A Work in Progress: Celebrating the first 40 years of the Women’s Center
History on campus can’t be told without including “her-story.” That’s why, in Fall 2012, the University of Idaho’s Women’s Center launched an extensive celebration of its 40 years of helping women to achieve -- while recognizing that the work yet to be done, and the Center’s mission, still are every bit as relevant and crucial today as they were when the Center was founded in 1972.
“This is an important milestone, for not only the Women’s Center, but for the University of Idaho community,” says Heather Shea Gasser, Women’s Center director. “The impacts that women and the Center have made on this campus are far-reaching and cause for celebration.”
The celebration included a semester-long series of 40th anniversary events. The highlight of the semester was a free keynote address by women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine. Her Oct. 4 appearance was also part of the Women’s Leadership Conference, co-sponsored by the Women’s Center and Athena Professional Women’s Organization, in partnership with ADVANCE at WSU. Full schedule of events.
Since its creation four decades ago – following a president-led study on women students’ high attrition rates and the Women’s Caucus Core Group’s insistence that the university take a hard look at the the low numbers of women faculty, lack of promotions, and reduced salaries – the Women’s Center has made a marked difference on the campus community, said retired university employee Kay Keskinen. She took a job on campus before the Center’s 1972 opening.
"I worked in the male-dominated field of computing systems. There were almost no female role models in administrative positions on campus in the early ‘70s,” says Keskinen. “The Center’s noon brown bag programs and the support I received there were crucial to my personal development. My 40 years of using the Center's services have transformed my life. I am so grateful that the Center was there for me."
Based on the study information, the university entered into a Conciliation Agreement in 1974 . Its terms required that a new position be created for an affirmative action officer, creation of an affirmative action plan, the hire of a full-time, permanent Women's Center director, an analysis of women’s salary rates, back pay where appropriate, starting salaries equal to those offered to men, establishment of a school relations program to make good faith efforts to recruit women students, and the hiring of a female physician at the Student Health Center.
Growing from humble beginnings with a volunteer staff, the Women’s Center continues to evolve and meet needs of a contemporary university. The original mission, though, remains the same: To promote and advocate for gender equity on campus and in the community through programs and services that educate and support all individuals in building an inclusive and compassionate society.
“We provide a safe, comfortable space for everyone to explore, discuss and learn about gender issues,” says Gasser. “We do promote gender equity, but we focus on equity as a whole, for everyone.”
From establishing a presence on campus and holding weekly programs in the ‘70s, the Center now also features programming that keeps pace with – and pushes the boundaries of – modern issues and challenges students face. The many signature events, such as LunaFest, “The Vagina Monologues” and brown bag programs, bring together hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members. The Women’s Center also offers support through a women’s mentoring program, scholarships, internships, and work-study experiences.
With a good foundation, Gasser says the Center’s mission is a must. She points out that women on average still earn only 77 cents to every dollar that men bring home, and that pay gap is even wider for Latina and African-American women. This, despite the fact that former President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, and Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act the next year, banning sex discrimination at work. Women also continue to be underrepresented in tenured faculty, full professor, and administrative leadership positions on college campuses.
“So while women long ago won the right to vote and speak in public, gender equity has not yet been reached in this or any other country,” says Gasser. “Cultural change is a dynamic process, and through the Center, we remain deeply engaged in the struggle. The remaining injustices do not diminish the good works and transformational experiences realized as a result of our Center.”