Duke has a long history of educating women, beginning in the 19th century. The University's commitment to female students was formalized in 1930 with the creation of The Woman's College. For 40 years, this coordinate college insured that women students had access to higher education. Ruth Hazen-Smith, the assistant dean for instruction, introduced a course called Women for the New Age, which she taught until her retirement in the 1950s and in 1968 an interdisciplinary course on Women in American society was introduced. In 1972, the Woman's College merged with Trinity, the men's college. Throughout the 1970s, attention to questions of women and gender was sporadic.
Under the leadership of Dean Ernestine Friedl, then Dean of Trinity College, the program was officially created in 1983 to bring scholarship on women into the curriculum, making gender issues the subject of teaching and research. The program was called "Women's Studies" and continued under that name until 2016 when it was changed to "Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies."
The program began with a single desk in the corner of 119 East Duke, known informally as the blue parlor, with Jean O'Barr as director. A year later Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society came to Duke and Jean O'Barr served as editor, coordinating a group of scholars from Duke, UNC-CH, and other area schools as the advisory board. Graduate courses began in 1987, and the undergraduate major was established in 1994. Duke University now has an internationally recognized faculty of feminist scholars, and its library resources support scholarship for visitors from around the globe.
In March of 1998, alumna Margaret Taylor Smith, leaving her position as the chair of the Kresge Foundation, directed her retirement gift to the program; she and her husband Sidney matched it with a family gift; Council members, members of the class of 1997, and staff contributed; and the Duke Endowment granted $100,000 to complete the million dollars for an endowed faculty chair. Jean O'Barr was named the first Margaret Taylor Smith Director, believed to be the nation's first endowed director's chair in women's studies. Robyn Wiegman held the position from Fall 2001 until Spring 2007. Ranjana Khanna was the director from Fall 2007 until Spring 2015. Priscilla Wald was the director from Fall 2015 until Spring 2019. Jocelyn Olcott is the current director as of Fall 2019.