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Logo of the YWCA of India

“An Ever-Widening Circle of Friendship”:
YWCA Overseas Secretaries from China to Liberia

Bessie Boies Cotton (1880-1959)

Bessie Boies Cotton in YWCA uniform, circa 1917
Photograph by Underwood and Underwood.

Bessie Boies began her work with the YWCA of the USA in 1910. In 1917, Russian women within the Kerensky Provisional Government invited the YWCA to help working women, recently granted full civil rights, to organize themselves for their new role in society. Boies and one other secretary set up the first association in Petrograd. With a growing staff of specialists, they established an association in Moscow and worked with women’s groups in other cities. With the YMCA, they operated a shipboard exhibition along the Volga River, demonstrating improved nutrition, childcare, and farming methods to villagers. The political upheavals as the Bolsheviks seized control, the danger of German invasion after March 1918, and the Allied intervention in northern Russia in support of the anti-Bolsheviks led to the expulsion of all Americans. Boies made her way through Stockholm to Archangel where she set up box-car canteens for U.S. troops. While in Russia she met Thomas Cotton and they were married in 1919 (they were divorced in 1938). In 1921, after returning to the U.S., Bessie Cotton was appointed foreign staff secretary, responsible for seeking out candidates for foreign service, planning their training, and supervising their work abroad. Although she retired in 1940, she continued to work as a YWCA consultant. Her last years were devoted to peace and women’s rights through membership in a number of organizations.

View finding aid for Bessie Boies Cotton Papers

Russian Pamphlet, undated
(translation: “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” Lithographs from life by U.K. Artsybushek, Moscow)
Postcard of Russian soldiers marching in the street, 1917

“The town has certainly got some more pock marks & at every noise people point all nervous & figgety. Tramways worse than ever. People think the demonstrations showed the weakness of the Bolsheviks. Few soldiers marched. Mostly women tramcar conductors. Drove down town, signs of bloodshed around the university. Talk of the various Embass[ies] going. Scares me for I suppose we couldn’t fight it out & stay. It would be terrible if we lose this whole year’s work.”

[Diary entry, Petrograd, 11-24 January 1918]

Postcard showing the effects of street
fighting in Moscow, undated
YWCA War Work Bulletin with article:
“From Miss Boies in Moscow,” April 1918

“I have very distinct remembrances of the histories of some of our attempts to cooperate with the Y.M.C.A. but the men over here are of a different kind…Most of the malcontents are down at Samara or else they have skipped the country by now. I have no patience with them. Goodness just look at their opportunity for work here, and they want to get home. The…five who are left here are going to stay. I thought at first that I ought not to come over here, and that I might be under obligations to them. But the scores of buttons I have sewed on and the stockings darned is evening things up a bit.”

[Bessie Boies to YWCA of the USA General Secretary Mabel Cratty, 4 March 1918]

Volga expedition exhibit of good and bad methods of baby care, June-July 1918

Marcia Dunham, Bessie Boies, and Katherine Childs (front row, left to right) with other Volga expedition workers, summer 1918

“[The Volga trip] extended the YWCA’s influence from the cities to the peasant villages, widening the circle of friendship. An international YWCA could be realized if the "Association spirit" reached all women…A peasant girl could move from her Association to another in the city; the YWCA was her extended family.”

[Elizabeth Leighton, “A Woman’s Mission to Revolutionary Russia: Bessie Boies Cotton and the Young Women Christian Association” (honors thesis, Mount Holyoke College, 1983)]

Datebook entries, Petrograd, October 1918

“Bessie believed that foreign secretaries who wanted to help the Russians must be ‘willing to stay, and learn the language, live and learn and share their lives with the Russian people.’”

[Elizabeth Leighton, “A Woman’s Mission to Revolutionary Russia: Bessie Boies Cotton and the Young Women Christian Association”]

Entrance to the YWCA Girls Club, Moscow, undated

“On August 25, 1918, the Y.M.C.A. and YWCA secretaries finally obeyed the Consul’s repeated orders to evacuate to Stockholm…Reluctantly, Bessie accepted this break in the YWCA’s international circle of women…No longer in control of the YWCA’s mission, Bessie doubted her abilities to take on…war work with the American soldiers…[She] returned to New York to search in vain for a way to maintain YWCAs in Russia despite the U.S. action. To her dismay, U.S. – Soviet hostility took precedence over whatever personal commitment the YWCA had to the Russian women and prevented the secretaries from extending the hand of friendship….”

[Elizabeth Leighton, “A Woman’s Mission to Revolutionary Russia: Bessie Boies Cotton and the Young Women Christian Association”]

Group singalong at the Russian YWCA, Moscow, undated

“A young girl hasn’t a desire for a life independent of her husband. She becomes absorbed in his life. But you see I have already a strong character and just as you would not be content to have nothing but your home life so I have got to feel that I am of some use in the world outside of my home and family…you assured me you could keep me busy but you missed the point entirely.”

[Bessie Boies to Thomas Cotton, 9 March 1919]

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