In 1972, U of I President Ernest Hartung appointed a committee to study the high attrition rate of women students. About 35 percent of students were women, and their drop-out rate was 25-30 percent. The committee's scope was broadened to include other issues affecting women on campus, including the number of women in various faculty ranks, promotion, pay scales, etc. The committee did extensive work over the next year or so and published their findings (U of I's first "campus climate" report).
Those interested in the committee's work would meet weekly, and became known as the Women's Caucus. Some committee members felt frustrated that action on the various issues of inequity revealed by the campus climate report was not forthcoming, and a smaller group was formed, the Women's Caucus "Core Group," which became the vehicle for action. Members worked in confidence, had pipelines across campus and the state, and trusted each other fully. When President Hartung told the Women’s Caucus he was unable to make the changes they demanded, and that they would have to file a formal complaint against the institution, the Core Group did exactly that, filing a complaint against the university with the Idaho Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in May 1973.
Rather than have the complaint go to court, President Hartung and the nine members of the Women's Caucus Core Group signed a "Conciliation Agreement" on May 8, 1974, which detailed several actions the university would take to address various issues. Some of the results of this agreement were: the hiring of an Affirmative Action Officer; an affirmative action plan; permanent funding for a director of the Women’s Center; job analysis; back pay; equal starting salaries; a High School Relations Program to implement good faith efforts to recruit and retain women students; a position filled by a female physician in the Student Health Center; and more. A supplemental appropriations request for one-third of a million dollars was made to the State Legislature for equity in women's salaries at U of I.
What had begun in 1972 with the formation of a president's committee to study the high attrition rate among female students at the university became the vehicle for long-lasting change affecting many aspects of the lives of women on campus.
The University of Idaho Women’s Center first opened in Fall 1972, on the ground floor of the Administration Building, across the hall from President Hartung’s office. At first, the Center had no staff and was run entirely by volunteers. It opened with second-hand furniture, posters, and rugs brought in by volunteers. For the first five years, the Center operated with volunteer staff and a part-time director. The 1974 Conciliation Agreement with the U of I Women’s Caucus mandated a full-time center with staff, including hiring a full-time, permanent director.
In the early years, the Center provided a space where women could gather and share ideas, talk, study, or just visit with friends. The Center’s first goals were to: 1) increase the number of women attending the university; 2) decrease the drop-out rate of women; 3) develop and sponsor programs to increase awareness of the status, problems and needs of women in Idaho; 4) provide services and programs to help address the needs and concerns of women; 5) provide a clearinghouse of informational and educational resources on issues important to women; and 6) serve as a peer counseling and referral agency (U of I Magazine, Fall 1997).
The Center moved a number of times during its first few years, and in 1981, the Center moved to its home for the next 19 years, in a building that also housed the Tutoring and Academic Assistance Center, located in the center of campus. That building was demolished in 2001. The Women’s Center then moved briefly to the Theater Arts Annex, a small, cozy home across from the Administration Lawn. Frozen pipes and the discovery of asbestos and lead paint in Fall 2002 meant a hasty move to the current Women’s Center home in Room 109 of the Memorial Gym.