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Priceless YWCA Gift is Largest Ever (January 2003)

Well before Title IX mandated gender equity in sports programs, generations of women and girls relied on the Young Women's Christian Association of the U.S.A. (YWCA) for fitness education and sports facilities. The YWCA is perhaps less known to the general public for its numerous social reform programs, ranging over the years from classes for urban immigrants and workers to a more recent emphasis on the prevention of domestic violence. The YWCA has survived for over 150 years by creating new programs in response to the changing needs of its constituents.

In so doing it has established a pioneering tradition of attention to issues of racial, gender, and class inequality. The YWCA staff's healthy sense of the organization's historical significance is reflected in how carefully it preserved its documentary record. Last winter the National Board donated 454 cartons, the bulk of its archives, along with personal papers of U.S. and overseas staff, to the SSC. This makes it by far our largest collection.

Auto mechanics class, San Juan, Puerto Rico YWCA
Auto mechanics class, San Juan, Puerto Rico YWCA, undated (YWCA Records).

Smith alumnae have played a key role in the SSC's long relationship with the YWCA. As early as 1948, Harriet Bliss Ford (Smith 1899), a former member of the YWCA National Board, joined Margaret Storrs Grierson (Smith '22), Director of the fledgling women's history collection at Smith, in a successful attempt to persuade YWCA staff to make a small donation of publications they had collected about women's movements abroad. Elizabeth Norris (Smith '36), longtime librarian for the National Board, was instrumental in securing Ruth Woodsmall's papers for the SSC.

Woodsmall's voluminous personal record of, among other things, her tenure as General Secretary of the World's YWCA (1935-47) has since been used by dozens of scholars. Later, Norris, Eleanor Coit (Smith '16), and Grierson engaged in "fancy footwork" to assure that a portion of the records the YWCA began to microfilm in 1964 were preserved in the SSC rather than destroyed as had been the original intent. Norris was again a key player in gaining funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the formal establishment of the National Board's own archives in 1977, thus making the YWCA's resources visible and accessible to scholars. In recent years, the YWCA has experienced the reduced funding and staffing levels that have affected most non-profit organizations. Because of our long relationship, the SSC was an obvious candidate when the YWCA decided it could no longer maintain its own archive.

The renewal of the SSC/YWCA partnership and the resulting donation is an exciting development for historians and other scholars. From the 1970s on, in an era of growing interest in women's history, scholars have turned to the records because of the wealth of issues addressed by YWCA programs. Books and dissertations based at least in part on the YWCA Records have examined such topics as race relations in the South, the YWCA's overseas work, and women's contributions to urban development at the turn of the nineteenth century. Historian Nancy M. Robertson spent over fifteen years using the records, beginning with her dissertation, "Deeper Even than Race": White Women and the Politics of Christian Sisterhood in the Young Women's Christian Association, 1906-1946. She believes that once the records are fully processed and accessible, it will be a "tremendous boon" to researchers who have been "frustrated these past few years by the limited access...because of the changing and uncertain status of the national YWCA." Dorothea Browder, a University of Wisconsin graduate student, currently at work on her dissertation, is exploring "how YWCA industrial club participants used the clubs to forge a nation-wide movement of working women across differences of race and religion, ethnicity and nationality background, region, occupation, and unionized status. "She points out that working women rarely leave written documents, but "the YWCA industrial club conference records are full of their words, from fiction and poetry to reportage to meeting minutes to autobiographical pieces."

YWCA Girl Reserves, 1944
YWCA Girl Reserves, Evanston, IL, 1944. Photograph by Arthur C. Allen, Stadler Sudios (YWCA Records).

While the SSC's regular hours and staffing will allow scholars much-increased access to the records, a good deal remains to be done to make them truly useable. The sheer size of the collection and the complex processing it requires, as well as the heavy use its multiplicity of topics will inspire is a rather daunting prospect to the SSC's already busy staff. Some portions are in delicate shape and will require serious preservation measures. The SSC has already begun to seek grant monies to help us fully meet the commitment we have made to helping preserve YWCA history.

A recent YWCA annual report points out that the organization's "dual commitments to the personal growth of women and the creation of a just society have involved hundreds of thousands of women and spanned more than a century." The YWCA confronted early industrialists about working conditions, participated in the fight for suffrage, engaged in war relief work, sent over 800 workers overseas to address the conditions of women in other countries, participated in the civil rights movement, and in 1970 adopted its "One Imperative--to thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary." Through the incredible array of activism around these issues and many more, the YWCA has produced an unparalleled documentary resource for scholars. The SSC is proud to accept the responsibility of preserving and making this incredible resource accessible to future generations.

--Amy Hague


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