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

Ruth Frances Woodsmall (1883-1963)

Ruth Woodsmall, undated
Photograph by Pach Brothers Studio

Ruth Frances Woodsmall was born in Atlanta, Georgia on September 20, 1883, the daughter of Harrison S. Woodsmall, a lawyer and teacher and Mary Elizabeth Howes, an art teacher. She grew up in Indiana and attended local schools. She received her A.B. from University of Nebraska, 1905 and her A.M. from Wellesley, 1906. She worked as a high school English teacher and principal in Nevada and Colorado from 1906 to 1917. Between 1917 and 1928 she held various positions in the YWCA of the USA, including director of Hostess Houses in the U.S. and in France, 1917 to 1919, and from 1921 to 1928 she was Executive Secretary of YWCAs in the Near East. Based in Istanbul, she supervised branches in Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon and in 1923 her jurisdiction was expanded to Egypt and Palestine. From 1935 to 1948 Woodsmall served as General Secretary of the World’s YWCA.

From 1949 to 1952 Woodsmall was Chief of the Women’s Affairs Section of the U.S. High Commission for Occupied Germany, for which she received the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of West Germany. At the same, she did extensive research on the changing status of Muslim women in the Middle East and published several works including Eastern Women Today and Tomorrow (1933); Moslem Women Enter a New World (1936); Study of the Role of Women, Their Activities and Organizations in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria (1955); and Women and the New East (1960). In recognition of her work with women and international relations, she received honorary degrees from the University of Nebraska (1945) and the University of Indiana (1954). Ruth Woodsmall died in New York City on May 25, 1963.

View finding aid for Ruth Woodsmall Papers

Biographical note on Ruth Woodsmall from a tribute booklet published by the World YWCA, 1963

“I had no trouble finding the Y.W. - . Their center is some distance from the quay on the Rue des Roses which sounds better than it smells…. I found them in the throes of fighting bed bugs – Miss McFarland, the head of the staff,…greeted me with the tale of their difficulties and escorted me about to see how the fight was being conducted. On top of the roof of the verandah she had a man pouring boiling water on a cup board…which absolutely was alive with bugs…. I tried to jolly Miss McFarland up on the bug question and I believe encouraged her a bit by telling her to be sure to write some of the lurid details in her report to New York. A few of the difficulties like that are a rather good thing for the swivel chair artists at headquarters to know about. It makes more real the life of the secretary far afield.”

[Ruth Woodsmall to her sister Helen Woodsmall Eldredge, France, 7 May 1920]

“This afternoon we called on Mrs. Worthen, the wife of an American tobacco factory owner to get some information on the conditions, numbers, etc. of women in factories as there are a great many here and Miss Saunders had felt that there was a need here for a YWCA industrial center. We met Mr. Worthen but didn’t get very much satisfaction out of the interview, as he is quite typical of the American business man over here, interested in the business end of it and little else. Anything along the line of welfare work for the tobacco factory girls would in his opinion be wasted effort.”

[Ruth Woodsmall to her sister, 15 May 1920]

Girls in the garden of the Stamboul
Service Center, Constantinople, undated

“I have been awfully fortunate in being able to combine work with seeing and doing such interesting things. The main qualification for my kind of a job for the past 6 months has been, I think, the ability to travel without creature comforts, stand all sorts of uncertainties in travel, and enough curiosity to find out about the new places where I’ve been…. I wish you could see my passport. I think I told you that I have visas of every country except Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Russia….”

[Ruth Woodsmall to her sister, 7 August 1920]

Scrapbook from YWCA’s
Camp Happiness, Constantinople, Turkey, undated

“I’ve been in Constantinople now a little over a week and I’m beginning to feel quite settled in…. I have more of the feeling of being part of a family than I have had for a long time….”

[Ruth Woodsmall to her sister, 3 December 1920]

“The decrease in the number of American secretaries has been due…to a steady increase in local staff – each center having as one of the main objectives the training of local leaders and giving them a real job.…

…The present non-proselytizing policy in relation to Turkish girls must be followed…. [A] clear understanding of this basis is necessary for fairness to the supporting constituency in America, to the secretaries in the Near East, to the Turkish girls in the Service Centers and to the Turkish government with which the organization hopes to work harmoniously.”

[Ruth Woodsmall, “Report of the YWCA in the Near East from March 1919 to January 1924”]

Cotton factory workers at YWCA cafeteria, Adana, Cilicia (Turkey)
Note on reverse: “A small group of many who came to this
unique YWCA Cafeteria for lunch every day from a cotton factory.”

“Within the past year since January 1923 the YWCA and Y.M.C.A., since the two are usually confused, have several times had adverse publicity in the Turkish press…. This has been instigated doubtless by some radical pro-Turkish policy as well as by the very radical pro-Moslem group. An attack on a foreign organization is a rather good appeal and has good news value…. [This problem] as far as concerns the people of the country resolves itself very largely into a matter of personal cultivation…. A concentrated effort is therefore being made to enlarge the circle of our friends among the various local nationalities, particularly among the Turks, since they were more reserved and harder to know.”

[Ruth Woodsmall, “Report of the YWCA in the Near East from March 1919 to January 1924”]

Oriental Carpet Factory, Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey
Note on reverse reads: “The majority of the girls in this picture are members or use our Center. They are Greeks and Armenians and a few Turks…Probably the best working conditions obtain in this factory. It is financed by American interests.”

“The chief liabilities or obstacles [of the present situation] are the complexity of nationality which constantly multiplies each effort by a coefficient of at least three – Armenian, Greek, Turk; the keen racial and religious antagonisms; the language barriers; the lack of any civic consciousness; the lack of any patriotic appeal; the suspicious official attitude toward all foreign effort; the result of the Allies’ lack of solidarity and their individualistic aims; the suspicious attitude toward a Christian organization…. The chief assets or positive factors in the development of the YWCA…[are] the friendly personal attitude of the Turks toward Americans; the unquestioned need for the YWCA for all nationalities in the Near East and the eager response of the girls; the ripeness of the opportunity since Turkey is at the beginning of a new Era and the evolution of women of the Near East, which makes a very special call upon the YWCA to have a part in guiding and developing the girls of the Near East for their lives of larger freedom.”

[Ruth Woodsmall, “Report of the YWCA in the Near East from March 1919 to January 1924”]

“…I have been giving every minute of my time to a social survey... and in addition getting ideas on the changing social conditions due to the radical reforms Turkey has been making since 1923… I’ve visited numerous institutions and interviewed all sorts of people - Greek priest, Greek doctors, Armenian Archbishop, Greek and Armenian teachers, Turkish doctors, lawyers, women leaders….”

Letter from Ruth Woodsmall to Helen Woodsmall Eldredge, Constantinople, 17 October 1926

Ruth Woodsmall’s travel itinerary, September 1928 to December 1929

“We, the Young Women’s Christian Association, stand in a position of tremendous responsibility and priceless privilege because our Association Ideal, fellowship, represents the possibility of the exemplification of the new orientation which is needed between the East and the West. The old imperialism and economic domination are passing…. Women of the East and West today,…have a sense of common problems,…a sense of common quest.”

[Ruth Woodsmall, “The Changing Life of Eastern Woman,” in Women and Leadership,
compiled by Mary S. Sims and Rhoda E. McCulloch (NY: The Womans Press, 1938)]

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