Duke Celebrates Women

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January 31, 2003
Nannerl Keohane
 

Attending a women's college was crucially formative in my life, in much the same way that your Woman's College experience is important to you. We learned self-confidence, we grew as leaders; we formed strong bonds with other women. It was not all sunshine and laughter, but we had many wonderful moments of friendship and intellectual discovery; and almost every one of us would say that we are stronger because of that unique experience of a woman's education.

Dean Alice Mary Baldwin, who oversaw the creation of Woman's College, was a true heroine. She had her work cut out for her as a colleague of a president who, as she notes wryly in her memoir, had five sons and, in her words, "little knowledge of teenage girls." It was with great difficulty that she prevailed upon President Few to permit the inclusion of showers in the dormitories; he believed women cared only for baths. Few also wanted to put a high iron fence around the entire women's residential quadrangle, to be locked at night; Dean Baldwin persuaded him that such a thing "would only lead to many escapades by both men and women." She knew us well.

One thing that has changed for the better since the dissolution of Woman's College in 1974 is the distribution of women across various disciplines. Twenty-three women earned a B.S. in engineering in the twenty-eight years between 1946 and 1974; at this very moment, we have ten times that number of female undergraduates in the engineering pipeline.

But as far as leadership opportunities for students are concerned, they are fewer than when men and women each had their own organizations and clubs. There have been quite a few Duke student women in big-ticket positions--undergraduate and graduate student-government president, Union president, editor of The Chronicle, young trustee. Still, those high-profile positions continue to be filled disproportionately by males.

There are also women who do lots of crucial work behind the scenes; they're the ones who make things happen, though they're not necessarily the ones whose names are on the marquee. This isn't by any means an unusual thing in our own society or any other--but it bears pondering.

The overarching question is, "In what ways do gender issues manifest themselves on campus?" I personally have been deeply concerned over the past few years about the level of conformity among many of our undergraduate women to harsh norms of dress, eating, smoking, and sexual adventuring.

We have heard a lot about what one woman calls "effortless perfection." This student notes that when you come to Duke, you're expected to appear naturally beautiful, be fit, a straight-A student, a leader in everything; and you're supposed to make it look like you do all of this without really trying--it just happens. A student reports: "You have to hide all of the work that you do, and you certainly have to hide your failures." The same attitude, I'm sure, also contributes to problems of self-esteem. Some of this, of course, is what all young adults go through as they're trying to find their identity, but structures and expectations in place in Duke are channeling many women into a very narrow notion of femininity. We need to amplify the counter-message.

Fortunately, the seeds of change are alive and well at Duke today. Women's athletic teams and the first-year FOCUS program, where students live and study together in small groups with close interaction with faculty members, come in for special praise. I have heard about other undergraduate experiences that are similarly liberating--field trips by the geology program, the Duke Marine Lab, and the pre-freshman year programs called Project BUILD and Project Wild. One might add certain features of traditionally African-American sororities, who stress leadership and connections with successful alumnae.

Regarding sports, we have moved from having six varsity sports for women in 1971, the year before Title IX, to thirteen teams each for men and women today. We are making tremendous strides in offering athletic scholarships to women (although only forty-four of the 235 scholarships are endowed; she who has ears, let her hear). In sports, apparently, Duke women find a much more nurturing, less confining, and safer social group; and they have more supportive, peer-to-peer relationships with their male counterparts.

What about the future? In a truly co-educational institution, the numbers of women in the faculty and the senior administration would be proportional to the number of women in the population--50/50. These women would have at least equal chances of getting promoted, taking positions of leadership, occupying named chairs. Whatever career a young woman aspired to, she would see impressive role models every day at Duke.

She would be praised not only for her physical attractiveness but also for her intellectual achievements and good work, for speaking up and speaking out. It's not that "women's rules" would overcome the men's rules; it's that all the stale, unwritten rules would be discarded on the scrap heap of history.

A truly co-educational institution would recognize that individuals have unique gifts, and not pattern or channel women and men into specific slots as students, faculty members, or employees. We have seen a sea change in engineering; we saw it in athletics: Opportunity leads to interest.

In a truly co-educational institution, all women would have the sense of self-confidence that women athletes enjoy: pride in their abilities and their bodies, comradeship with other women, appreciation of the values of teamwork, and friendship with men who share their commitments and understand their lives.

It would not be a world in which gender is irrelevant or a world without sexual excitement or attraction or romance, but a world in which gender and sex do not spill over to all areas of life and make it impossible for men and women to live together as equals, or for women to flourish as human beings.