The "Aycock Nine" were back in town, as formidable a group now as they were when undergraduates at the Woman's College nearly forty years ago. Most of them are teachers now--four of them at universities, two in high schools, another in a program for pregnant teens. One runs a horse farm. Another teaches yoga at a Virginia ashram.
These women came out of college with ambition and a confidence that they could achieve their goals, says Betsy Alden-Rutledge '64, a charter member of the group, who is service-learning coordinator for the Kenan Institute for Ethics and a visiting lecturer in public-policy studies. But November's reunion of Woman's College graduates reminded her and her friends of one thing: There were many other alumnae just like them.
" There were many, many women who came out of the Woman's College with the same experiences as us and went on to do remarkable things," Alden-Rutledge says. "We spent the weekend being reminded how the Woman's College built in women a particular sense that they can do anything they want."
More than 200 alumnae returned for this first-ever, Woman's-College-graduates-only reunion. Coming thirty years after the college was merged with men's programs, the event was meant to spotlight the history of women's contributions to the institution and to give alumnae the opportunity to talk about current and future issues facing women at Duke.
" Part of the pleasure was finding yourself sitting next to a woman from another generation," says Robin Lyons Puckett '60, a former employee of Duke Chapel and the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. "All the women were full of life and wisdom, and I enjoyed that tremendously. It was an excellent concept."
Paula Phillips Burger '67, A.M. '74, a vice provost at Johns Hopkins University, says the weekend emphasized that, despite the difference in ages, there was a common experience for the women. The Woman's College "gave all of us the ability to have our sights lifted," says Burger. "We realize that wasn't an experience that all young women had. We felt very supported in our ambitions."
That isn't how the Woman's College is seen by today's students, the alumnae say. Burger notes that there seems to be a misperception that the college was "holding women back" and set a stifling social environment of rules and early curfews behind locked dorm doors. But inside the dorms, all the doors were open, and people spent most of their time in the hallways or commons areas, Alden-Rutledge recalls. "We spent a lot of time this weekend comparing notes, and all of the people I talked to said that living in dorms with upperclass women was the most valuable experience," she says. "The seniors served as mentors to us and instilled in us a lot of strong values and expectations."
President Nannerl O. Keohane took up the theme in a November 9 dinner address, chronicling past contributions of women to Duke. She also discussed the university's new initiative on women, which is the first comprehensive effort in years to collect data on women's lives at Duke. In her talk, Keohane said she had been "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." This suggests, she said, that the current climate is not as nurturing of women's leadership and ambitions as it should be. "Many [female students] claim they want the freedom to talk about academic and intellectual matters in social realms, but that they are constrained or choose not to. At the same time, they are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for bucking the system, changing the environment, demanding something different."
A commemorative video on the history of the Woman's College premiered after Friday's dinner during the weekend. Created by Penelope Maunsell '74, with images provided by University Archives and others, the video has been made available free of charge to all alumnae by the Duke Alumni Association. A copy can be ordered through Charlene Matte at Alumni House, (919) 684-6060; by e-mail: Charlene.Matte@daa.duke.edu; or from the website: www.dukealumni.com/cc/wcc.