Duke University | Baldwin Scholars Program

Dana Oppermann


Dana  Oppermann

The Unsung Heroine Award recognizes a woman who has demonstrated extraordinary dedication to issues that face women at Duke or in the larger community, but whose efforts have not received formal recognition.

2011 Award Winners: Brooke Hartley, Dana Oppermann (far right), Rebecca Ortega, and Katie Patellos

An excerpt from their nomination letter:

Dana Opperman, Katie Patellos, Brooke Hartley and Rebecca Ortega are Duke’s true heroines.  These women tackled and effectively stopped the biggest social and cultural issue affecting Duke women, progressive parties.  Progressive parties have a range of behavior – from something as simple as a “chocolate progressive” where there is a different chocolate dessert in each room of the party to the severe where sex and alcohol are used for social status of an organization. The severe progressives are the parties that these four women have worked to end. Fraternities hosted progressive parties as a tactic to recruit new men.  At a progressive party, fraternities invite women, particularly first year, new Panhellenic women, to designated locations and are told to attend scantily clad. Upon arrival, women are given free alcohol for up to four hours before any potential new members arrive.  Women are then instructed to ‘show [the new members] a good time.’  This means that women are expected to provide potential new members with progressively more intense sexual favors and alcohol.  These favors range from kissing to sexual intercourse. In participating, women unknowingly enter into a destructive cycle of social validation from men on campus and are placed in situations that can prove both regrettable and dangerous. 

Until this semester, discussing progressive parties was taboo.  These women did.  They put together an action plan to discuss and stop these parties that are so dangerous and harmful to women. Over the course of the first semester, these women met weekly to discuss different ways to address this social issue.  They began by identifying student allies on campus.  That culminated with a petition signed by over 500 students affirming the shared belief that Duke is a safe and welcoming community that does not tolerate behavior that objectifies its members.  After receiving a groundswell of support, the women discussed progressive parties and their dangers at public forums, seeking input and dialogue from the Duke community.  These women addressed the Greek Women’s Initiative, Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Council and administration of the University. Despite all of the education about what progressive parties actually are, they were still scheduled to take place during men’s recruitment.  In order to keep the spotlight on this deplorable Duke custom among a select few groups, the women sent a letter along with the petition describing progressive parties requesting their immediate cancellation to chapter presidents, student affairs staff, President Brodhead, the Board of Trustees and to national fraternity organizations.  Soon after receipt of the letter, IFC declared that progressive parties were no longer to be held. 

Dana, Katie, Brooke and Rebecca were aware of the risks to their own social standing at the university by calling out fellow students (many of which are friends) for their behavior. These four women have demonstrated the bravery to stand up for what is right despite the unfair and unwarranted consequences to which they were subjected. These women had the nerve to discuss an inviolable issue.  They exposed a system that was so clearly discriminatory to women.  In doing so, they demonstrated the power of women at Duke.  At the very least, their movement prevented countless victims from suffering the indignities of progressive parties and they made a statement that Duke women are to be respected for who they are.  They were the catalysts for a cultural shift that has already impacted the lives of present and future Duke women.
Although this is an individual award, it would be impossible and unfair to highlight one woman for this award.  Each woman mentioned above contributed key elements to this movement. With this in mind, each woman ought to be a recipient of this award.  The movement was nothing short of a cultural transformation that upheld Duke’s highest ethical ideals and fulfilled the mission of the institution in the face of extreme doubt and social pressure to leave this matter alone. These women had learned their own life lessons and knew how to protect themselves.  They had nothing to gain personally from ending the practice of progressive parties. Rather, they chose to do what is right and stopped the parties in order to protect Duke women of the future.