YWCA of the U.S.A. Records. Record Group 7. Student Work
The first student Young Women's Christian Association in the United States was founded in 1873 at Normal University, Normal, Illinois. "Goaded" into action by the growing Young Men's Christian Association movement on college campuses, the Normal University example was soon followed on a number of mid-western campuses. Some YMCAs at coeducational schools initially included women among their membership, but, by about 1881, the YMCA helped the women to form separate women's associations so that they could concentrate their efforts on young women-whose needs were outside of the mission of the YMCA. As the movement grew, the YMCA's first collegiate secretary, Luther Wishard, worked in conjunction with the International Board of Women's Christian Associations to organize and develop Student YWCAs on campuses all over the country.
Like the work of Women's Christian Associations among working women in cities, Student Associations focused on young women away from the "steadying influences" of home. Yet, in contrast to WCAs in cities, Student Association program tended to be deeply and evangelically religious-especially in those Associations with close ties to the YMCA. In addition to Bible study, "united prayer," and "Christian conversation," the Student Associations aimed to translate the religious zeal of the campus and student summer conferences into commitment to a life of service either at home or abroad. The mission was "to lead students to faith in God through Jesus Christ, to lead them into membership and service to the Christian Church," to provide "character education" in order to counteract the permissive atmosphere of the campus, and to "influence them to devote themselves to making the will of Christ effective in human society, and to extending the Kingdom of God throughout the world." In a day when colleges and universities had little or no administrative staff responsible for student affairs, few student clubs, and no student government, student Christian Associations (including Student YWCAs) provided such services, activities, and experiences to the student body.
Student Associations differed from City Associations in that they tended to be smaller in size, their membership changed completely every four years, they usually made use of space provided by the institution, and they rarely had paid staff, relying instead on volunteer advisors from the college's faculty or administration.
In the 1880s, the existing national organization of Women's Christian Associations, the International Board, was a loose confederation of independent City Associations with no permanent staff or headquarters. The students were convinced that their associations needed the resources and continuity of an ongoing national organization with paid staff. In 1886, at a summer conference at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the women students decided to form their own organization, the National Association of Young Women's Christian Associations. This organization eventually became known as the American Committee.
The Student YWCAs always worked in collaboration with other student Christian organizations. In addition to continued ties with the YMCA and a variety of denominational student organizations, they were part of the trio of organizations (YMCA, YWCA, and Inter-Seminary Missionary Alliance) that formed in 1888 the Executive Committee of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, an organization seeking "the evangelization of the world in this generation." In 1895, they were founding members of the World Student Christian Federation, the student branch of the world ecumenical movement.
Before long, alumnae of Student YWCAs began to found City YWCAs to serve their home communities. Rather than affiliating with the International Board, these Associations became members of the umbrella organization founded by the students, the American Committee. The American Committee saw itself as focused exclusively on the needs of young women--as opposed to the International Board, which served women of all ages. In addition, there were two ways that Associations belonging to the American Committee differed from those in the International Board: all members were required to be members of Protestant evangelical churches, and they were committed to supporting missionary work abroad.
Before long, the International Board of Women's Christian Associations, came to see the American Committee as in competition for its constituency and funding. Though it did not include the word "young" in its name until 1893 when it became the International Board of Women's and Young Women's Christian Associations, there were many YWCAs among the International Board's membership. Various attempts at merger were made, but it was not until 1906 that an agreement could be reached and the two organizations came together to form the Young Women's Christian Associations of the United States of America.
YWCA of the USA
When the two predecessor organizations merged, the new YWCA of the U.S.A. consisted of about 600 student associations with roughly 40,000 active members and 223 city and town associations with approximately 110,000 members. The work of the new national association was divided between the "Home" and "Foreign" fields. Its purpose was to conduct studies to identify needs of the Association's constituency, develop effective methods for meeting those needs, and set standards across the Association for work among that constituency. In the "Home" field, committees were formed to oversee the work of various types of Associations: City, Town and Country, and Student. Up until World War I, the Student work included any young woman in school, secondary as well as college. As the national staff grew, Student Secretaries were given responsibility for specific types of schools: church schools, professional schools, secondary schools, boarding schools, "colored" schools, Indian schools, state universities, and colleges. The first African-American members of the national staff, worked for the Student Committee beginning in 1907, visiting the existing "colored" student associations and helping to establish and develop new ones.
The formation of the new national organization meant that the relatively conservative Student Associations in the American Committee came into contact with the more progressive membership of the International Board and its emphasis on Christianity expressed through social action. Students were inevitably changed by the college experience and YWCA staff noted their difficulties passively accepting religion as it had been presented to them in their early life. To counteract the students' tendency to simply abandon religion, the Student Department developed techniques such as "round table discussions" for encouraging "honest questioning;" a Bible study curriculum and religious education at conferences that introduced more radical theology; and students were encouraged to undertake social service projects, "the most effective instrument in developing the consciousness outside oneself." (Student Committee Biennial Report, 1913-14.) The Student Department also produced publications for Bible study, such as the "voluntary study course" for use at the college level, and the Inch Library and Girl's Year Book for teenagers.
Regular regional and national YWCA meetings as well as the Student Associations' continued ties with other national and international student Christian organizations meant a continuous widening of experiences for the students.
The National Association saw the Student Department as a primary source of personnel for the growing national movement. It made an active attempt to "relate" student association graduates to some form of community service whether it was ultimately with the YWCA (as professional or volunteer staff) or with some other organization. Student Associations did not generally have an established board or fundraising capability but the National Association invested disproportionately in staff to foster Student Associations because so many of its leaders came out of the student movement.
The Council of North American Student Movements (consisting of the student YMCA and YWCA of the U.S. and Canada, and the Student Volunteer Movement) was formed in 1912 under the chairmanship of John R. Mott of the World Student Christian Federation and the YMCA, to create a "national attack" of the "un-Christian elements in our so called 'Christian Civilization'." ("The Students of North America and Social Action," Association Monthly, Jun 1914) From the beginnings of the student YWCA movement, Student Associations tried to "fire" undergraduates to action. Their zeal perhaps accounts for their tendency to push the Association as a whole toward more radical social change positions, particularly with regard to race relations, and economic conditions.
A May 1914 national Negro Student Convention, called by Christian student leader John R. Mott brought what was identified by Method Department Executive Louise Holmquist as a "new light" to the work of the YWCA. Up to that point, the social gospel promoted by the Federal Council of Churches had been defined primarily in terms of capital versus labor and efforts to bring justice to the working class. Convention speakers linked the social gospel to race issues and argued that it was the duty of Christian organizations to help bring justice to African-Americans. In her quarterly report to the Student Committee of September 1914, Colored Student Secretary Josephine Pinyon expressed her response to the Convention this way: "Now there is something that will make people realize that the colored work is . . . an integral and by no means negligible part of the responsibility assumed when the National Board was organized."
This conference was followed in 1915 by the YWCA's first national Conference on Colored Work in Louisville, Kentucky, where it was acknowledged that "leadership for the race must come from the student ranks." (Student Committee Annual Report, 1915) If the YWCA was going to contribute substantially to race relations, it must work hard to recruit and train leaders especially among its Black student membership.
Though it had been the student movement, through the American Committee, that had insisted on the more conservative evangelical basis of membership when the YWCA of the USA was formed in 1906, the students were the first to request a loosening of that policy, through the World Student Christian Federation in 1913. They proposed an alternative "personal" basis, meaning a personal commitment to the purpose of the YWCA rather than membership in a Protestant evangelical church. The first national student conference, in January of 1915, was called primarily for discussion of this change prior to its presentation to the full National Convention in May of that year. At Convention a Commission was appointed, the matter was considered and re-considered, and, at the 1920 Convention, the Constitution was amended to allow Student Association members this alternative basis of membership.
The academic calendar had always provided the YWCA and other Christian organizations with the opportunity to bring students together on a regional or national level during the summer months. Summer Conferences were highly popular from the very beginning of the movement and provided invaluable opportunities for all kinds of training, for inciting to action, and for taking the pulse of the students.
The National Association also took advantage of the students' summer recess by developing programs for students in its core program areas, such as leadership training, international relations, economic conditions, citizenship, race relations, etc. In the early years, these included the Eight Week Club Program under which college women from parts of the country (particularly rural areas) where there was no YWCA could use their time at home over the summer to foster interest in the YWCA and its goals by initiating club activities for high school girls.
When the U.S. joined World War I, the Student Movement (YM, YW and SVM) raised more than a million dollars for the Student Friendship Fund for work among prisoners of war, and to support the war needs of the World's Student Christian Federation, and the War Work Councils of the YWCA and YMCA.
The general feeling after World War I, was that the National Association should work to encourage self-governance by various of its 'constituent groups' particularly those (such as the students and the industrial women) who had made outstanding contributions to the war work. The students' war experience had primed them for greater participation in the Association and for self-governance.
In December 1919, the National Board Executive Committee approved a plan drawn up by the Committee on Student Administration and Student Initiative that established the National Student Assembly as the governing body of the students. This gave students the right to direct their own program and policies with the proviso that any matters affecting the entire Association required action of the full Convention. Time that had been set aside during the 1920 Convention for a student "sectional" meeting became the first meeting of the Assembly. [Though none of the 1920 Convention materials make note of it as the first National Student Assembly, a similar report in the 1922 Convention proceedings is titled Second National Student Assembly.] The Assembly's work was administered by the National Student Council, made up of students and faculty elected at summer conferences. Because it was difficult for full time students to meet regularly to work on plans and schedules, the Council's Executive Committee was given an unusual amount of decision-making authority. The Student Assembly was soon followed by the establishment of other self-governing Assemblies: Industrial in 1922 and Business and Professional in 1924.
The War experience also brought to the students a "new sense of kinship with the rest of the human family," and a "new sense of social responsibility" (Report of the Findings Committee of the 1919 National Student Conference in Evanston, Illinois). They saw the church as a medium for promoting Christian democracy and sought conscious alignment with the "constructive elements" of the labor movement.
As part of the post war recovery, the YWCA of the USA instituted a national program of interracial education with the hope of influencing public opinion through "earnest study" of race issues in terms of Christian doctrine. The students' participation in this effort was especially enthusiastic, particularly in the south and southwest regions where YWCAs existed in 3 out of every 4 colleges. As would often be the case, the students efforts pushed ahead of the National Association and far beyond public opinion. Some came to see these activities, such as holding interracial conferences in the south, as "jeopardizing the Association as a whole." In addition to challenging the status quo on race, the women were using religion not only as the basis of that challenge, but as a means to step into the public sphere in order to issue that challenge. In time, these efforts in the southern and southwest regions came to monopolize a budget and staff that was shrinking as a result of the 1930s economic crisis causing some resentment in other regions.
In addition to interracial education, the National Association facilitated student programming in leadership training, "social morality" (with an emphasis on sex education as well as ethical concerns for the roaring '20s), and economic conditions. Religious education was facilitated "by the presentation of Christianity in terms of life" (Student Department Annual Report, 1921-22) and Student-Industrial Clubs were formed to bring together college students and working women for joint study and Christian fellowship. National Summer Programs in the 1920s and 1930s focused on economic conditions with students learning about industry, agriculture, and rural communities. With the approaching war in Europe, the participation of some students in peace activities caused more controversy.
From its beginnings, the Student YWCAs had strong element of cooperation with other organizations. Some affiliations, such as the World Youth Congress, were used as "evidence" of the YWCA's communist leanings in the red-baiting 1950s. Student ties were especially close to the YMCA in parts of country where most colleges and universities were coeducational. In some periods, the Student YWCAs exhibited stronger affiliation with the concerns of college students than they did with more general women's concerns. An era of greater cooperation with the YM began with the founding of the National Intercollegiate Christian Council (first known as the National Intercollegiate Student Council) in 1935. NICC held national assemblies, produced program materials and other publications, and ran a variety of summer programs. For "a number of years" the National Student Assembly of the YWCA met at the NICC Assembly, rather than at the YWCA National Convention.
During World War II students participated in most of the YWCA's various war efforts, including programs for students at Japanese Relocation Centers, fundraising for foreign relief and reconstruction, and working in U.S.O. centers located near college campuses.
In response to the severe financial challenges caused by the Great Depression, in the late 1930s the YWCA undertook an extensive Program Planning Study with the aim of a more centralized planning of the work of the national Association. The advent of World War II slowed and, to a certain extent, altered this process because it was deemed "unseemly" to be engaged in "too introspective" a process while the world was at war. The end result was a set of recommendations about which subjects should remain in the YWCA program and how much staff would be needed to "carry the subject." The YWCA emerged from World War II with a less ambitious array of programs and the requirement that funding be in hand before new programs were undertaken.
The post-World War II era also brought major changes to colleges and universities where there was a dramatic increase in enrollment and related building boom. Larger student bodies came to be served by an increasing "student affairs" infrastructure within the college administration. In addition, a proliferation of student clubs and organizations of all kinds meant that many who traditionally would have joined Christian organizations had a variety of other options. Under these circumstances, YWCAs found it harder to reach a sizeable portion of the student body and the Association's presence in college life was substantially diminished.
Just as City Associations had to adjust their program due to rapid suburbanization, the Student Department had to adjust to the growth in junior and community colleges with their non-resident student community.
In the conservative 1950s when "narrow loyalties [were] left unchallenged," the Student YWCA attempted to be a place on campuses "where faith and doubt are both at home." "Because we are not a church, we can insist on an all open, free full search with all alternatives getting a hearing . . . but with room for a variety of affirmations and for expression of deep commitment" (February 1957 presentation to the National Board). 1950s Summer Projects included international exchanges, citizenship seminars in Washington DC, and at the UN, and urban service projects in various cities. In 1951 the NICC changed its name to National Student Council of the YMCA and YWCA (NSCY). The Student YWCA tended toward more collaborative work with the YMCA in the 1950s, but by the early 1960s, they were doing more work targeted at women.
Student Summer Programs, some run in conjunction with the Student YMCA, continued in the 1960s and 1970s with foundation and other outside funding. In addition to international exchanges, urban service projects, leadership training, and citizenship seminars in Washington D.C., there were also a number of regional summer programs such as the Middle Atlantic's program to combat Appalachian poverty, a migrant worker program in the Pacific Northwest, and a host of "human relations," school desegregation, and voter registration projects in the South.
The Students continued to be active on public affairs issues, participating in the civil rights movement and later advocating for racial justice; and demonstrating against the Vietnam war and the draft. Responsible for many of the more radical resolutions submitted to Convention, they worked to educate the National Association on issues related to the environment, women's liberation, and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Though the Student Assembly had the constitutional right to set policy and decide program for the Student Movement, the challenges of maintaining a full-time student schedule while also participating in the National Association in a meaningful way, meant that in reality the staff and volunteers did much of the work and the student members simply approved their plans. In the late 1960s, students became restless under this system and agitated for greater control over their movement. Following the 1970 "One Imperative" Convention, the Student YWCA amended its bylaws to institute a more pluralistic governing body by requiring that the Council include members from the each of the five ethnic caucuses, four geographic regions, students, non-students, and staff. The name of the Council was briefly changed to National Student Steering Committee.
The nation-wide economic crisis of the 1970s caused a reduction in university funding to campus organizations and in student activity fees. Because Student YWCAs did not collect membership fees, this meant that their primary means of financial support was greatly reduced or entirely eliminated. The same financial woes triggered a drastic reduction in the YWCA's national staff. What had been a student staff of 59 (to serve 414 Associations) in 1950, was reduced to 3.25 (for 59 Associations) by 1975. Coming at a time when student interest in "joining" was at a low ebb, the reductions were particularly devastating to the student movement. This trend was not unique to the YWCA. The YM experienced a similar decline in student membership and decided to close its Student Department in 1970.
One strategy for increasing the involvement of younger women in the YWCA was the formation of Young Women Committed to Action at a national Young Adult Conference in November 1969. This group brought together three groups (Students, Teens, and Young Adults) served by different departments and committees of the National Association. Though the press coverage and actions that came out of their initial meetings caused quite a stir, the group was disbanded after ten years due primarily to lack of participation.
Various studies, plans, and reports produced between the mid-1970s and early-1990s reiterated the combination of external and internal factors that contributed to the drastic decline in Student YWCAs. In addition to general postwar trends, by the later 1970s, the YWCA was suffering from students' general lack of interest in fostering or maintaining organizations and more and more students were troubled by the 'C' in YWCA. Because of its diminished profile, the YWCA was not perceived as an activist or feminist organization and it became ever more difficult to find skilled advisers. Primary YWCA issues related to the empowerment of women and racial justice were integrated into campus life through women's and multicultural centers and the institutionalization of women and minority/ethnic studies within the academy. And continued budget cuts at the national level meant the popular summer program opportunities were abandoned.
Lacking the staff and funding to found new Student Associations, in 1987 the Committee on Membership in the National Association (MINA) approved a plan to help establish a YWCA presence on campuses where none existed through the Registered Student Group plan. Registered Student Groups would function in cooperation with established (and often staffed) campus women's centers or organizations and offer a means for "relating in a structured manner" to the national student YWCA. RSG members could be elected to the National Student Council and attend regional and national meetings and events. A handful of such groups existed at least until 1998.
While all of the studies acknowledged the "historically invaluable contribution" and disproportionate impact of the Student YWCA on the movement as a whole, the National Association, which continued to experience severe budget restrictions, did not have the resources to address the particular problems of Student YWCAs, but also did not take action to eliminate the program. As of the 2001 Convention, 12 Student YWCAs were affiliated with the YWCA of the USA.