Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) - American Education
An international organization dedicated to the personal, social and physical development of girls and women aged 12 and older. The oldest volunteer women’s membership movement in the United States, the YWCA was inspired by the 1855 merger of two British women’s organizations—the Prayer Union, which sponsored church-like activities, and the General Female Training Institute, founded as a home for nurses returning from the Crimean War. The new Women’s Christian Association began serving the thousands of women who had flocked to cities during the industrial expansion of the late 1800s to find jobs—only to find poverty-level wages and unemployment. A similar phenomenon in the United States spurred the founding of the Ladies’ Christian Association in New York City, to work for the “temporal, moral, and spiritual welfare of the self-supporting young woman.” Later that year, a similar group calling itself the Young Women’s Christian Association formed in Boston.
As YWCAs formed in other cities, they provided many of the services that YMCAs provided for young men: Christian spiritual guidance, housing facilities, recreation and physical training, and formal education, including classes in such academic subjects as reading and writing, penmanship, arithmetic, science and music, and such vocational subjects as sewing, needlework, dressmaking, typing, bookkeeping, clerical and secretarial work, telegraphy, interior decorating and commercial art. Like YMCAs, YWCAs recruited missionaries on college and university campuses, and established camping programs that provided inexpensive summer vacations for working girls.
Unlike YMCAs, however, YWCAs have always remained far more decentralized, with only loose ties to a National Board in New York City that was not even founded until the first decade of the 20th century. Moreover, YWCAs traditionally remained more committed for a longer period of time to their evangelical mission than did YMCAs, whose early attraction to sports and physical fitness diluted their original mission. During the 1920s and 1930s, YWCAs concerned themselves with social service and with the training of women for jobs that had been inaccessible to them prior to woman suffrage and the development of the women’s rights movement.
After World War II, as formerly all-male colleges and universities opened their doors to women and as the job market expanded and provided women with more opportunities, YWCA membership plunged by nearly 25%, and those branches that survived reached out to wider audiences, including many non-Protestants. Men and boys may now join as associate members. Like YMCAs, many YWCA branches have evolved into nonsectarian, quasipublic organizations. Branches remain totally independent, however, and are operated and funded by volunteers and are dedicated to a variety of widely varying activities designed to meet the needs of each particular community. Not all YWCAs are housed in formal structures. Many are simply affiliated organizations in churches, libraries, schools, colleges, community and student associations, women’s residencies and shelters and resident camps. Total membership has surpassed 25 million members in 122 countries—about 2.6 million of them participating in 300 local chapters across the United States.