Young Women’s Christian Association

Despite the similarity in their names and frequent cooperation, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Young Men’s Christian Association were founded separately from each other and remain distinct organizations today.[1]

Building the YWCA

One can trace the YWCA’s roots back to a variety of smaller women’s groups founded in both England and the United States in the 1850s and subsequent decades. While many of these groups called themselves Young Women’s Christian Associations, they all remained smaller independent organizations until 1871, when many of them combined into a “loose federation” which eventually became the International Board of Women’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations.[2] Meanwhile, separate student chapters appeared on college campuses, forming their own national association, the American Committee of Young Women’s Christian Associations, in 1886.[3] Finally, in 1906, the two federations combined to form the unified but decentralized Young Women’s Christian Association of the United States of America under the leadership of Grace Hoadley Dodge.[4]

The Independent YWCA

Independence was a key theme of the early YWCAs. The Associations served a variety of purposes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including but not limited to running prayer meetings, providing housing, and operating business training schools to help young women get on their feet.  At the same time, YWCA members made their own claims to independence by expressing their religious convictions without operating under the subordination of male church leaders. As stated by historian Nancy Marie Robertson, these organizations “represented an opportunity for women to express religious commitment and to wield power, without directly challenging beliefs about women’s place in the church.”[5]

The YWCA and the War

"Back our girls over there" YWCA poster. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Figure 1. “Back our girls over there” YWCA poster. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

During World War I, the YWCA was the only women’s organization of the seven ultimately affiliated with the government’s Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA), and the only one fully dedicated to serving women. While the YWCA’s largest contribution to the war effort was its work among female workers in war industries, the association also operated Hostess Houses in military training camps. These Houses served as “homes away from home” designed to entertain wives and mothers who came to visit their husbands and sons.[6] Overseas, the YWCA also offered assistance to French women working in factories and to American service women (nurses, stenographers, telephone operators, and relief workers).[7] As a result of its extensive work during wartime mobilization, the YWCA grew substantially over the course of the conflict, transforming from a relatively unknown organization into one of the largest and most influential women’s organizations in the country.

The YWCA and Progressive Thinking

Read full article.
Figure 2. Read Mary Jackson’s full article from the Association Monthly. Courtesy of Hathi Trust and Google Books.

While African-American soldiers, war workers, and civilians played a key role in the United War Work Campaign and in the war as a whole, they still faced extreme discrimination and persecution which prevented them from achieving the equality they deserved (read more). Some groups of the United War Work Campaign, however, were more receptive to bids for equality than others. The YWCA was one of these groups, and, at least in their rhetoric, the organization displayed a particularly progressive point of view in response to racial issues. One article, written by black YWCA leader Mary E. Jackson but published for general audiences in the Association Monthly, asserted that if black women did not receive equal working rights, the country could not “hope to rank as an ideal for world-wide democracy.”[8] With such a statement, the article not only advocated for equality, but also declared that a lack of equality meant the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s statement that Americans fought to make the world “safe for democracy.”

Although the YWCA was fairly progressive in advocating for and working with African American women, the organization retained a reality of racial inequality. This reality is particularly evident in the organization’s usage of funding. When the YWCA’s War Work Council worked with a budget of five million dollars, it designated only four percent of that budget to black women, even though African Americans comprised ten percent of the American population. Later, in 1920, when the Association divided up the remaining funds from the United War Work Campaign, they again shortchanged African American women, designating only four percent of funds to “colored work”—less than they intended to spend on social hygiene lectures.[9]  Ultimately, then, while the YWCA was progressive on racial issues for its time, in practice it fell short of achieving radical change.

Women’s Organizations and the United War Work Campaign

UWWC AM Article
Figure 3. Read the entire article from the Association Monthly. Reference located near the end of the article. Courtesy of Hathi Trust and Google Books.

The YWCA took pride in being the only women’s organization officially affiliated with the Commission on Training Camp Activities and the United War Work Campaign. Women war workers, however, served in all seven of the affiliated groups, and religious groups in particular took offense when the Commission on Training Camp Activities refused to directly fund women’s groups from the Knights of Columbus, Jewish Welfare Board, and Salvation Army, or even to allow them official representation on United War Work Campaign planning committees. As one representative from the National Catholic War Council wrote in a confidential letter, “We understand further that the Y. W. C. A. has the only woman representative on this National War Drive Committee. We protest against this, as we consider there should be appointed to serve on this Committee a Catholic woman, a Jewish woman, and a Salvation Army woman, otherwise that no woman at all should be on this National War Drive Committee.”[10]

The YWCA, for its part, tried to minimize this underlying tension. One Association Monthly article on the United War Work Campaign emphasized that each women’s group had sent at least a handful of unofficial delegates to a September 1918 meeting of the United War Work Council and, despite the fact that the YWCA had sent over two hundred official representatives in comparison, presented this statement as evidence that the entirety of womanhood had participated in the conference.” Jewish, Catholic and Protestant women are eagerly working together,” wrote Mrs. Henry P. Davison, the National Campaign Committee Chairman. “This is, they feel, a campaign of all womankind.”[11] Thus, while the YWCA prided itself as the only women’s group in the United War Work Campaign, its leaders glossed over the concerns of women in religious minorities, conducting the distinctly Protestant organization as a representative of all American women.



          [1]“A STATEMENT FROM THE YWCA: The Tale of Two ‘Ys,’” YWCA Central Virginia, 2012,

          [2]Nancy Marie Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007): 12-13.

          [3]Pederson, “YWCA of the U.S.A.,” 243. ; Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, 16.

          [4]Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, 17.

          [5]Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, 13.

          [6]Cynthia Brandimarte, “Women on the Home Front: Hostess Houses during World War I,” Winterthur Portfolio 42, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 201-2, 204.

          [7]Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, 48.

          [8]Mary E. Jackson, “Colored Girls in the Second Line of Defense,” Association Monthly, October 1918, 363.

          [9]Nancy Marie Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 52, 60.

          [10]“Confidential Letter from the National Catholic War Council,” n.d., Collection 010, Box 7, Folder 1 #087, American Catholic History Research Center, Catholic University of America

          [11]Mrs. Henry P. Davison, “The United War Work Campaign,” Association Monthly, October 1918, 356.