PILLARS OF FEMALE EMPOWERMENT:
the giles sisters
by Mary Aline Fertin
Duke University used to be an all-male boarding college, originally founded in 1838 as Brown’s schoolhouse -- a small academy located in Randolph County, about 90 miles from our current location in Durham. This academic institution was renamed Trinity College in 1859, remaining that way until 1924, when it was renamed after Washington Duke.
Having been barred from Trinity College because of their gender Mary, Persis, and Theresa Giles still found ways to study through the university. They aspired to be teachers and are cited to have seen a university education as the only way they could “really and truly” prepare themselves for their occupational endeavors. Law professor Lemuel Johnson agreed to tutor them, instructing them in the afternoons before other professors joined in to teach them. The only instructor to allow these sisters into his regular class of Metaphysics was then-president Braxton Craven. The sisters still paid the same tuition as other full-time Trinity students at the time.
In 1878, the Giles sisters became the first women to receive degrees from Trinity College, still 52 years before the Women’s College was founded. The Board of Trustees had recommended them for a “full and regular graduation to the Degree of the Bachelor of the Arts.” All three sisters went on to obtain a Master of Arts and then opened the Greenwood Female College in South Carolina.
This proposed installation is a set of three Georgian pillars in a triangle on the circular quad space between Marketplace and Lilly Library. Each pillar would represent Mary, Persis, and Theresa respectively, and would be inscribed in a manner quite similar to statues of the Duke family, reading: Trailblazer, Student, and Educator.
The Giles sisters’ namesake currently only exists by a freshman dorm on East Campus. There is little to no public knowledge of who they are, nor any explicit monument or representation for women who blaze trails in North Carolina higher education.