Common ground: Women's Center director Lisker, right, with sophomore scholars, from left, Aislinn Affinito, Andrea Dinamarco, and Meng Zhou. Les Todd
Common ground: Women's Center director Lisker, right, with sophomore scholars, from left, Aislinn Affinito, Andrea Dinamarco, and Meng Zhou. Les Todd

For Women Only

More than eighty years after Dean Alice M. Baldwin strove to give female students the benefits of both the Woman's College and Trinity, a pilot program seeks to address issues raised by the Women's Initiative.
Writer: 
November 30, 2005
 

During the summer of 1923, Duke President William Preston Few interviewed Alice M. Baldwin for the position of dean of women. In her memoir, Baldwin recalls one notable question during their conversation: "He asked me if I could take criticism and disappointment without weeping!"

Baldwin didn't record her reaction to the question and its inherent assumptions. But she does say that she told Few she wouldn't take the job unless she was given a faculty position and was allowed to teach. She refused, she said, to be considered just the female students' "nurse." She wanted "real authority in working with the girls."

Baldwin went on to become Duke's first full-time female faculty member, a professor of history, and the founding dean of Duke's Woman's College, which was housed on East Campus from 1930 to 1972, when the Woman's and Trinity colleges merged.

During her twenty-one years as dean of the Woman's College, Baldwin oversaw the creation of student groups that made it possible for women to explore and build on their interests and talents. She insisted that all academic facilities be open to both genders and urged the hiring of more female faculty members. She hosted sewing nights to discuss etiquette. Her goal was to ensure that her students had the benefits of both the Woman's College and Trinity College, the men's school.

More than eighty years later, Duke's female undergraduates once again have access to similar benefits. Last fall, Duke named its first Alice M. Baldwin Scholars--eighteen first-year students accepted into a women-only program within the university's coed undergraduate experience. The program began in late January at an overnight retreat in a secluded cabin near Chapel Hill.

The new scholars, who barely know each other, are instructed to stand face-to-face in two concentric circles. Then Colleen Scott, the program's assistant director, calls out a question. Each participant tells her partner the answer. Once both have shared, one circle rotates, creating a new set of pairs. At first, the circles are three feet apart, and participants speak in low voices tinged with uncertainty.

"What role do you take in groups?" Scott calls out. One student says she likes to take charge. "What makes you afraid?" Being alone. Being chased. "What's your biggest challenge at Duke?" Regan Bosch, a goalie on the lacrosse team, stands with her arms folded across her chest. "You say something intelligent, and someone else says something more intelligent," she says. As the questions and answers fly, the room fills with shouts and laughter. The circles move closer together. What is your proudest achievement? Meng Zhou doesn't mention that she influenced local school-board policies as a high-school lobbyist or that she earned admission to Duke. Instead, she says, "Baldwin Scholars!"

By the next morning, the scholars are teasing one another and sharing inside jokes, more like sisters or lifelong friends than people who barely knew each other the day before. It's a nascent version of the kind of support network that Donna Lisker, co-director of the Baldwin Scholars and director of Duke's Women's Center, envisioned six years ago when university administrators began serious conversations about creating a women-only academic program.

The idea didn't take hold until 2002, when President Nannerl O. Keohane created the Women's Initiative to study the lives of all Duke women. The findings were disturbing: Women were poorly represented in the faculty, particularly at the most senior levels, and female faculty and staff members at every level were struggling to balance their work and family lives. Equally, if not more troubling, was an undergraduate culture permeated by unrealistic expectations of achievement and physical beauty--a culture in which women often competed against, rather than supported one another and, sometimes, played "dumb" to attract male peers.

To address issues affecting employees, the administration began working to improve child care, mentoring, and other support services. But changing an undergraduate culture that demands that its women be smart, fit, popular, and involved, without visible exertion--what the study called "effortless perfection"--was a thorny challenge.

Baldwin at her desk

Dean Alice Baldwin at her desk. Duke University Archives

Part of the answer, Lisker and others decided, was to create a program that would give female undergraduates the opportunity to network with faculty, meet older student mentors, live together as a group, and study in several women-only seminars. The idea, Lisker says, was to give them the tools and the space to explore for themselves issues such as gender, success, and body image.

"These women, especially because so many of them come from privilege, up to this point have not necessarily felt a lot of difference from their male peers," Lisker says. "Being a woman might seem irrelevant to them. Part of our goal is to challenge them to think about this."

Women apply to the Baldwin Scholars program in the fall of their first year; the second class is being selected in November. The program begins in the spring with a retreat and a semester-long seminar taught by three female professors that participants take in addition to their normal courseload. As sophomores, the scholars live together on West Campus and will lead a community-service project. They will intern with an alumna junior year and then gather back on campus senior year for a capstone course.

Although they will explore women's issues, the scholars will not earn a women's-studies degree. Organizers felt the Baldwin Scholars program would be more marketable to a mainstream audience if it was not tagged as feminist. Recruiting materials for the first class, designed to attract a diverse applicant pool, featured noteworthy Duke alumnae, including actor Annabeth Gish '93, aspiring doctor Pooja Kumar '01, and Senator Elizabeth Hanford Dole '58, Hon. '00. Participants bear no extra costs to enroll in the program, but they also do not receive tuition scholarships.

The inaugural group was selected from seventy-eight applicants. The scholars come from twelve states and have varied interests: Duke Republicans, Black Student Alliance, Duke's equestrian team, and Duke Symphony Orchestra. They are studying art, biomedical engineering, and public policy. They perform traditional Indian dance, row crew, play badminton, and volunteer. 

When the year started, they felt they had little in common. Even their reasons for joining the program varied widely. Not all came seeking enlightenment on gender issues. Some didn't agree that the campus social atmosphere was as rigid and unfriendly to women as the Women's Initiative report described. Rachel McLaughlin, the first student from her Missouri high school to attend a top-ten university, wanted to continue the leadership training she had begun in high school. Kelley Akhiemokhali wanted a self-esteem boost. She says she didn't feel pressure to dress or act a certain way when she arrived at Duke. But the Houston native had struggled with her self-esteem in high school and had considered attending a women's college. She felt she couldn't afford to lose confidence, and she began noticing the pressure to look good wearing on her friends, she says. At on The Baldwin Scholars' first seminar, held over the spring semester, was "Perceptions of the Self, Society, and the Natural World," taught by Lisker, program co-director and geologist Emily Klein, and Frances Graham, an administrator at North Carolina Central University. Lessons in personal perceptions, feminist theory, art as a form of self expression, and science and society were designed to prompt the scholars to think through their personal histories and priorities and to question how they take in the world around them.

One evening early in the semester, the scholars are assembled in the program's East Duke Building classroom. Some swivel in red leather chairs. Others are squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder on the couch. Their assignment is to present an autobiography, in whatever form they choose.

On a sheet of paper, the first speaker has drawn four pairs of shoes: worn flip-flops, pointy leopard-print heels, pink ballet slippers, and electric-blue sneakers. As she waits for the signal to begin her presentation, she tucks a stray hair behind her ear and bites her bottom lip. "I am Regan Bosch, and I am an artist," she says in the confessional tone of a twelve-step meeting. She pauses and adds, "That's really hard for me to say."

"I play lacrosse," she continues. "People think I'm a real guy, like I can beat people up. But I have my ballet slippers on there. I would love to feel like a little girl again." Her voice trails off.

The pastel is caked on the paper, revealing her effort to get the details just right. "Pastel drawing is really hard for me, being a perfectionist," she says. "I'll pore over this for hours and think, 'Why can't I fix that shoelace?' "

In turn, the other women share their private sides. One tearfully describes living between two cultures, with a Christian mom and a Jewish dad. Another, the class' self-proclaimed diva, performs a monologue that covers her desire to balance family and work and her conviction that round butts are sexy. The other women alternately tear up, laugh, applaud.

After the class is over, Lisker explains the assignment. "If you're going to be in a leadership position of any kind, you need to think about your private actions in a public way. You've got to know your strengths and weaknesses. You've got to get insight into yourself and how other people see you."

Shoes of the scholar: autobiographical pastel by Regan Bosch, from program's first assignment

Shoes of the scholar: autobiographical pastel by Regan Bosch, from program's first assignment. Les Todd

Lisker says she has heard little criticism of the Baldwin Scholars program itself; however, nationally there is a longstanding debate about the relative success and importance of single-sex education. It reached a fever pitch in the late Sixties, when historically all-male colleges began to admit women. Today's critics say that separating women, or any group, does not prepare them for success in a diverse world. Others argue that it's simply not necessary now that women have access to numerous coeducational opportunities, and that it robs students of the opportunity to learn from those who are different.

On the other side is research indicating the benefits provided by women's colleges. Graduates tend to develop greater confidence and leadership skills, for example, according to studies by Alexander W. Astin, founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, and others. A 2003 study at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research compared the experiences of women at coed and women's colleges. In general, women at women's colleges were more engaged and also reported more academic challenge, more interaction with faculty members, greater self-awareness, more interest in contributing to the community, and more experiences that encourage understanding diversity.

Duke president emerita Keohane graduated from all-female Wellesley College and was its president before coming to Duke in 1993. She says her undergraduate experience offered friendships with women and a chance to observe accomplished female professors and administrators. "Women did everything at Wellesley," Keohane says. "We majored in whatever we were good at and curious about, and nobody ever hinted that women were not good at physics or economics, even in subtle ways. We ran all the student organizations and participated in college governance in significant ways, and we gained both intellectual and other skills in doing so, without worrying that we might appear 'too smart.' Sometimes in later life when a challenge arose, my immediate response was: 'I know I can do this--I did it at Wellesley.' "

Before the Baldwin Scholars program was created, Keohane says, women at Duke had some spaces of their own where they could develop strong friendships and find role models. Those include the Women's Center and sororities, "at least when they live up to their ideals." The Baldwin Scholars program is an attempt to combine that sense of community with intellectual rigor, she says.

Sue Wasiolek '76, M.H.A. '78, LL.M. '93, assistant vice president for student affairs, says she can only recall one female professor and no female administrators at Duke during her undergraduate years. And yet, she didn't find her undergraduate experience lacking, she says. She calls the Baldwin Scholars program a reasonable response to the Women's Initiative, though she would like to see its effectiveness measured and all students exposed to education about gender--including men. "What I find myself concerned about are all the people who are not part of these programs."

Lisker says researchers will survey the scholars, along with some who applied but were not admitted and others who did not apply. The goal is to have a sense about whether the Baldwin Scholars report higher confidence and greater satisfaction with their college experiences. So far, the only evidence is anecdotal. Baldwin Scholar Rachel McLaughlin says the program has helped her understand what it means to be a feminist and now would define herself as one. "Feminism is having the self-confidence to work for your goals in a society that may present obstacles," she says. "It has nothing to do with male bashing. It's also about women working together for our advancement, not being competitive."

Scholar Akhiemokhali landed a role in a play--something she says she never would have gone for without the support of her teachers and peers in the Baldwin Scholars. Bosch says she started her Duke career uncertain whether to study biology or art, thinking of art as a "cop-out." She has finally decided to pursue her passion to paint and has found a place to display her work. The pastel drawing of shoes she made for her first assignment now hangs, framed, in the Baldwin Scholars' classroom.

Lisker and others acknowledge that one drawback to the program could be its size; when it reaches full enrollment of seventy-two in fall 2007, it will comprise only about 2 percent of female undergraduates. But she points out that the scholars are encouraged to take what they're learning to the broader community. This fall, for example, they're considering creating a women's network for gender-related discussions, campaigning for women seeking campus leadership positions, and hosting a Baldwin Scholars-like retreat for a wider group of women. The scholars are also encouraged to pursue other interests so they can take what they learn to other campus communities. For instance, nearly half of the scholars have joined sororities, about the same percentage as the general undergraduate female population. "We don't want the Baldwin Scholars to be marginalized," Lisker says. "If we don't have anyone join a sorority, then how are we going to influence the sororities?"

Bosch pledged Zeta Tau Alpha, a new sorority. It was part of her effort to be a "regular" student, not just an athlete, she says. "The sorority is fun. We just goof off. It's people like me. It's not serious conversation. Baldwin Scholars is where we go twice a week to have intelligent conversations. You get to that room and it's like: Ahhhh. I can really relate."

Baldwin Scholars

Baldwin Scholars Photo: Jim Wallace

 

On one night in January, the group discusses body image. "How do we use our bodies for self-expression?" Lisker asks. "What decisions do we make every day with our bodies?" The answers come rapid-fire: What we wear. Scents. What we eat, drink, and smoke. Jewelry. Whether you spend time on hair and makeup. Body language.

Women judge one another, the students observe. They envy their peers' toned abs or flat stomachs. They recall women spending hours dressing and blow-drying hair for sorority rush. They talk about "dressing cute" for their boyfriends. They talk about the media's obsession with the First Lady's clothes. They confess they go to the gym more often at Duke than they did at home.

Rachel Shack, one of Bosch's lacrosse teammates, worries that the fuss over physical appearance "reduces a woman's potential to change the world." But Andrea Dinamarco, an outspoken student from Pembroke Pines, Florida, says a sexy appearance can be a sign that a woman is nurturing herself. "It could be that that makes us more confident--if you do these things the right way, if you wear sexy lingerie to bed not because your boyfriend is coming over but because you admire the laciness, that's okay," she says.

The professors want to force students out of their comfort zones. Klein, whose research as a geochemist focuses on ocean ridges, arranged a field trip to Duke's marine lab in Beaufort. In "miserable" weather, Klein took the scholars on a boat trip. They were encouraged to study creatures such as sea urchins and crabs. One student got seasick.

"One of the great things about geology is that it involves field work, and everyone has to pee in the woods," Klein says, noting that in geology, unlike many scientific disciplines, the number of male and female students is about equal. "That's a great leveler. High heels, makeup, the trappings of popular culture, and the inherent ways women interact with other women and men are of no use in field work."

But those trappings of popular culture are unavoidable in the workplace. At another session, they explore the topic of women and power with the help of Martha Reeves, a visiting assistant professor who teaches "Women at Work: Gendered Experiences of Corporate Life."

Reeves, who consults with businesses on such issues as women's development, says that women face two key challenges: learning where they have power, and learning how to handle people in power with whom they disagree. "What will make you powerful is the relevance of your activities, regardless of your title," Reeves says. "How close are you to other important people?" Reeves urges the scholars to network and communicate well, and that includes avoiding such qualifiers as "maybe" and "I think."

Already, the scholars have had a number of opportunities to practice what they are learning. Over the summer, several attended a conference of the American Association of University Women, and four attended Duke's student leadership retreat. Others accompanied administrators on the first of a number of trips to try to raise a $6-million endowment for the program, which is fully funded through 2008 through the president's discretionary fund and The Duke Endowment. In September, Dinamarco was elected president of the Crowell Quad Council; Bosch, the lacrosse player, was elected as a representative to the council.

Bosch says she became a Baldwin Scholar because she wanted access to university decision-makers and intellectually elite peers. Near the end of her first semester in the program, she got her wish. President Richard H. Brodhead invited the scholars to a private reception at his home.

The students carpool to the president's house at the edge of West Campus, affixing name tags to their sweaters and blouses as they walk up the driveway. Brodhead is outside to greet each woman with a handshake. Inside, they meet Brodhead's wife, Cindy Brodhead, and go to the dining room, where they fill china plates with chocolate-chip cookies and accept glasses of lemonade. But Claire Lauterbach, the daughter of a foreign-service officer, foregoes the refreshments to buttonhole President Brodhead. She asks about his book collection. An English professor, he confesses that in college he got in the habit of saving all his books, and could only find twelve to part with when he moved to Durham. The circle around him grows.

The other women pepper him with questions. What did he study as a young man? Does he like watching basketball in Cameron? They want to know about Duke's new global health initiative, the ban on travel to countries under U.S. State Department warnings, the future of the arts at Duke. He, in turn, has a few questions for them. He asks whether they enjoyed meeting author Anne Fadiman and whether the women's lacrosse games draw a large crowd.

Brodhead tells them that when he was a student at Yale, the university was all-male. The university became coed when he was a young professor, he says, and, "the intellectual difference was phenomenal. The classes were so much more interesting."

The women tell the president that the Baldwin Scholars program is making a phenomenal difference for them. They are starting, they say, to figure out how to share their experiences. Brodhead agrees that the program's small size is "really almost the only downside."

"If it's so good for you guys, how can it be generalized?" he asks.

"We talk a lot about women's role in this school and different positions women attain," Dinamarco says. "We talk about self-esteem. What would you say your opinion is on women at Duke? I mean, I know you're a man."

"It's so extremely hard to judge," he says. "I would have to say I see no difference in confidence between the women and men who make my acquaintance."

"I'm still testing the waters, but it does seem like it's an unspoken fact that the men have an ego, a strong sense of themselves," Dinamarco replies.

"If I thought this was a campus where men were respected for their intellect and women were only respected for their looks, I wouldn't have come here," Brodhead says. "Even if, God forbid, it's true at this school, it'll only be true until someone makes it different. I don't know yet whether this place needs a revolution, but I see that you would be powerful forces in that."