The Alice M. Baldwin Papers

When Alice Mary Baldwin was offered the position of dean of women at Trinity College in 1924, she told President William Few that she was not interested unless a number of demands were met.  In her memoir she recalled, “I had said that I would not consider the position at all unless I could have a seat on the faculty, could teach some classes in history, have no responsibility as a nurse for which I was entirely unfitted, and have real authority in working with the girls.”  President Few agreed, and for the twenty-four years she was at Duke, Baldwin was fair and encouraging to her students and was a strong leader as well.  The first woman with full faculty status, Baldwin insisted on academic and social improvements to better educate and prepare the female student body.

The Alice M. Baldwin Papers in the University Archives at Perkins Library document Baldwin’s commitment to her students to “develop a freer and more mature atmosphere and at the same time preserve the better traditions, and develop personal honor and responsibility.”  The Baldwin Papers include not only her fascinating memoir, “The Woman’s College As I Remember It,” but also correspondence, minutes, photographs, print materials, and other items that record Baldwin’s life and long career with Duke University.

Born in 1879 in Lewiston, Maine, Baldwin attended a private high school in New Jersey, then received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cornell University.  After graduation, she studied in Europe and briefly served as dean of women of Fargo College in North Dakota.  In 1906, she became a history instructor at the Baldwin School of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  She remained in this position for fifteen years, until 1921 when she began pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago.  In 1923 Baldwin took a summer position as acting dean of women at Trinity College.  After meeting with President Few at the end of the summer, she somewhat reluctantly agreed to leave Chicago and return in the winter as the permanent dean of women of Trinity College, which became Duke University in 1924.  In 1930, she was named the dean of the newly created Woman’s College, a position she held until 1947.

As dean of the Woman’s College of Duke University, Baldwin faced a constant battle for real authority and respect.  In her interview before joining the administration of Duke, Baldwin had to assure male leaders that she could bear criticism without breaking down into tears.  She continued to face sexist attitudes from some colleagues, but the men with whom she worked soon learned that Alice Baldwin was unafraid to demand improvements for women in everything from musical education to lavatory facilities to sports equipment.  In a 1925 letter to President Few, she requested hockey, basketball, and soccer fields as well as a golf course for women’s use.  Her desire to encourage physical activity was decades ahead of Title IX and the widespread establishment of women’s sports.

Increasing the number of women in faculty and administrative positions was perhaps most important to Baldwin.  She pressed tirelessly for more female faculty members who would “serve as examples of what women can achieve in the academic world.”  She also recruited a well-educated live-in dormitory staff to help create a mature and intellectually stimulating atmosphere for the students.  Baldwin’s campus home offered a setting in which young women could socialize with their dean.  Baldwin wrote that their evening chats “gave us an opportunity to discuss various matters concerning student government, the social life, our ideals for the college, etc.”  Baldwin was committed to her students not only as an educator and administrator, but as a mentor and friend.

The Baldwin collection in the University Archives documents both Baldwin’s efforts to change conditions for women and action by the women themselves.  In 1936, the Executive Council of the Women’s Student Government Association requested that the university hire a woman physician with whom they could discuss “the many personal problems” that they faced.  The students also demanded more opportunities to work on campus publications, and they campaigned for a revised judicial system and a crackdown on cheating.  Such initiative by female students shows that whatever their professional goals outside of Duke, female students were learning assertiveness, organization, and confidence under the tutelage of Alice Baldwin.

The Alice M. Baldwin Papers provide a glimpse into the struggles, achievements, and ultimately the changes made at Duke during this remarkable woman’s tenure.  Baldwin’s legacy has received new attention with the university’s recently established Baldwin Scholars Program.  This program will provide eighteen first-year women with the opportunity to participate in all-female classes and activities and to develop leadership skills inside and outside the classroom.  The program’s goals are almost exactly those of Alice Baldwin herself: “My chief aims,” she wrote in her memoir, “were to have full opportunities for the women to share in all academic life; to have the advantages of the university libraries, laboratories, faculty, while at the same time giving them the opportunity to develop leadership and college spirit through their own organizations while learning to work with men through membership in some common student organizations and enterprises.”  The Baldwin Scholars Program is a fitting legacy for Alice Baldwin, an administrator who inspired a generation of Duke women to pursue their academic careers with confidence and enthusiasm.  In a 1960 letter to Baldwin, a former student wrote affectionately, “We admired you in every way, and learned from what you were as well as from what you said.”

Valerie Gillispie

Valerie Gillispie is an intern in the University Archives at Duke University.