Washington Duke and the Education of Women

Washington Duke and his granddaughter, Mary

The early history of the education of women at Trinity always sparks debate. How committed was the administration to equality of education for men and women? Were women students second class citizens relegated to private tutoring or non-resident status despite receiving the same diplomas as men? Unfortunately sufficient documentation to completely answer such questions simply does not exist. What is known has been the object of continual interpretation. Numerous articles and several outstanding honors' papers and dissertations on women at Duke make fascinating reading.

Pivotal in this institutional debate is a two-page letter from benefactor Washington Duke to President John C. Kilgo, dated December 5, 1896. In this oft quoted letter Duke pledges $100,000 to Trinity College for endowment provided the college "will open its doors to women placing them on an equal footing with men." The size of the gift, the fact of a proviso, and the subject of the letter gave rise to widespread publicity. Letters arrived praising the seventy-six-year-old gentleman for his support for women's rights. He even politely declined the offered position of vice president of a national suffrage association.

No documentation exists that explains the motivation for the proviso attached to the gift. By a vote of the college's Board of Trustees, women had been formally admitted to classes since 1892. The four women students then enrolled and about to graduate at the time of the announcement remarked much later that "Mr. Duke was always interested in us and would question us about our progress and chuckle over our achievements." A plausible explanation may be the desire to memorialize, although indirectly, the life of Mary Duke, Washington Duke's only daughter, who died at the age of forty. Only family members knew the extent of her caring for her widowed father and motherless brothers as well as her considerable help in launching the early tobacco enterprises.

When the college opened in Durham in 1892 women were again admitted but as day students only. Three of the four enrolled were faculty children and it was their progress that Washington Duke followed closely. The practical effect of his restricted gift in 1896 was the immediate construction of a residential dormitory. It was proudly named the Mary Duke Building in memory of Duke's daughter, Mary Elizabeth.

From the institutional perspective, Trinity had already awarded diplomas to women. In 1878, three sisters—Mary, Persis, and Theresa Giles—earned A.B. degrees at old Trinity in Randolph County. Part of their instruction had been private tutoring and part had been in the classroom with men. Just why this was so has been the cause of much comment. However, with unique domestic and financial demands incident to their collegiate schooling at ages 25, 30, and 32, it is difficult to assess the reasons for a particular method of instruction.

Having a dorm dramatically increased the attractiveness of Trinity for women. However, the first year was controversial but not for the expected reasons. The dorm was finished so quickly it provided more beds than there were female students. President John C. Kilgo quietly picked suitable senior men to share the facility. A professor's wife wrote her daughter, "Dr. Kilgo has put boys in the Woman's Building so you see it has come down to a mixed boarding house already. If my girl was there I would take her away." Later records indicate this ironically co-ed dorm may have had nine male boarders, mostly single faculty. The Mary Duke dormitory, sparked by Duke's gift, helped increase the enrollment of women to fifty-four by 1904.

The major result of Duke's donation was its signal that the family had adopted Trinity College as the primary focus of its philanthropy. After the initial gift of $85,000 to attract the college to Durham, Duke had been shocked at the enormity of the financial needs of the school. During the severe economic depression of 1893, he is said to have claimed he wished he had never put a dollar in the college and that he would give no more. However, he followed the 1896 gift with two more in 1898 and 1900, each of $100,000. These donations, along with those of his sons, placed Trinity in greater financial shape than anyone dared dream at the time of the relocation of the college a decade earlier. To place the Duke family support in perspective, the total income for the University of North Carolina in 1899-1900 was only $48,000, $25,000 of which was a legislative appropriation.

On April 20, 1903, Washington Duke sent another of his infrequent letters to the board of trustees. This time no gift transpired. Instead, he referred to his donation in 1896 with its proviso and wrote as follows: "I was then, and am still, interested in the higher education of the young women of the South; however, this is the only gift which I have ever made which in any way affects your policies in the management of the college. I now wish, and do hereby remove the conditions attached to this donation." By this letter, he desired to remove any personally imposed restraints upon the board of trustees. Nevertheless, he thanked the board for accepting and complying with his interest in educating women.

Washington Duke's twin thrusts of confidence in Trinity and interest in the higher education of women helped propel the liberal arts college toward real leadership in the educational world and eventual university status.


For Further Research


© 1991. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.