Comparing Lives: Students on Woman's College Ways

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January 31, 2003
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 top to botton: Our campus, ourselves: gathering in front of Baldwin Auditorium; admiring a confectionary replica of Baldwin; outfitted in official college blazers of the day; an intent audience at an academic session

 
 

As part of Jean Fox O'Barr's Distinguished Professor course "Gender, Politics, and Higher Education," students attended the Woman's College celebration. Assigned a session to record, they also offered personal reactions to the weekend. Excerpts from three student reports follow.

Maggie Ware '06:

I was somewhat shocked by the racial homogeneity among the women. We have read about the attendance restrictions placed upon minorities; it had a greater impact on me to actually see this. At the session on "World Concerns," there was an African-American speaker, Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke '67. She was extremely modest in introducing herself; one of the attendees stood up and told everyone in the room of Reuben-Cooke's incredible accomplishments, especially the fact that she was one of three African-American women to graduate in her class. Everyone in the room applauded. It was a great moment.

I found myself envious of their dating culture. Many of the women whom I spoke with looked back on their dating experiences with nostalgia. One woman told me that the dances were so fun because all the men would fight for the women's attention (there were always more men than women). She also said that the men were very respectful of the women in these situations. They found our culture very disappointing. Today, it seems that no one ever goes on dates (unless for a sorority/fraternity formal), which has contributed to the dominant hook-up culture.

Sometimes I feel guilty about not fully owning up to my feminist beliefs in my everyday practices. The speakers at the "World Concerns" session made me realize that this is a common feeling for all women, due to the contradictions that we are faced with in everyday life. One of the speakers mentioned the difficulty she had in deciding to marry her husband during graduate school. Initially, one of her professors discouraged her from attending graduate school, because he believed that she would drop out in order to get married. Although she resented her professor's comment, she did briefly drop out in order to get married; however, she went back, and is now a prominent feminist scholar.

Over lunch, one woman said how privileged she felt as a woman to attend college at that time; she was keenly aware of the opportunity. I think this is an interesting reflection of what one speaker termed "unconscious feminism," in that these women were not aware of the modern feminist perspective that we study today, but they were participating in very progressive and groundbreaking movements. I came to this realization midway through the first session. I remember taking a moment to glance around the room. I felt so grateful; if it were not for these women, I would not be where I am today.

Elizabeth Barney '03:

Can we go back in time and go to college with these women? Each woman I spoke with was eloquent and inspirational. Moreover, they were proud of their accomplishments--a trait that I feel is missing from many current Duke women's lives.

It was striking to learn of the influence that so many female instructors--despite their relatively small numbers--had on these women. The female faculty members who taught these impressionable students understood the importance of taking on the role of mentor, simultaneously challenging and supporting their students. A number of alumnae mentioned that, motivated by some of their Woman's College professors, they had themselves become teachers.

I found it remarkable how the women discussed the intertwining of their social and academic lives. In the session on "Favorite Classes/Favorite Teachers," Mary Barnes '49 expressed gratitude for English professor Helen Bevington's support and encouragement; Bevington invited her students to her home to listen to Mozart and regularly took them to dinner. Unfortunately, we see too little of this today. I wish more professors would invite students into their homes. I wish that more of my weekend evening conversations had more intellectual substance. Woman's College students managed to strike the right balance.

Kim Hammersmith '03:

For Margaret Taylor Smith's session, "What Made Us Leaders," the room was packed with women from all decades of the Woman's College and from all over the country. From Turkey, we had Zeren Earls '60, the first international student admitted into the college. (She went on to found the First Night Celebration in Boston, which has spread to many other cities worldwide.) Bev Jackson '47 remembered winning a cat skull (which she still has) as a prize for the highest grade in a zoology class. She said women came away from college feeling "okay"--that they could do anything in the world. They had been given the courage and the confidence to tackle anything in their paths. A member of the Class of '71 found she could be a catalyst for change: She was one of the students who took over the Allen Building. She confidently took a stand for things she believed in.

Smith closed the session with her take on characteristics of leadership: vision, courage, humility, honesty, ethics, perseverance, detemination, kindness, ongoing renewal ("We all need some think time"), duty to teach and to inspire, humor, a duty to empower people coming after us, and lack of fear. Also, leaders should provide a level playing field for all.

One aspect of President Keohane's speech that surfaced throughout the day was the notion of "effortless perfection" that women at Duke now face. We are expected to be perfect, but to do so without trying, without studying, without working out, without dieting. I asked women at my dinner table what they did for fun while in college. It shocked me that they took a minute or two to think of an answer. Eventually, they recalled the Dope Shop and Anna Maria's, as well as roller-skating, and just hanging out in the dorm with other students and the house mothers. They said they were at Duke to study; they worked hard.