Women’s center celebrates 40th year of outreach

by Jessica Kimpell

Because of their own struggles to return to college, two University women joined together in 1959 to assist other women trying to earn their degrees.
Today, Virginia Senders and Elizabeth Cless’s brainchild, the Minnesota Women’s Center, will celebrate its 40th anniversary from 3 to 5 p.m. at the St. Paul Student Center’s North Star Ballroom, featuring music, poetry and fashion from the 1960s to the 1990s.
When Senders, a psychology lecturer, and Cless, assistant to a University dean, submitted a proposal for a Carnegie Corporation grant in 1959, women attending the University still faced some resistance, said Don Opitz, the women’s center’s research coordinator.
“As students today, we take for granted that women back then had to struggle to be taken seriously intellectually or artistically,” said Jennifer Fiala, a senior in theater. “When the students at the women’s center began researching the history of women on campus, we actually found a number of Daily articles, advertisements and cartoons that, in fact, were questioning women’s right to be in college.”
So when Senders and Cless won the Carnegie grant in July 1960, they started the Minnesota Plan, a women’s continuing-education and counseling program that evolved into the Minnesota Women’s Center that exists today.
“The program was unique in the sense that it was the first of its kind in the nation,” said Opitz. “Soon after, many programs popped up around the nation that modeled themselves after the University.”
Each year, the program’s enrollment increased. After the first five years, 2,602 women returned to college through the program.
The women were called “rusty ladies,” Opitz said, “because many of the courses offered were tailored to brush up on the skills of women who had been out of school and wanted to come back.”
The average students were 35 years old and had been homemakers. The women’s center helped some women lead more fulfilling lives and provided University resources to other women wanting to return to the work force, Opitz said.
“Some women came back for personal fulfillment, and others went on to pursue careers,” he added.
For women uncertain about returning to college, the center offered counseling about how college would fit in with women’s other responsibilities, Opitz said.
“The women’s center recognized that women needed special attention for their concerns, even if only to validate the fact that it was OK to come back to school,” he said.
When the Carnegie grant ended in 1966, the center became a regular University department; consequently, the Minnesota Plan’s offices split. While the continuing-education program became an office within the University’s General Extension Division, the Minnesota Plan’s coordinating office became part of the Minnesota Planning and Counseling Center for Women.
“The two main offices had similar missions, but they operated separately,” Opitz said.
Within the general extension program, the continuing education service for women continued providing classes until 1998. The program was changed when University College was established.
The Minnesota Planning and Counseling Center for Women was renamed the Minnesota Women’s Center in 1971.
Anne Throsen Truax, one of the most influential women in the center’s history, became acting director at that time. She served until 1991, Opitz said.
“Most of the talk about the lifetime of the center is about the work that Anne had done,” Opitz added.
Truax became involved with the center at the time the women’s rights movement was exploding across the nation. The women’s center embraced the movement, taking up issues such as equal opportunity in the workplace, equality in the University’s faculty salaries and Title IX debates.
Subsequently, during the 1970s and 1980s, the women’s center focused on issues including sexual harassment, abortion, University health-center policies and the male-only University band. The center evolved when women students realized it could be a place for them to voice their concerns, Opitz said.
Under Truax’s directorship, the women’s center helped found the women studies department in 1973 and the Center for Advanced Feminists Studies in 1983.
In the late 1980s, however, the center’s staff decreased because of budget cuts. But the women’s center continued to work toward improving the climate for women on campus. With this idea in mind, the Commission on Women committee designed a new mission in 1988.
“There is a misconception that the women’s center closed in 1991,” Opitz said. “For about a year, it just didn’t have a director. It was going through a re-evaluation process and was never really abolished — it was taking a break.”
The women’s center reopened in 1993 with its new mission, titled Minnesota Plan II: Student Initiative.
“Today, the women’s center is a cross between a cultural center and a service office,” said Jessica Morgan, the center’s coordinator.
Students now run the women’s center, which now offers an array of services, including Take Your Daughter to Work Day and educational resources about financial aid, internships and scholarships, Morgan added.

Jessica Kimpell welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3238.