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Women at Duke University

University Archives materials and collections documenting the history of women at Duke University

Historical Overview

Duke's Woman's College was formally established on East Campus in the fall of 1930. For the college's founding dean, Duke President William Preston Few recruited Alice M. Baldwin, an historian trained at the University of Chicago. Baldwin's philosophy of education placed an emphasis on the role of a woman's college in training women for leadership in both the academic and social spheres.

At a time when women were underrepresented in science or engineering, it is notable that the first woman to be awarded a Duke Ph. D.—Rose M. Davis, in 1929—took her degree in chemistry, and two women graduated from the School of Engineering in 1946.

In 1972, the Woman's College merged with the men's Trinity College to form the present undergraduate Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

Women's studies courses had been offered at Duke since 1968. In 1983, a Women's Studies program was formally established, and a major was approved in 1993. That year also saw the election of Nannerl O. Keohane as Duke's first female president and the second woman to head a major U.S. research university.

Among Duke's notable women graduates are:

  • Elizabeth Hanford Dole, former North Carolina Senator
  • Sylvia Earle, oceanographer
  • Melinda Gates, businesswoman and philanthropist
  • Nancy Hanks, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts
  • Juanita Kreps, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce
  • Mary D. B. T. Semans, philanthropist and granddaughter of Benjamin N. Duke
  • Retta (Marietta Sirleaf), actress and comedian
  • Eleanor Smeal, former president of NOW and president and founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation
  • Anne Tyler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
  • Judy Woodruff, journalist

Secondary Sources: Books, Research Papers, etc.

The following secondary source materials contain information about women at Duke University. Clicking on the links will take you to the catalog record for each item.

Many of the secondary sources listed below are the products of research using Duke University Archives collections. As you read these secondary sources, take careful note of their footnotes; they will point you to University Archives collections that may be helpful to your own research.

  • Houk, Mary Bentley. "Design of a Duchess: The Education of Duke Women, 1930-1964." History 195/196 Research Paper, 1991. From the Dept. of History Records, box 3.
  • Philpott, Jane. "The Woman's College in Duke University, 1930-1969." Durham: Duke University, 1969 :A history of the Woman's College submitted to President Douglas M. Knight by a committee charged with searching for candidates for the deanship of the Woman's College. Philpott was acting dean at the time.
  • Rowbury, Shannon. "The Changing Face of Women’s Sports at Duke: From Throwing Like a Girl to Competing with the Men." EDUC 146S Research Paper, Duke University, 2007. Electronic copy available via DukeSpace.

Quick Reference Collections

Quick reference collections are prepared by Duke University Archives staff to provide brief overviews of popular topics in Duke University's history. You may want to begin your research by studying the materials in these collections as a way of orienting yourself to your research topic.

Below, you'll find a list of our most frequently-consulted reference collections containing information on women at Duke, including links to their collection guides.