YWCA of the U.S.A. History

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Empire State Building
350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 301
New York, New York 10118
U.S.A.

Telephone: (212) 273-7800
Toll Free: 800-992-2871
Fax: (212) 465-2281

Website:
Nonprofit Company
Incorporated: 1907
Sales: $8.9 million (2000)
NAIC: 62411 Child and Youth Services; 624221 Temporary Shelters; 62419 Other Individual and Family Services; 62441 Child Day Care Services; 713940 Health Club Facilities, Physical Fitness

Company Perspectives:

Our mission is to empower women and girls and to eliminate racism. The Young Women's Christian Association of the United States of America is a women's membership movement nourished by its roots in the Christian faith and sustained by the richness of many beliefs and values. Strengthened by diversity, the Association draws together members who strive to create opportunities for women's growth, leadership and power in order to attain a common vision: peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all people. The Association will thrust its collective power toward the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary.

Key Dates:

1855:
Prayer Union and General Female Training Institute is founded in England.
1866:
Young Women's Christian Association is formed in Boston.
1871:
First national meeting of local YWCAs convenes.
1907:
YWCA of the U.S.A. incorporates in New York.
1913:
YWCA organizes its Commission on Social Morality.
1942:
Association works with Japanese-Americans interned during war.
1970:
Association adopts imperative to battle racism.
1995:
Week Without Violence campaign debuts.

Company History:

The YWCA of the U.S.A. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. The organization is headquartered in New York, and it operates through over 300 local YWCAs, found in urban and rural areas across the country. The YWCA is the nation's largest nonprofit provider of child care. Its daycare and after-school care programs serve 750,000 children annually. The organization is also the nation's largest provider of shelter services for women and children. The YWCA also provides employment training and placement agencies through its local branches. Besides childcare, housing and shelter, and economic empowerment, the YWCA is concerned with five other key issues. These are: health and fitness, leadership development, racial justice and human rights, violence prevention, and global awareness. The YWCA runs public awareness campaigns around these issues. The organization sponsors a Week Without Violence, a National Day of Commitment to Eliminate Racism, the National Women & Girls in Sport Day, and runs other programs and services designed to highlight these important areas. The association's revenue derives from membership dues, grants, donations, and corporate sponsorships.

Roots in 19th-Century Religious Revival

The YWCA incorporated as a national organization in 1907 in the state of New York, but it had existed in other forms from as early as the 1850s. The current organization traces its roots back to two groups in England. The Prayer Union was a group founded by Emma Roberts in 1855. This changed its name within its first four years to the Young Women's Christian Association. Another English group, the General Female Training Institute, founded by Mrs. Arthur Kinnaird in 1855, began as an organization to help nurses returning from the Crimean war, but quickly adopted a larger scope, helping women and girls of all walks of life. Both groups had local chapters throughout England, where their main objective was to help working women, both economically and spiritually. More and more women were being displaced from traditional homemaking tasks by industrialization. Work that had always fallen to women, such as sewing and weaving, became transformed into factory jobs. As single women began taking up such jobs, they faced difficulties they had not faced before, such as finding housing. The General Female Training Institute and the Young Women's Christian Association merged in 1877 and carried on work in England. Similar groups formed in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States.

In the United States, several groups grew up independently of each other. New York City had a Union Prayer Circle by 1858, which soon changed its name to the Ladies' Christian Association. The group organized prayer circles and meetings among young working women. The group metamorphosed into the Ladies Christian Union in 1866, and then into the Young Ladies Christian Association of the City of New York in 1871. Similarly, Boston had a Young Women's Christian Association in 1866. Though not formally linked to the English group, the organization carried out the same sort of work, tending to the various needs of employed women. Other groups were formed in 1867 in Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Young Women's Christian Associations formed in the midwestern cities of St. Louis, Missouri, and in Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio, the next year. By 1875, there were at least 28 Young Women's Christian Associations in the United States. These groups ran prayer meetings and Bible classes and provided services such as libraries and sewing schools. Several owned restaurants and provided entertainment for their members, and some provided temporary housing.

In urban areas, the main problems the YWCAs addressed were housing and employment. They began running self-supporting boarding houses, with meeting rooms for study or entertainment. Social workers as such did not exist, but volunteers ran employment bureaus and helped address many needs of young workers. YWCA members also took on specific local projects, such as providing clothing for orphans or prisoners, or conducting religious services in hospitals. Beginning in 1873, YWCA chapters also began appearing on college campuses. The first was at Normal University, in Normal, Illinois. Most of the youth chapters were in the Midwest, while most of the non-college chapters were in cities in the East. The YWCA began having national meetings in 1871, of what was then called its International Board. The youth chapters set up their own national headquarters in Chicago in 1886, called the American Committee. The two groups had similar aims, but different ages of membership. The youth group also had a slightly different religious bent than the chapters belonging to the International Board, based on which churches they accepted voting members from. The two groups voted to combine at a meeting in December 1906, forming an umbrella group called the Young Women's Christian Association of the United States of America. The group incorporated in New York in 1907. Its first president was Grace Dodge, an independently wealthy woman long active in the YWCA and similar charities around New York. In 1907 membership had grown to over 186,000 women, spread among 608 local YWCAs. In 1911, the group gained a headquarters building in New York, mostly financed by six well-to-do members.

Work on Various Fronts in the Early 20th Century

Though the YWCA was now under a single national umbrella, it remained a decentralized group. Local branches carried out a variety of missions. In the early 20th century, many YWCA chapters ran training schools. These offered classes on various subjects, many at night, so women could attend after working hours. The New York City YWCA gave classes in typewriting, which was revolutionary at the time, as typewriting was considered too difficult both mentally and physically for women to undertake. Training schools offered general business courses, classes in public speaking and elocution, and even some more specialized subjects including nursing or tea room management. By the 1920s, there were at least 40 YWCA training schools in urban areas across the country.

The YWCA also undertook to promote the interests of immigrants and black women. YWCA residences and training schools reached out to women born abroad. Many offered classes in English, and help with employment and naturalization and citizenship issues. The YWCA sponsored clubs for immigrants, with the idea of helping women and girls adjust to American life. These clubs had spread to over 50 cities by the 1920s. The YWCA's relationship to black women varied from city to city. Many YWCA facilities barred black women, though not all. In many cities, the YWCA worked hand-in-hand with organizations run for and by black women, such as the Phyllis Wheatley Association and the National Association of Colored Women. As early as 1907, the YWCA's national board discussed the issue of racial segregation, and at the 1914 national meeting, the board proclaimed its readiness to meet the special needs of black women and girls. However, the board did not set a national policy, and each local branch operated as it saw fit. Some chapters were fully integrated, some local boards met jointly with the boards of affiliated groups for black women, and some chapters did not serve non-white women. This hodge-podge existed until 1946. In that year, the YWCA national board agreed to strive to fully integrate the organization. Fighting racial injustice became a core mission of the group.

The YWCA was also active early in the century in promoting women's access to healthcare and health education. The group worked toward what it called "positive health" for women beginning in 1906. Positive health meant specifically sex education, with a focus on avoiding venereal disease. In 1913 the YWCA debuted a Commission on Social Morality, and the group taught sex education, usually under the names "social education" or "social morality." The YWCA dealt with a vulnerable population of women just leaving their families to live on their own. The YWCA promoted frank discussion of sex in order to prepare young women to protect themselves from venereal disease, unwanted pregnancy, and prostitution. The YWCA worked with the War Department during World War I, lecturing on sex education. In the 1920s and 1930s, the YWCA also worked to promote access to birth control. At that time, wealthy women could travel to Europe for contraceptive services not available in the United States. The national board voted in 1934 to support women's access to contraception from authorized doctors. In the 1960s and 1970s the group also voted to support women's access to abortions.

The YWCA also ran health and fitness programs for women. The Buffalo, New York YWCA residence had a swimming pool as early as 1905, when this was still a rarity. Local chapters often worked with employers to instruct women workers in moderate physical exercise. Early in the century, the prevailing view was that women were too frail for the kinds of sports activities that men indulged in. The YWCA led the way in changing attitudes about women's physical fitness. Chapters gave classes in calisthenics and various sports.

Though the association remained decentralized, spread among hundreds of local chapters, the national board met every two years and adopted over-arching goals. In 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, the YWCA met in Detroit. The group vowed to improve working conditions for employed women and girls, and also to cope with the problems of unemployment. At the 1932 meeting, the YWCA endorsed national compulsory unemployment insurance. In 1942, during World War II, the YWCA began serving the Japanese-Americans who were being held in internment camps as enemy aliens. The YWCA worked in the camps, and also helped resettle internees after the war. During the war, many local YWCA chapters also ran special programs for war workers and their families. The group helped house women munitions plant workers, provided child care and education to other groups of war workers, and assisted in some social functions at military bases. The group had a National War Fund, for war-related relief work, mostly overseas. The YWCA also began a fundraising group called American War-Community Services, to disperse money to community groups helping women and children.

National Issues After World War II

After the war, the YWCA continued its varied programs through local chapters. A major development was the group's renewed focus on fighting racism. The organization adopted a charter in 1946 committing the group to protesting racial injustice. The new Interracial Charter made the elimination of racism a central goal of the YWCA. Work was carried out through individual local branches. In 1958, the national board voted to intensify its efforts to desegregate the organization at all levels. Its programs and services were to be offered to women and families of all races, and the leadership of local groups and the national organization were to be more inclusive. In the 1960s, the YWCA held institutes on racism at different branches across the country. In 1965 it established a national Office of Racial Justice to coordinate a national campaign against racism. In 1970, the national convention added to its mission statement what it called the One Imperative--"The Association will thrust its collective power toward the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary." Later in the 1970s the group followed this rhetoric with an auditing system to verify how well the YWCA was meeting its goal, and how communities were faring.

The organization also continued its stress on women's physical fitness and sex education. In 1970, the national board voted to work with local schools to ask that they provide sex education as part of the curriculum. The YWCA was also outspoken in its support of abortion rights. The group supported repeal of laws that limited women's access to abortion. In 1987 the organization reiterated this support, and also proclaimed its opposition to laws that mandated parental consent before an abortion could be performed. The local chapters continued to sponsor sports and fitness classes for girls and women, and to operate summer camps and summer programs.

In 1983, the YWCA opened a new facility in Phoenix, Arizona, to train women in leadership skills. This gave the YWCA a permanent center where it could educate and train women from all over the country in the goals and policies of the national group. Women learned what goals the national organization had, and strategies for taking action. Later the YWCA also founded the Institute for Public Leadership. This trained women to be advocates for issues, and to be political candidates or campaign managers. The institute taught women how to do research, marketing, and planning for entering local political races.

1990s and Beyond

By 1992, the YWCA had 400 local associations, which worked out of more than 4,000 sites. The group had grown to become the number one nonprofit provider of shelter services for women and families in the United States. Whereas its early residences had mostly housed young working women, the group increasingly cared for homeless women and victims of domestic violence. It had also become one of the largest providers of child care services in the nation. By 1992, 85 percent of all YWCAs provided some sort of child care. The group found a new national leader in 1994, Prema Mathai-Davis. Mathai-Davis was born in India and educated at Harvard. She instituted a new campaign, the YWCA Week Without Violence. The first Week Without Violence was held in October 1995. During the week, local groups across the country held workshops on topics such as domestic violence prevention and students signed petitions pledging nonviolent behavior. The public awareness campaign reached hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

In 1999, the YWCA vowed to revitalize itself for the coming new century. The national group wanted to improve its customer relations and restructure its management. The group served 750,000 children through its day care services, gave employment training and placement services to about 100,000 women a year, and counseled over 700,000 women and children annually in violence prevention. Overall, the group claimed to represent some two million women, girls, and their families. The group chose a new chief executive in November 2000, appointing Margaret Tyndall to the top spot. Tyndall strove to continue the YWCA's longstanding mission, advocating for women's rights, fighting for the elimination of racism, and providing meaningful services to women and families.

Further Reading:

  • Golden, Kristen, "Prema Mathai-Davis," Ms., January/February 1996, p. 61.
  • Sims, Mary S., The YWCA--An Unfolding Purpose, New York: Woman's Press, 1950.
  • Southard, Helen, The Story of the YWCA, New York: YWCA, 1992.
  • Spain, Daphne, How Women Saved the City, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2001.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 45. St. James Press, 2002.

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