A Room of One's Own
by Kim Anderson
Members of 1974-75 UM's Women's Center. First row, left to right: Fran Knudsen, Judy Smith, Sheila Smith, Kelly Rosenleaf. Second row: Terry Kendrick, Mary Ann Garritty, unknown, unknown. Third row: Candace Crosby, Susan Ashcraft, Susan Nose and Polly (last name unknown).
Kate Kahan, the center's current outreach coordinator.
The walls are plastered with posters on topics such as "How To Be a Fabulous Feminist" and "Body Awareness Month." Two young women sprawl on the floor in the middle of the small room, furiously cross-checking lists of possible sponsors for an upcoming poetry reading. Other women crowd around the computer in the corner or relax on the beat-up sofa against one wall. Bookshelves line the room, bursting with an army of alternative and mainstream women's magazines--everything from Redbook to Isis--and books on every conceivable topic ranging from women's health to car mechanics.
This is the Women's Center at UM, and the energy is high.
"We are a feminist, activist organization," explains Kate Kahan, outreach coordinator for the center. "But we serve a huge variety of community needs. Part of our mission is leadership development and education on feminist issues. We offer the largest resource center on women's issues in town. We serve as a referral service for housing, employment and statewide crisis centers. And we offer a place to simply get involved."
Created in 1969 by Diane Sands, who went on to become a well-known state legislator, and Missoula activist Judy Smith, the Women's Center is funded by the Associated Students of The University of Montana. Kahan is one of three part-time paid staff members at the center, which relies on a core of about thirty regular student volunteers. These volunteers put on a long list of events throughout the year, including celebrations of International Women's Day, Women's History Month, Love Without Fear Week. For Mother's Day, the Women's Center advocates a day of peace and pampering. And every April the center works with other community organizations to coordinate Take Back the Night-a rally and march designed to heighten awareness about violence against women.
"All of these events are designed to raise awareness and encourage discussion," Kahan says. "And the experience of volunteering and working on these events is important training for young women in organizing, working with the community and activism."
The center's education and outreach efforts recently expanded to high school women. The Women's Center offers a new video on feminism, "The F Word." On top of providing speakers to western Montana high schools, the center is working to raise high school age women's self-esteem through outdoor activities.
"Obviously this is a very safe and comfortable place to hang out," Kahan says, looking around the room. "And that's hugely important. When the Women's Center was created we were way back in a little corner of the student lounge-no windows and pretty difficult to find. We moved over to a much more inviting space, and we welcome everyone."
With more than two thousand titles in its library and many magazines, the center attracts students doing research as well as community members. "As other organizations in town have closed, we have tried to take up the slack," Kahan explains. "We are a campus organization, but we try to reach the community as a whole.
"In the last thirty years, I think the Women's Center has become known as the campus organization that gets things done," Kahan says. "We are here to serve feminists, male or female, and those who want to explore what that term can mean."
Kim Anderson administrates the Missoula Writing Collaborative.