at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Mary Giles, one of the first three women (along with her sisters Theresa and Persis) to graduate from Trinity College.

Mary Giles

Mary Giles

In 1878—years before women were admitted—sisters Mary (pictured), Theresa, and Persis Giles became the first female graduates of Trinity College.  They took the same classes as Trinity College men, but did so through after hours faculty tutoring.  The Giles sisters were pioneers of women’s education.

Letter from the girls of Giles House to Mary Giles telling her about the new dorm named after her and her sisters.

Giles Letter, page 1

Letter from the girls of Giles House to Mary Giles telling her about the new dorm named after her and her sisters.

Giles Letter, page 2

Giles Dormitory, named for the sisters, opened at the Woman’s College in 1927.  This letter was written from the women students of Giles to Mary Giles in thanks for her family’s contributions and trail-blazing ways.

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Letter from Duke family patriarch Washington Duke to Trinity College president John C. Kilgo in 1896.  In the letter, Duke tells Kilgo that he is disappointed that women are not being treated equally at Trinity.  He threatens to pull a donation if this does not change.

1896 Washington Duke Letter, page 1

Letter from Duke family patriarch Washington Duke to Trinity College president John C. Kilgo in 1896.  In the letter, Duke tells Kilgo that he is disappointed that women are not being treated equally at Trinity.  He threatens to pull a donation if this does not change.

1896 Washington Duke Letter, page 2

1896 Washington Duke Letter

Washington Duke wrote this letter to President John Kilgo in 1896 expressing his disappointment that women were not considered on equal footing as men, and pledged $100,000 for Trinity if that was rectified.  Almost immediately, the Board implemented a new policy to admit women as full students (rather than just “day students”) and a women’s dormitory was built.

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In 1929, Rose Davis (center) became the first woman to receive a PhD from Due University.  She earned her degree in Chemistry just one year after Duke started awarding doctorates.

Rose Davis, PhD

Rose Davis, PhD

In 1928, Duke started a Ph.D. program in its graduate school.  In 1929, Rose Davis graduated with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, the first female graduate with that degree from Duke.  

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College.  It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, 1954

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board at the Woman's College.  It instructed incoming freshmen ladies as to how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 1

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 2

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 3

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 4

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 5

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 6

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 7

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 8

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 9

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 10

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 11

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 12

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 13

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 14

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 15

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 16

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 17

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 18

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 19

Design for a Duchess was an annual publication put out by the Social Standards Board of The Woman's College. It instructed incoming freshmen ladies how to comport themselves, dress, and much more.

Design for a Duchess, page 20

In the 1950s, women students produced  Design for a Duchess, an unofficial publication that was sent to all incoming female freshmen. It included sections like “Popularity Plus,” as well as “Frowns Unlimited,” which instructed the new students how to behave as ladies.

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Report on the 2003 Women's Initiative featuring the concept of the"effortless perfection" demanded of female undergraduate students at Duke.

Women's Initiative Report (page 1)

Report on the 2003 Women's Initiative featuring the concept of the"effortless perfection" demanded of female undergraduate students at Duke.

Women's Initiative Report (page 2)

Women's Initiative Report

The pressure to present a perfect image to others is a longstanding issue for Duke women. In 2003, President Nan Keohane launched the Women’s Initiative.  This page illustrates one of its themes: “effortless perfection.”

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