Five College Archives and Manuscript Collections
Home >> Sophia Smith Collection >> YWCA of the U.S.A. Records, 1860-2002
Smith College seal
YWCA of the U.S.A. Records, 1860-2002 (Bulk: 1906-2000)
1132 boxes; 382 reels microfilm; oversize materials (570 linear ft.)
Collection number: MS 324

Abstract:
Social service, women's advocacy, civic improvement, community service, and educational and intercultural exchange organization. The bulk of the materials date from 1906 to 1970 and focus on the administration of the National Association, its programs and publications, and its relations with its member YWCAs all over the country. Major topics include: employed women, particularly those in industry, interracial relations in the U.S., religion, work with immigrant women, development of girls, and of a youth movement, health and sex education for women, international relations, international work, philanthropy, housing, women in rural America, effective administration of organizations, group work, social work, womenâ™s war work, citizenship training, leadership training, and college women. This collection is organized into ten record groups.

Terms of Access and Use:

Restrictions on access:

The records are open to research according to the regulations of the Sophia Smith Collection with the following exceptions:

  • Portions of this collection are stored offsite. To access boxes 893-964 and 1061-1132, researchers must give two working days advance notice. Advanced notice is NOT required for other boxes or to view microfilmed records.
  • Access to audiovisual materials may first require production of research copies.
  • Records in the following files are closed for 75 years from date of creation:
    Box 145
    Box 146, folders 1-15
    Box 147, folder 5
    Box 187, folder 2
    Box 196, folders 12-15
    Box 197, folders 1-8

Restrictions on use:

The YWCA of the USA retains copyright ownership of the records, but has authorized the Sophia Smith Collection to grant permission to publish reproductions or quotations from the records on its behalf.

Copyright to materials authored by persons other than YWCA staff may be owned by those individuals or their heirs or assigns. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights for permission to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use."

Sophia Smith Collection
Smith College
Northampton, MA

Historical Note

The Young Women's Christian Association of the United States of America is the U.S. national affiliate of the World YWCA. Incorporated in 1907, it is an association made up of autonomous member Associations in cities and towns, and on college campuses throughout the country. The YWCA movement emerged during a surge in evangelical Protestant revivalism and women's activism in the mid-nineteenth century. Though the language used to describe its purpose has changed over time-from doing "what it could toward the full and proper development of whatever excellencies of character" its members possessed to "helping women lead larger lives" to "the empowerment of women"-its purpose, has been remarkably steady. At its height in the 1910s through the 1930s, the national YWCA encompassed programming tinged with radical politics-labor activism, social Christianity, desegregation-and also provided the resources more commonly associated with its name, such as Christian-oriented club work, wholesome accommodations for women, and physical education. In its current incarnation, it is among the more progressively-oriented social service providers to women and families in need and bears no formal ties to organized religion.

Group sing at the YWCA  26th National Convention, 1973

Group sing at the YWCA 26th National Convention, 1973

Historically speaking, the YWCA is one of the most important and far-ranging non-profit organizations in the United States. The segment of interests and constituency embedded in its name, Young Women's Christian Association, belies the breadth of its work. Modeled on English women's prayer groups and rooted in rigorous Christianity, individual YWCAs were established in northeastern U.S. cities and on midwestern college and university campuses in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the social upheaval of industrialization. Its earliest incarnations were local women's prayer groups that gave a morally upright means for middle-class women to cross from the separate sphere of their domestic domain into the public realm as they provided moral and material assistance for women in need. For working-class women loosed from the controls of family and community by the demands of the labor market, YWCAs offered safe recreation, decent living spaces, and a Christian-oriented social and educational culture. For both groups of women, its independent, cross-denominational Protestantism allowed them to take leadership in institution building, charity and social work, and the creation of coalitions across geographic, class, and, at times, racial barriers. As local work was consolidated into a national organization, the YWCA provided a launching pad for pathbreaking work for and by women.

It is the product of this consolidation, the YWCA of the U.S.A., that is the entity from which these records are collected. Its records are separate from those of the World YWCA, headquartered in Geneva, and local associations, whose archival records are dispersed across a number of institutions.

PREDECESSOR ORGANIZATIONS

Individual Women's Christian Associations and Young Women's Christian Associations scattered around the country formed into two national organizations, the "American Committee" and the "International Board of the Women's and Young Women's Christian Associations," over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century. The two, which went through a series of names before settling on these, differed in origins, constituencies, organizational structure, and the intentions of their efforts. They shared an impulse toward geographic and organizational expansiveness. The predecessor umbrella organizations became a means by which local associations shared experiences and techniques for advancing their work, often through Chautauqua-style conferences. The national YWCA drew upon many of the methods pioneered by its predecessors, including education and training in conference settings.

The first of these two predecessor organizations, the International Board first met as a national conference of Women's Christian Associations in 1871. It represented a number of northeastern, urban WCAs that began in the 1860s and '70s as interdenominational prayer circles. Dedicated to "the temporal, moral, and religious welfare of young women who are dependent on their own exertions for support," the work of these groups hinged around revival-inspired prayer, worship, and "rescue" and social work that addressed the needs and perceived dangers facing unattached, employed women who were increasingly populating the cities. By providing employment referrals, work training, a variety of classes from book-keeping, to writing, to botany, to singing; and wholesome boarding houses in addition to moral suasion and prayerful concern, Women's Christian Associations supplied their volunteers and staff with work that extended beyond the typical domain of women's behind-the-scenes support in churches. At the same time, such work allowed them to engage in social activism independent from male oversight of their methods and works.

The International Board had no permanent staff or year-round office. It was intentionally non-hierarchical and membership-driven. Each conference or convention elected committees to oversee the program agreed upon by the membership and plan the next convention. The International Board aligned with similar associations internationally, creating a network of women's organizations through correspondence and publications and through interpersonal contact at conferences that grew into a formidable volunteer force by the 1890s.

The other predecessor organization, the American Committee of Young Women's Christian Associations, reflected a midwestern and student-oriented approach to such work. Though some city associations of the Midwest affiliated with the American Committee rather than the International Board, the organization for the most part represented the YWCAs that formed on college campuses in the 1870s to augment the highly popular Young Men's Christian Associations. The YWCAs offered religious services and volunteer opportunities that had significant appeal for the growing number of women pursuing higher education. While interdenominational, the student YWCAs tended to be strongly evangelical and enforced membership requirements based on doctrinal and church allegiance. The fervor behind the proliferation of student YWCAs and YMCAs also fueled the immensely popular Student Volunteer Movement, which enlisted young Protestants in "the evangelization of the world in this generation" and provided a springboard to missionary careers.

The American Committee had a permanent staff and headquarters in Chicago to provide stability for an organization whose membership turned over regularly as young women finished college and moved on to other pursuits. Deeply committed to missionary work, the American Committee established a foreign department in 1899. At the time of the merger in 1906, they provided the training and support for ten secretaries stationed in southeast Asia and Japan.

MERGER

By 1889, there was significant enough overlap between the work, geographical territories, and fundraising efforts of the two national organizations as to create a certain amount of competition within the movement and some confusion in the general public. A special committee was formed to confer "with the view of harmonizing our work and inducing cooperation," but it was nearly a decade before serious talks about a merger were possible. Only late in 1906 the two agreed to join together.

YWCA OF THE USA

Grace Hoadley Dodge, a New York City philanthropist and activist, brokered the consolidation of the International Board and the American Committee into a national administration for local associations. She served as president of the resulting organization, the Young Women's Christian Associations of the United States of America. Her leadership skills extended beyond experience in voluntary work and fundraising; she was an important bridge builder, a forward thinking clubwoman who traversed the circles of small-scale women's organizations and envisioned a national, corporate structure that would have a reach and impact comparable to that of the era's business enterprises. Her vision was expansive in scope and open to innovations in programming that remained faithful to an ethos of Christian women's service, but was also sensitive to local associations' desire for autonomy.

The new, national YWCA continued the "association" concept, an organizing principle that tied together local groups in coalition work and reached out to new constituencies. The membership met at periodic Conventions to decide on the overall program for the national organization and elect one-third of the members of its governing body, the National Board-"servant and prophet of the local YWCA." In general, the national organization concentrated on work that "the associations have found by experience that they can do more effectively together than alone." This included: publicity; training of volunteer and professional staff; organization of new community YWCAs; research and study; development of programs and program materials to meet the needs of women and girls; cooperation with other national organizations and government agencies; and, eventually, advocacy for various women's and social welfare issues.

The national YWCA opened central offices in New York City but maintained a regionally dispersed administration. It devoted its early years to training a work/volunteer force and constructing YWCA buildings and studying "the field." It built a national headquarters at 600 Lexington Ave. that housed residences, office space, and a training school. Administratively, it largely preserved the division of labor that had characterized its predecessors, creating separate divisions for student work, the overseas work that had been a particular interest of the student organizations, and for cities. Within these divisions secretaries oversaw a variety of social services and educational efforts.

Operational structure

The national YWCA was designed with membership-driven policy as its intention. A matrix of volunteer committees, paid professional staff (called secretaries), and program committees, which were composed of staff and volunteer committee members, reported to and were overseen by the National Board-the organization's executive committee-as the means of producing and reviewing the course of programming and policy. This structure remained in place for roughly the century following the founding of the national association until a major reorganization was implemented in 2002. A convention, held biennially until 1940, then triennially, put the work of the committees and national staff up to the review of delegates of the entirety of the YWCA membership and provided them with the means of initiating new organizational and programming emphasis. Convention proceedings determined the priorities of programming and legislation advocacy.

One segment of the national organization-that concerned with support work-has maintained a fairly steady presence throughout its history. Though administered under different names and committees over time, such matters as personnel and training, conferences and conventions, administration of the office and buildings, publications, and finances have always been the work of the national association. Another segment of its work related primarily to program development has shifted significantly with the YWCA's changing emphases and financial wherewithal.

The early YWCA of the U.S.A. inherited its programming emphases from precursor organizations. This included commitment to the idea that its work emanated from the needs of its members and member associations. It also inherited a sensitivity to reaching out to underserved groups of women. Over time, this structure facilitated the creation of an organization that strived and often succeeded at bringing together the middle-class with workers, black and white women, and the mature with the young. This was evident even in its earliest incarnations, which encompassed clubs and activities for industrial workers, "colored" women, and immigrants, as well as more traditional middle- class, white church-oriented, volunteers. The structure overseeing its early programming facilitated this open-endedness and constituency-building. Initially split into divisions of "Home," which organized work done in the US, and "Foreign," which oversaw missionary education and the missionary presence inherited from the American Committee, World War I and the programming expansion that followed it necessitated a more capacious departmental structure and a more exacting division of labor.

For programming in the U.S., the creation in the 1910s of a Department of Method that oversaw "all those committees which carry the responsibility of developing and perfecting the [YWCA's] methods" and undertook study "as shall reveal the needs of young women in different localities and groupings" set a template for work that guided the organization through its most expansive years of programming. It facilitated the modus operandi of undertaking study of the needs of the Association's constituency or potential constituencies, proposing solutions, putting it to committee for approval and review, and then sending national secretaries out to the field to train and oversee local associations in their implementation of the programming. In the early years, the Department of Method divided these tasks by geography (with cities, towns, and rural areas administered separately), special constituency (American Indians, African American), and subject area (religious, economic). Through the 1920s, the work of the Department of Method was further parsed into separate divisions and committees, dividing research and study from the "field" aspect of overseeing and implementing work in local associations. The names of the relevant division and committees changed as the national YWCA honed its methods, instituting a Laboratory Division, for example, in the 1930s to indicate a more social scientific mode of research, but the basic structure of study and field oversight remained. A few special projects, such as the Hollywood Studio Club for aspiring actresses, were administered directly from the National Board, a contrast to most programs, which were run in community associations with the staff and material support of national secretaries.

The structure facilitated centralization while allowing association autonomy. Programs included clubs, training, and religious instruction tailored to their particular constituencies. Industrial work was aimed at factory and domestic workers; business clubs, white-collar workers. International Institutes targeted immigrants and the children of immigrants. Travelers Aid, women traveling alone. Indian Schools work was aimed at young American Indian women traversing the transition between life on the reservation and at government boarding schools. Colored work covered both work at Black colleges and among Black women in cities.

Race and religion in the early national history

Work for and by black women had been part of the YWCA from the start, and it proved to be one of the most significant and often troubled aspects of the organization's work throughout the twentieth century. Before the creation of the national organization, YWCAs proved to be as popular on Black campuses as they were on white ones, and autonomous Black YWCAs operated in four cities, joining institutions like Atlanta's Neighborhood Union and the Cleveland Working Girls' Home Association (later the Phillis Wheatley Association, partly formed in response to segregation at the city's white YWCA) in a network of neighborhood-oriented social service centers operated by black club women at the turn of the century.

The formation of the National Board in the era of the "nadir of race relations" foregrounded the potential problems and promises of uniting the administration of black and white women's organizations. From this context, it exhibited an uneasy combination of (relative) forward thinking on questions of race, with many white clubwomen interested in the Christian work improving race relations and many black clubwomen seeking more full access into public life, and the reality of the racist status quo. Through educational and religious programs, the early organization made ambivalent attempts to address symptoms of racial inequality that percolated in the urban social order like labor segmentation and racial strife, threats that loomed in the consciousness of both the black and white middle classes, but the persistence of racism and white women's paternalism challenged its ability to do so.

The early YWCA supported work for black women while capitulating to white racial entitlement and paternalism. It set up "Colored" branches of the organization as financially and administratively subordinate to a city or region's central association, preserving the segregation of space, yet allowing autonomy and leadership for black women at the institutions they controlled. The YWCA hired Black women as consultants and secretaries for a national program of "colored" work, which took the onus off of local associations to address racial matters. While creating opportunities for interracial meetings, it initially deferred to southern resistance to national conferences that would bring the races together and allowed Jim Crow accommodations for black members attending southern events. In putting forward an agenda for gradual integration, conferences proved to be a highly significant, albeit slow-moving, means for improving race relations as they forged casual social and work-related contacts among black and white women.

Religious matters fostered a common purpose for YWCA staff and volunteers, but like interracial work, they occasionally were a source of contention. The question of religious requirements for membership delayed the creation of the national organization. From the early days, constituents of the American Committee maintained a doctrinaire interpretation of the Christianity of their organization. They demanded membership in an appropriately evangelical Protestant Church, defined in terms of the authority of the Bible, Trinity, and the immanence of Christ, as a condition for full membership in their associations. Such membership was not required for participation in their programs but it did mark those who had a voice in the direction of the organization. Members of the International Board shied away from such doctrinal particulars, keeping an open membership in order to attract city populations that increasingly included Catholics and non-denominational church-goers. The negotiation effected in 1906 pacified the American Board by allowing existing Associations to maintain their policies but stipulating that new Associations had to make church membership a requirement for full association membership, which included voting privileges on the Convention delegations that determined YWCA policy, but softened this requirement by making the membership requirement hinge on membership in a church recognized by the Federal Council of Churches as appropriately Protestant rather than enumerating adherence to a specific theology.

The National Board revisited questions of religious requirements frequently. In its early years, it strongly exemplified the activity and mindset of the Social Gospel as it remained committed to the pietistic foundations of its social programs. Still, it relented in 1920 to pressure coming from the student representation for an alternative to the church membership requirement, an individual pledge of Christianity. It also cast its lot with a growing tide of liberal Christianity, endorsing the Federal Council of Churches' Social Ideals in 1921, which called for an eight-hour day and the right to collective bargaining, among other progressive reforms. Matters such as this and the YWCA's growing involvement with labor politics of young women workers and a public education program that focused on the international political sphere alienated more conservative women involved with the YWCA, but the national organization and its paid staff maintained a decidedly left-leaning, politically engaged conception of Christian organization-building.

Programs and Priorities in the First Twenty Years

In the first twenty years of the national organization, the YWCA strengthened programs that it had come to be identified with, particularly providing residences and cafeterias, recreation, and educational and religious opportunities for women, especially working women. It also forged new directions in its work. Its publishing arm, which came to be called the Woman's Press, proved influential. It produced a range of materials for use in YWCAs and for similar religious and voluntary organizations, including a monthly magazine, pamphlets and books tied to its programming, and publications on more general matters. Conferences grew in importance as a means to disseminate information, cultivate contacts and fellowship among far-flung groups, and provide rest and recreation in vacation spots to women from diverse circumstances. The National Board undertook the planning of these conferences and also acquired a number of properties for camping and conference purposes.

The YWCA established a National Training School (1908-30) at its headquarters in Manhattan that aimed to provide graduate level training for the women who were to be its professional staff. The brief heyday of the NTS was distinguished by a heavy emphasis on biblical and religious instruction and also the ability to attract distinguished teaching talent, but enrollment proved to be unsatisfactory. From then on, the board experimented with more dispersed means of training, encouraging staff members to pursue their own higher education by other means and instituting programs that brought training to local and regional associations.

While the organization increasingly directed its programming away from organized religion and toward promoting professionalization and progressive labor and social policy, it often bore the imprint of the older style of social reform in which it was steeped. The Hollywood Studio Club (1916-75) served women migrating to Los Angeles for work in the film industry; even as it lent legitimacy to the notion of women seeking work in film, a strong undercurrent of the sexual danger that faced such women undergirded its operating premises. Work to advance health and physical education started in the YWCA as an outgrowth of the social morality movement , an attempt to defend against various contagions linked to modernity. Eventually, its health programming would be characterized by a frank approach to matters of sexuality. International Institutes and other efforts from the Immigration and Foreign Community Department sought to ameliorate the xenophobia and dislocation experienced by immigrants and promote the value of pluralism and the contributions of immigrants among the native born. Though progressive in intent, part of the force driving this work was upholding values of Americanization and assimilation to ward off threats raised by the question of foreigners within.

World War I and 1920s Expansion

The entry of the United States into the First World War spurred on the work of the YWCA. War needs intensified demand for its programming. Industrial and residence-related work mushroomed in response to domestic mobilization, and it devoted particular attention to black women workers, who entered the industrial work force in significant numbers under conditions of profound inequality. The YWCA formed a War Work Council, which devoted much of the organization's resources to answering the demands that came out of the economic and social strains of war. The National Board developed a "Hostess House" program around places in the U.S. with a military presence in order to provide hospitality and recreation for the military and its dependents. It lent its services and its foreign secretaries to overseas service and relief work, and after the war, became involved in campaigns to aid refugees.

The enthusiasm and heady sense of accomplishment over the success of the YWCA's work from the inception of national organization through the First World War encouraged an overextension of staff and programming, which led to trouble as the organization's financial commitments outpaced its fundraising power. The end of the war brought an end to many fundraising opportunities, and in cognizance of this, the National Board undertook the first of many major restructuring efforts in 1921. The resulting consultation and study induced the Board to break from the division of labor inherited from the predecessor organizations, centralize programming, and bring local associations into closer contact and oversight from the National Board. Although this move eliminated some of the more regionally-oriented staff, its expansive programming still facilitated untenable financial needs. These circumstances would come to the fore during the Great Depression.

Although the 1920s saw many successes of YWCA programs, a number of controversies dogged the organization. The religious language of membership requirements remained a perennial matter for discussion at national conventions throughout the 1920s and 1930s. While always affirming the centrality of Christianity and religiosity to the organization, delegates proposed continued relaxation of membership requirements to open decision-making of the organization to greater numbers. In 1920, they approved an individual pledge of upholding Christian ideals and affirming Jesus Christ as sufficient for membership, which created the means for Catholics to join and removed the mechanism of enforcement of the YWCA's Christian basis from the organization to the individual, which encouraged some non-Christians to become full members.

A merger proposed by the Young Men's Christian Association created strains in the YWCA. Spurred by a drive to encourage heterosocial programming on an increasingly suspect single-sex organization, the YMCA increased its programming offerings to women, which threatened the YWCA as a provider of services, and made overtures to join operations. YWCA partisans strongly resisted this move. They suspected co-optation in the YMCA's intent and felt that the conservatism of the YMCA, an organization closely tied to business interests, would water down the YWCA's increasingly progressive efforts in programming and political education, which emanated from their Legislation/ Public Affairs Committee. Others in the YWCA felt the pressures working against single-sex organizing and the advantages of joining up with the greater resources of the YMCA. Though the National Board evaded efforts to merger and to open membership to men, many local YWCAs coordinated efforts with YMCAs that stopped short of merger.

Nonetheless, it was a period of institution building and growth. Affiliations with other organizations included an alliance with the National Council of Jewish Women, an important indicator of its ecumenicalism. Its work with white collar women led to in formation of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, a significant and enduring service and support group for white-collar workers. It also joined the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War, which advocated pacifism in face of the tragedies of the First World War. After the war diminished enthusiasm for the Student Volunteer Movement, YWCA student organizations, which were administered by the National Board (rather than local associations) under the National Student Council (launched in 1925) participated in the World Student Christian Federation. Work with teenagers, which the national YWCA began sponsoring upon the creation of the Girl Reserves in 1918, became a significant force in the organization. It enlisted young women in YWCA programs and introduced them to the culture of the YWCA through conferences and camps. It was envisioned in part as a means to cultivate future leaders.

War reshaped the work of the Foreign Division. Its toll brought into question the purposes of mission work, and they worked more intensively at the indigenization of their work and the cultivation of leadership among native populations. War also put into motion political changes that at least temporarily forced the dispersal of many of YWCA foreign secretaries as they shifted their focus from work among non-Christians in Southeast Asia and the Near East to relief work in Europe. Over the course of the 1930s, economic depression and war affected the areas in Europe and Asia where foreign secretaries had been stationed, compelling the YWCA to reduce its commitment to sending staff overseas.

1930s: Great Depression and Retrenchment

The YWCA's quest to perfect the streamlining of relations between associations and the national organization as well as hone their method of program development was intensified by the financial situation that worsened over the 1920s. The Association underwent a number of organizational consultations and reorganization plans in order to wrest the utmost efficiency from their necessarily limited means. After the initial expansion following the organization of the National Board and, especially, the First World War, the YW gradually was compelled to scale back the wide-reaching content of nationally-administered programs. As the Depression brought these matters to the fore, it divested itself of some operations that were administered solely by the National Board, in contrast to those that had ties with community association. This included the sale of properties like D.C's Grace Dodge Hotel in the 1930s and the Asilomar retreat, which after years of leasing out was sold to the state of California as park land in 1956.

Other means of economizing were not easily accomplished. Staff reductions occurred frequently in lean years, and the remaining staff were expected to administer visionary programs with diminishing means. A 1933 conclusion of the Committee on Program and Budget, the programming review mechanism, recommended "Emphasis on the Association as a whole rather than on special groups within it [and diminishing] emphasis on institutional services" as necessary for the organization to move forward. This shift, prompted out of the inability to fund the expansive constituency-building, decisively turned away from the all-encompassing goals that had initially guided the national organization. It pushed the YWCA into a long-period of self-scrutiny as to its raison d'etre. In determining that programming tailored to its specialized professional and ethnic constituencies was ultimately untenable for the organization, it called for a broadening of the general program as necessary to bring the diverse groups together as well as to make their scope more manageable. This had two ramifications. One was that a variety of specialized programming-that for Business, Professional, and Industrial Workers and Immigrant Women and families-was diverted into independent organizations. The YWCA had a hand in creating the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, which took on the goal of education and lobbying for white collar workers that had been the province of the YWCA's work with business and professional women . Similarly, the YWCA turned over its work with immigrant women and families to the National Institute of Immigrant Welfare, a coalition of organizations providing similar services that the national YWCA had a hand in forming. Such spin-off organizations could devote the entirety of their resources to the more narrowly-defined tasks at hand and freed the YWCA to create more manageable goals. Programming for industrial workers, who had once been a highly active presence in the organization, grew less visible and eventually was eliminated. It is likely that the success and opportunities of the trade union movement diverted the dedication of many blue-collar women to the YWCA.

The other ramification of the YWCA's strategy to tighten up its constituency had significant implication for work with African Americans and other non-white women. When it turned away from separate programming directed at African-American groups, the Association steered its racial consciousness toward fostering interracial relations. One element of this work was making issues of racial justice a priority in its public affairs and educational programming, which increased steadily throughout the 1930s; another piece was more slow in implementation, which was the full integration of the YWCA. Interracial work expanded to encompass racial groups other than African Americans, but programming that had foregrounded the concerns of white and blue collar women and immigrants faded into the background as these groups were spun off.

Structurally, even under reduced means, the YWCA continued to administer its work through divisions that preserved the domains of support work to community associations and National Board-oriented research and program development. However, the program review committee of the National Board, the Programming and Budget Apportionment Committee, exercised exacting oversight over program expenditures and initiatives. The National Board focused on tightening the focus of its community association-oriented work, while the Foreign Division and National Student Council continued operations "in many ways quite separate from the rest of the program of the National Board" (Report of Program Planning Committee to the National Board, 17 May 1939, 9).

Program Priorities during the 1930s

The Great Depression intensified the organization's administrative and financial struggles, but it also provided the impetus for several helpful programs. Free recreation and study helped to relieve boredom and boost morale. Some associations administered direct relief and make-work programs. The National Board developed an emergency Unemployment Committee to coordinate study and public education around the crisis situation. As the toll of war in Europe increased over the 1930s, the YWCA responded by creating a refugee committee (1938) designed to create a space for the acceptance of refugees in the U.S. and help them adjust upon arrival. Its International Institutes had operated to help assimilation and adjustment for foreign-born and second-generation women, but as the refugee question emerged, it turned to lobbying for immigration laws sensitive to refugee settlement and attacking xenophobia.

Limited in its means to launch new programs from the national level, the YWCA could embrace measures of public education and publicity. In doing so, it promoted progressive politics among its membership. Public Affairs staff coordinated the fact-finding and the creation of an organizational dialogue on hot-button social issues, which in the 1930s included support and action on the federal anti-lynching bill, the New Deal, and the participation of the U.S. in the League of Nations and World Court.

Social Christianity guided much of the politics of the national organization's staff. It contributed to its consciousness and support of labor reform and racial justice. The organizational structure of the YWCA allowed for a considerable lag between the ideals and plans to foster racial integration that were advanced at the national level and the segregated practices of many local associations, particularly but not exclusively in the South. In what programming their political commitments could guide, the National Board promoted social interaction as the primary means by which daunting political change, such as the eradication of segregation and racial hatred, would begin. They made tentative, often behind the scenes, steps to direct integration of the organization. In 1940, a National Board commission was charged with mobilizing decisively integration work in the YWCA. This group devised an "Interracial Charter" calling for the full integration of black women into YWCA life and pledging the efforts of the collective YWCA to fight racial prejudice. The charter was adopted at the 1946 National Convention.

1940s and beyond: drift

The National Convention held in 1946 in Atlantic City, NJ was a turning point in the administrative structure of the organization for a number of reasons. It was the first convention held since 1940, as they had been eliminated during the war years. As was the case during World War I, the demand in those years for YWCA services increased sharply in response to a number of factors: the number of women entering the workforce, the needs of young people affected by military and economic mobilization, the call for racial justice raised in the early 1940s by A. Philip Randolph and others, the recreation and relief demands of the troops-which the YWCA met by becoming a charter participant in the United Service Organizations. As the organization looked forward, it continued its commitments to public advocacy while continually being compelled to reduce the amount of staff that could be dedicated to nurturing a national program. In the wake of increased civil rights agitation after World War II, the YWCA increased the pressure on itself to bring racial issues and integration to the fore of its organizational practices and public affairs topics.

At the adoption of the interracial charter at the 1946 convention, delegates affirmed that the Christian purpose of the organization called for "the inclusion of Negro women and girls into the main stream of Association life, and that such inclusion be adopted as a conscious goal." (Sims, Unfolding, 84). This interracial charter heralded a campaign of strong organizational identification with the goals of the civil rights movement and increased pressure on locals to desegregate, although many southern associations redoubled their resistance to doing so.

At the same time as it advanced this bold declaration, the National Association expended increasing effort and anxiety scrutinizing its functions, and it abandoned the push for centralization and national programming that had characterized the previous years. It continued to curtail the small amounts of national programming that had survived the cutbacks of earlier years, particularly those affecting the employed women who had been major constituents in its early history. The YW sold the Woman's Press in 1952 and produced a more limited amount of in-house publications. It made short-lived attempts to forge new constituencies, such as the YW-Wives program for young mothers and the Agricultural Council of the late 1940s (although rural work had been a goal of the program from the beginning, it was overshadowed by its success in urban settings. The Y-Teens of the 1960s succeeded the Girl Reserve and drew upon the politicized language of the incipient student movement to delineate the young as a political constituency that deserved a distinct voice. The organization was receptive to their influence, seeing them as the next wave of YWCA leaders. Overall, the national YWCA relinquished the scope of vision that characterized its first forty years. The midcentury served as a watershed that pushed the National Board into retrenchment, reduction, and self-scrutiny.

At several points, the national YWCA reached for religion as the unifying theme to tie together the many facets of their program. However, the demands for secular programming that emanated from community associations and the lack of consensus on the scope of religious content limited the effectiveness of this impulse. Through the 1940s and 1950s the organization continued to experience the pressure to reduce staff and programming that had been at play since the 1930s, but the diminishing ability to launch innovative, progressive programming in the atmosphere of the Cold War further tied the hands of the National Board. The red scare of the late 1940s and 1950s particularly contributed to these trends. Anticommunists targeted the YWCA for its outspoken liberal and progressive politics. Though its long record of service and affiliation with organized Christianity shielded it from some of the more excessive redbaiting tactics, the political atmosphere determined the YWCA's ability to continue to promote liberal politics.

In the midst of its drift, the YWCA continued to provide oversight and encouragement to local associations and student groups, many of which took up the interracial impulse advanced at the 1946 convention to commit themselves to direct action in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Much as they had in earlier years, the YWCA drew on self-study as a means to navigate it through the difficulty of its diminished ability to provide a national presence and to coordinate the actions of disparate local associations. It commissioned studies on the YWCA as a religious movement and as YWCA as a women's movement in order to refine and bring more locals into active participation in the national mission.

These studies contributed to some decisive declarations. Pressures emanating from the YMCA's initiative in the 1920s to merge the associations and local inclinations toward joining programming with the YMCA had continued to raise the question of the efficacy of a single-sex organization. Up to that point, the YWCAs had a strong but tacit commitment to organizing and leadership among women alone. Originally commissioned as a study of YMCA-YWCA cooperative experiences, Dan Dodson's 1960 report, "The Role of the YWCA in a Changing Era," prompted the YWCA to officially affirm at its 1961 Convention the significance of its mission as an autonomous women's organization.

In 1967, the YW also returned to the perennial question of its ties to Christianity in a Study of the YWCA as a Christian Movement. It affirmed a set of guiding principles rooted in liberal Christianity and upheld and publicized earlier policies that had chipped away at the religious requirements that had been part of the affiliation requirements for Community Associations. At the 1988 National Convention, the matter came up again in a resolution that stated that "references to the Christian Purpose of the YWCA of the U.S.A. create a climate of distrust and misunderstanding among women and girls of diverse faiths." ("Summary of Convention Action," 1988 from Conventions, 1988, Chicago). In 1991 they rephrased their purpose to acknowledge "roots in the Christian faith" but shifted the focus to a secular vision of "Peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all people" ("Summary of Convention Action, 1991).

In the 1950s, the National Association began cultivating funders for short-term, targeted projects, rather than general support. Other opportunities for program-building came with the upsurgence in political consciousness and the availability of federal funds that came out of the mid-1960s and Great Society legislation. These efforts set a new direction for financial arrangements and programming for the next thirty years. With this approach, the YWCA was able to launch more projects, albeit limited by the short-term nature that such funding necessitated. The interests of funders also shaped the content of the proposed programming, but the concerns of the YWCA were capacious enough to direct available funds into efforts to alleviate racial and economic justice and empowering women, particularly young women. For example, the National Association's long-standing commitment to health and sex education dovetailed with funders' growing interest in women's health issues, from which they created an early (1976) breast cancer program (in the 1980s, this was expanded into a large, Avon Corporation-funded awareness campaign) and what would become a signature service area, addressing domestic violence. Sensing opportunity in the Great Society's interest in combating youths' disaffection and lack of job opportunities, the YWCA received a Department of Labor contract from 1967-75 for providing short-term residence and counseling centers for young women Job-Corps training program graduates.

The One Imperative

The flurry of controversy surrounding the 1970 National Convention brought the YWCA to national attention. As had been the case at National Conventions for many years, discussion and program platforms addressed the notable topics of this fraught year, including matters of poverty, peace, and race. Contrary to the usual practice of studies and resolutions being drafted in advance of the meeting, a delegation of black women put forward at the convention the resolution that the elimination of racism be the singular emphasis of the YWCA. Heated discussion ensued but a groundswell of support led to the adoption of a singular imperative for the YWCA, to end racism. The resolution drew on the language of the black power movement, using Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" as the standard to propel the elimination of racism.

The adoption of the "One Imperative" was dogged by the conflicts that had become standard given the cosmopolitan scope of the national organization and the often parochial views of local associations. Many delegates resented the techniques that brought the matter to the fore of the discussion. Others resisted the anti-racism measure as too radical an action. The stormy convention left some charged with excitement over the renewed direction and invigorated political program of the YWCA; others remained indifferent or angry over the course of events. Subsequent conventions and meetings reaffirmed the intent of the imperative and advanced ways to realize it. In the national organization, this took the form of affirmative action and efforts toward multiracial recruiting in hiring and fostering membership. It also created an enforcement mechanism for the One Imperative. Associations that refused to bring the One Imperative into their programming considerations were subject to disaffiliation. Some volunteered for disaffiliation on these grounds.

Other such Convention planks generated smaller levels of controversy. In 1970s, they called for turning over war in Southeast Asia to the United Nations, an end to Selective Service, disarmament, and supported the legalization of abortion and Equal Rights Amendment. A stand for gun control brought harassment to some local associations. In the 1980s the National Association lent its support to lesbian rights, overthrow of South Africa's apartheid regime, and combating domestic violence. In the 1990s, following the growing involvement of local YWCAs in domestic violence crisis services, the National Board launched a "Week without Violence" events to raise awareness.

As federal funding dried up in the 1970s, the National Association relied increasingly on corporate sponsorship to carry its programming. These ventures fostered a national presence for the organization, including "A Week without Violence" and a large traveling exhibit on the 135th Anniversary of the organization. But they did not create a stable of funds that would provide a steady base of support for member associations.

These troubles, as always addressed and scrutinized by self-study and reorganization, came to the fore in the late 1990s. A group of interested employees of community YWCAs launched an effort called the Change Initiative in order to scrutinize the practices and structure of the National Board. Initially resisted, then endorsed by the National Board, they called for greater accountability to community associations and financial stability. Upon professional consultation, they developed a sweeping reorganization plan that was approved by the membership at a special convention in 2000. The reorganized national administration, now called the National Coordinating Board, dissolved the New York office, relocated the remaining national staff in Washington, D.C., and established a regional presence to decentralize the national administration of the organization. The national staff shrunk significantly under this initiative, and it seems likely that little programming will be initiated by the new national entity.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Young Women's Christian Association of the USA Records consist of 382 reels of microfilm and 570 linear feet of records in original format dating from 1869 to 2002. For the most part, the Microfilmed Records and the Original Format Records do not duplicate each other and both should be consulted. The Series Descriptions within each Record Group discuss materials in both formats and provide link to the lists for both formats.

Types of materials include artifacts; audiovisual materials (including videotapes, audiotapes, and other recordings); conference and convention records; correspondence; legal documents; memorabilia; minutes; newspaper clippings; photographs; posters; program and project files; publications; reports; speeches; and studies.

The bulk of the materials date from 1906 to 1970 and focus on the administration of the National Association, its programs and publications, and its relations with its member YWCAs all over the country. Major topics found throughout the records include:

  • employed women, particularly those in industry
  • interracial relations in the U.S.
  • religion
  • work with immigrant women
  • development of girls, development of youth movement
  • health and sex education for women
  • international relations
  • international work
  • philanthropy
  • housing
  • women in rural America
  • effective administration of organizations
  • group work
  • social work
  • women's war work
  • citizenship training
  • leadership training
  • college women

MICROFILMED RECORDS

The YWCA of the USA began discussing microfilming its historical records in 1948 as a way to free up much-needed space in its headquarters building in New York City. When the project got underway in the 1960s, no preservation microfilming standards were consulted, and the Association was not expecting that the film would be used by the general public. This means that it is not particularly easy to navigate and unfortunately, the quality is often poor. Many images are too dark to read easily; in places they are out of focus or have scratches or blank areas which obscure content. Most of the originals were discarded after filming and so are only available on the microfilm. General information about records that were not discarded after filming is included in the description of Original Format Records below.

One of the National Association's goals was to model efficient and effective administrative procedures. To that end, it established a Central File to optimize sharing of information across the Association. By 1921, a records retention schedule had been adopted and records were assigned a retention category (1 year, 2-5 year, or permanent historical) when created. The records retention policy was rigorously maintained at least into the 1950s. There is evidence that many Association offices kept temporary "working files" close at hand, but these appear to have been discarded when they were no longer current. Any records of importance to the Association as a whole were submitted for filing in the Central File. It was this Central File, consisting of Minutes and Reports, Subject Files, and Community (or "Local") Associations Files, that was microfilmed beginning in 1964.

The arrangement of the records on the microfilm appears to reflect the order in which the files were maintained at National Headquarters with materials grouped as follows:

Predecessor Organizations and Formation of the National Board, 1876-1961

  • records of the two predecessor organizations and materials about their merger to form the YWCA of the USA (reels 1, 1A, 2)

Minutes and Reports, 1884-1975

  • minutes and reports of the National Board, Board of Trustees, and early Field, Territorial, and State Committees, 1884-1975 (reels 2-17, 282)
  • minutes and reports of National Association committees and departments, arranged more-or-less alphabetically (reels 223-225, 278-280, 346-382)

Subject Files, 1899-1970

  • an alphabetical centralized Subject File (filmed in 3 batches by date: 1899-1950, reels 17-160; 1951-60, reels 226-252; 1961-70, reels 283-322)

Community Associations Files, 1884-1970

  • files on Community YWCAs, arranged alphabetically by state (filmed in 3 batches by date: 1899-1950, reels 161-222; 1951-60, reels 253-277, 1961-70, reels 281, 323-345)

Microfilming was done in four batches between 1964 and 1984. The final set of materials filmed (minutes and reports) contains some items dated as late as 1975, but most sections of the microfilm end in 1970.

ORIGINAL FORMAT RECORDS

For information about the arrangement of the Original Format Records see the Scope and Content Notes for each Record Group.

The original format records consist of:

1. Records created after microfilming ended and up to the restructuring of the National Association, 1971-2002.

2. Pre-1971 records that were not microfilmed

3. Pre-1971 records that were microfilmed, but not discarded after filming

4. Pre-1971 records donated or transferred to the National Board Archives after microfilming ended

1. Records created after microfilming ended, 1971-2002

Office Files

The microfilmed records reflect a commitment to a filing and records management system that was ultimately a casualty of repeated budget and staff cuts at the National Association.

Very few records of any kind survive from the period immediately after the microfilming, 1971-87. Staff directories indicate that the National Association maintained a central file through this period, but the file appears to have been discarded. The few 1971-87 office files that were preserved by the National Board Archives appear to be "working files" rather than segments of a central file.

The major staff reduction that closed the Data Center (home of the central file) in 1992, appears to have put an end to centralized filing at the National Association. Though the YWCA Archivist established a records management policy in the late 1990s, file maintenance became a low priority for the much-reduced staff.

Files created after the elimination of the Data Center in 1992, therefore, diverge substantially from earlier records, particularly in the following ways:

  • they contain types of material that would have been discarded in earlier decades (such as correspondence, texts of speeches, working files)
  • they were not integrated into a single central file, but kept under separate systems in various offices where they were arranged more idiosyncratically to facilitate access by individual offices (rather than the staff as a whole)

Other Records

photographs, audiovisual materials, artifacts

2. Pre-1971 records that were not microfilmed

Materials other than office files that could not be captured effectively on microfilm:

  • photographs and photo albums
  • scrapbooks
  • audiotapes and other sound recordings
  • oversize items (such as posters)
  • artifacts and memorabilia

Certain YWCA Publications:

  • hard-cover, general interest titles published by the Womans Press
  • the main YWCA serial publications:
    • The Association Monthly/Womans Press/YWCA Magazine/YWCA
    • Interchange
    • The Bookshelf/Y-Teen Scene

Office files that were not part of the Central File, including:

  • the Public Affairs Office Subject File
  • miscellaneous 'working' files (miscellaneous files that appear to have come out of closets or storage. These were mainly associated with financial management functions: real estate, Comptroller, donors.)

3. Pre-1971 records that were microfilmed, but not discarded after filming

Included are:

Minutes and Reports all of the Minutes and Reports appear to have been saved

Convention Records the National Board Library maintained a file of published materials produced for Convention preparation and reports and proceedings published after the Convention.

Publications the National Board Library maintained a file of YWCA publications (the holdings do not appear to be complete, but they are extensive and include items that were not microfilmed)

Reports and Studies the National Board Library catalogued and made available copies of major reports and studies produced by the YWCA, and some by Community Associations

Subject File materials donated to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1964
(described as 'less than 1/16th' of the first batch (1899-1950) of Subject File materials) included are materials in the Subject File under the headings:

  • Business and Industrial Women
  • Business and Professional Women
  • Business, Professional and Industrial Women
  • Health
  • Household Employment
  • Immigration
  • Industrial Work
  • War Work-World War II
  • World War I (selected materials only)

4. Pre-1971 records assembled by the National Board Archives after microfilming ended
Once the National Board Archives was established in 1977, the YWCA Archivist collected:

  • historical publications of the National Association
  • historical materials on Community Associations
  • personal copies of materials from office files that had been discarded
  • personal papers of some long-term staff members


Information on Use
Terms of Access and Use
Restrictions on access:

The records are open to research according to the regulations of the Sophia Smith Collection with the following exceptions:

  • Portions of this collection are stored offsite. To access boxes 893-964 and 1061-1132, researchers must give two working days advance notice. Advanced notice is NOT required for other boxes or to view microfilmed records.
  • Access to audiovisual materials may first require production of research copies.
  • Records in the following files are closed for 75 years from date of creation:
    Box 145
    Box 146, folders 1-15
    Box 147, folder 5
    Box 187, folder 2
    Box 196, folders 12-15
    Box 197, folders 1-8

Restrictions on use:

The YWCA of the USA retains copyright ownership of the records, but has authorized the Sophia Smith Collection to grant permission to publish reproductions or quotations from the records on its behalf.

Copyright to materials authored by persons other than YWCA staff may be owned by those individuals or their heirs or assigns. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights for permission to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use."

Preferred Citation

Please use the following format when citing materials from this collection:

YWCA of the U.S.A. Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Additional Formats

A copy of the microfilmed records of the YWCA of the U.S.A. Records is available to borrow from the William Allan Neilson Library at Smith College via Interlibrary Loan.

To request the microfilm from our library you will need to submit the following information to your library's Interlibrary Loan department:

  • Author: Young Women's Christian Association of the U.S.A. National Board
  • Title: Records, 1876-1970 [microform]
  • WorldCat Accession Number: OCLC 57415795
  • Notes: "Call # 689" and reel number(s) you want to borrow

Full descriptions and reel lists of the microfilm are available online.

History of the Collection

The YWCA of the U.S.A. donated a portion of its records to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1964 and the remainder in 2002 and 2003.

Processing Information

Processed by Maida Goodwin, Amy Hague, Kara McClurken, Amanda Izzo, and Melody Sabine, 2008

Record Groups

Additional Information
Contact Information
Sophia Smith Collection
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063

Phone: (413) 585-2970
Fax: (413) 585-2886

Email Reference Form: http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/emailform.html
URL: http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/

Language
English