Ethel K. Steel – University of Idaho Board of Regent from 1933-1946
Steel House is named after Ethel K. Steel, who served as a member of the Board of Regents at the University of Idaho from 1933 to 1946, and was a leader in the movement to provide cooperative residence halls at the University. Steel House, one of the oldest women’s cooperatives in the country, replaced Ridenbaugh Hall (now a music practice facility) on April 11, 1953. Ethel Steel’s desire was for residents to learn responsibilities of caring for a home in exchange for lower living rates. She established scholarships for the residents and initially gifted several items to the house, including a silver service set.
Run through the University of Idaho dormitory system, students at the U of I had several living options. Steel House and Targhee Hall (formerly the Campus Club) were designed to provide the community feel that the regular dorm options could not provide.
How it all began…
Steel House was managed from 1953 to 2007 by University of Idaho Residences, with fees paid directly to the institution. Residents elected members to oversee meal planning, food preparation and service, janitorial duties, and often, financial responsibilities for the cooperative. Each member took their turn working in the kitchen, food service, and keeping their cooperative home clean. By hiring their own cook, doing their own janitorial chores, and purchasing supplies, residents of Steel House were able to keep costs low. Living in Steel House was often the least expensive means of attending the University of Idaho. Steel women essentially provided themselves with a solid scholarship!
Initially, the Women of Steel were served by a house mother. Later, the residents were provided a Resident Assistant (RA) through the housing office. She lived with the women, keeping order in the house and providing contact with University Residences. The RA was generally an upperclassman or graduate student.
To become part of Steel House, women signed up through the housing office to be a resident. There was no need to pledge the house and no social activities were required of the residents. The officers at any given time made all the difference in the variety of activities Steel House residents chose each semester. Although residents participated in events with sororities and fraternities on campus, Steel House’s sister group was the men’s cooperative, Targhee Hall.
Because of the endowments set up by Ethel K. Steel, and then a group of residents in 1996, several scholarships became available to any student who met the requirements of the specific scholarship. By the time the original building on Blake Street closed in 2007, residents could gain additional financial assistance by choosing to hold certain offices and then applying for scholarships. It became feasible that a resident of Steel House could almost live for free in the house if she could keep her grades up, making her eligible for scholarships, and then holding the office of Resident Adviser, President, Kitchen Manager, Kitchen Planner, or Janitorial Manager.
The Closing of Steel House in 2007
In the spring of 2007, the director of housing made the announcement on a grim day in March that University Residences would be closing Steel House for good. They cited extreme costs for facility renovations. Although Steel House would be closing, a group of “Steelies” continued to look for methods of continuing on with the cooperative tradition at another location on campus.
A blog explains what a resident felt about the Steel House community:
It is a house whose members are responsible for cleaning its premises, including doing the dishes, and must have the responsibility to police and enforce those rules. Steel House women have shown the capacity to meet those responsibilities. According to the university’s own Web site for Steel House, Ethel K. Steel was a strong advocate for cooperative living. Steel House is the nation’s oldest cooperative and enjoys some of the benefits of cooperative living such as democratic member control, autonomy and independence, and concern for community. The Steel House cooperative is a positive and successful living arrangement that should be continued at the University. (J. P. – Steel House Resident 1997-1999)
After a year of not having a home, the president, Sara Cooke, met with Dean of Students, Bruce Pitman. Finding former residents of Steel House to back their cause, the group set out to re-establish Steel House in the manner set up by Ethel K. Steel.
Final Home for Ethel K. Steel House
After several meetings with the Dean of Students Office at The University, a handful of members, still desiring to keep the tradition of Steel House alive, began the daunting task of finding a new home for the Women of Steel. In the spring of 2008, advisors worked alongside with The University to secure a temporary facility. From 2009 through the spring of 2012, Steel House residents lived in the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house. In the fall of 2012, Steel House moved to 908 South Blake (Delta Chi) until it closed in the spring of 2019.
Incorporation of Steel House Inc.
A group of Steel House alumnae incorporated themselves as Steel House Inc. so they could legally run the facility and manage the house. This provided the Women of Steel the umbrella they needed to be considered an on-campus living group. Steel House Inc. took over the responsibilities of running the house. They agreed to handle the finances while the Dean of Students Office provides institutional structure and an official connection with the University of Idaho. The connection with the Dean of Students allows Steel House to be a University sponsored organization.
The Ethel K. Steel House scholarships are still available to University of Idaho students. The main goal of Steel House is still educational.