First Trinity Alumnae

Writer: 
November 30, 2006
First Trinity alumnae: Persis, Mary Giles, and Theresa from left

First Trinity alumnae: Persis, Mary Giles, and Theresa from left. Duke University Archives

Trinity College first admitted women as students in 1864 to bolster enrollment during the Civil War, but did not grant them degrees. The first women to be granted degrees by Trinity were the Giles sisters, Theresa, Persis, and Mary. All of their classes were held privately with professors in the afternoons or during faculty members' free periods, until their senior year, when they were allowed to attend lectures on metaphysics with the men. In the spring of 1878, the faculty recommended the Giles sisters for "full and regular graduation to the degree of Bachelor of Arts."

When Trinity College moved to Durham in 1892, women were admitted, but only as day students. In 1896, Washington Duke pledged $100,000 for Trinity's endowment, provided the college would "open its doors to women, placing them on an equal footing with men." A dormitory was built and named the Mary Duke Building, in honor of Duke's daughter. The number of female students gradually increased to a total of 235 in 1923.

Among the provisions of the Duke Indenture in 1924 was the creation of a coordinate college for women as part of Duke University. When the new university's Gothic buildings opened on West Campus in 1930, almost all of the residential and social spaces on East Campus were reserved for the Woman's College. (The exceptions: Southgate remained a male dorm, and classes held on East were coeducational.)

In 1929, only a year after Duke awarded its first Ph.D. degrees, Rose M. Davis became the first woman to earn a Duke doctorate, in chemistry.