A Family History of Social Activism: The YWCA and my Great-Grandmother’s Legacy

By Casey Harden
YWCA USA Vice President of Association Services

Throughout its history, the social activism of the YWCA has been at the forefront of its mission to bring more opportunities to women and their families. I’m proud to say that my great-grandmother is one of the bold leaders who joined the YWCA to fight for social justice in the early 1900s.

Elsie Templin

Elsie Templin

My great-grandmother, Elsie Templin, whose photo I keep in my office at the YWCA USA, helped to found a YWCA in Elkhart, Indiana. This was just one of her legacies: she was an active suffragist, and was instrumental in the formation of numerous women’s groups in Elkhart during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as a clinic for women to provide pre- and post-natal care.

Elsie gave birth to twins when the movement to medicalize childbirth and breastfeeding was in full swing. Midwives were being displaced by physicians, and there was a misinformed reaction against the use of breast milk. Elsie was not able to produce enough milk for both of her infants. Often in such cases, women turned to other new mothers—wet nurses—to obtain breast milk for their children. Her mother-in-law, however, was an imposing and imperious woman, who insisted that the use of a wet nurse was “immoral” and “unsanitary.” Despite Elsie’s every effort, Doris, one of the twin girls, did not take to the animal milk and formula that were recommended as substitutes.

As a result, Doris died. Within a week, Elsie, her husband, and their other newborn, Phyllis, had packed up their home and were on a train to Elkhart, Indiana—to begin a new life in the shadow of their loss.

In Elkhart, Elsie went to work.  She convinced three doctors to work with her to open a pre- and post-natal clinic and she secured the space, supplies, and necessary equipment. She would stop expectant and new mothers on the street to talk about the benefits of mother’s milk for their children’s health.

In response to her personal knowledge of the ill effects of misguided medical and social trends and her own self-recrimination, Elsie defined her personal vocation and was transformed into a leader for women’s health education and other issues.

When I worked at the YWCA in Tacoma, I discovered that the YWCA was part of Elsie’s life’s work as well.  In fact, she was instrumental in founding the YWCA in Elkhart, advocating for the right for women to vote and on other child welfare issues.

To date, her story is  known primarily within my family circle, and yet her work and that of her colleagues undoubtedly influenced a much wider sphere, shaping the course of women’s rights in Indiana – and emblematic of the YWCA’s work that has influenced women’s history in the United States for the past 150 years.

Come back next week to learn more about the history of the YWCA and its work on women’s health, civil rights and suffrage.

Casey Harden has provided leadership to the YWCA collective for 15 years and counting—locally on the west and east coasts, and nationally. She cites the elder women and men in her family, including her great-grandmother Elsie, as fomenting and supporting her identity as a feminist, activist and leader. 

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