By: Casey Harden
YWCA USA Vice President of Association Services
On Monday, I shared my family’s history of involvement with the YWCA. This week, I’d like to share more about the YWCA’s history of empowering women and fighting discrimination, as we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month.
In the late 19th century, many of the women involved with the YWCA were part of a religious revival that was sweeping the Northeast and points west. My great-grandmother was a religious woman, and shared the values of the many other activists and suffragists involved with the YWCA.
In 1858, the YWCA began as a movement in the United States to aid young women who were moving from rural areas, looking for work in cities. These women often lived and worked in unsafe living conditions, prompting the first association to establish safe housing shelters starting in New York in 1860. Associations began to form in more cities, like Boston, Hartford, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. By 1875, there were 28 YWCAs in existence, as well as over 100 student associations, and in 1907 a National Board was formed in New York.
At this time in history, women were considered to be frail – too weak for exercise or even typing lessons. The YWCA provided women with opportunities to improve their health through something considered scandalous at the time: physical exercise. Locations across the country offered women health and recreation activities like swimming and basketball. YWCA Portland’s Athletic Director Lillian Hansen said it best, arguing in 1920 that, “Girls need to cultivate a spirit of fair play—they are going to need it if they intend to compete in business and politics with men.”
The YWCA facilitated employment opportunities for women by providing typewriting classes and job training in 1880, as well as first-aid and nursing classes. By focusing on practical activities like fitness and work, the YWCA empowered women to become happier, healthier and to find more opportunities for success.
YWCA leaders, like my great-grandmother, spoke out on issues that were considered controversial. In the 1930s, the YWCA worked to improve education and care for women, including reproductive health care.
In addition to health, fitness, and employment opportunities, eliminating racism and working against discrimination has always been an integral part of the YWCA’s mission. In 1890, the first YWCA for Native American women was organized at the encouragement of the student division of the National Board. In 1934, YWCA members spoke out against lynching and in support of African Americans’ basic rights. Associations extended their services to Japanese women moved to internment camps during World War II in 1942. One of those affected by the YWCA’s work, Lillian Kimura, a child who was forced into these camps, later became Associate Executive Director of the YWCA of the USA in the 1970s.
The YWCA’s effort to end racial discrimination continued throughout the Civil Rights movement, venerated with the adoption of the One Imperative in 1970: “to eliminate racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary.” This is a driving force for our work to this day.
The role the YWCA has played in women’s history is significant in my family. My great-grandmother’s role in the women’s movement inspires my work at the YWCA each day. The women in my family believe that anything is possible and operate from a position of conviction- a legacy from the matriarch Elsie.
Every March, we commemorate Women’s History Month and remember brave leaders like my great-grandmother. As we look back at the YWCA’s history, we need to remember that our foremothers broke boundaries to create change. What will you do to continue their work today?
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.