Skip to main contentSSC Home Smith College Libraries

SSC Home  |  Contact us  |  Search site  

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

Logo of the YWCA of India


The materials in this exhibit were selected from the personal papers of five American women who worked overseas for the Young Women’s Christian Association: Bessie Boies Cotton, Virginia Heim George, Ruth Lois Hill, Elmina R. Lucke, and Ruth Frances Woodsmall. They worked across the world in Brazil, Colombia, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, India, Liberia, Pakistan, Peru, Russia, Taiwan, Turkey, and the United States. These personal documents describe in intimate and informal ways, the impressions, ideas, and activities of American women exposed to radically different cultures.

“Other countries are suffering from the evils of our western civilization…. So we should share with them the leaven of our civilization.”

[Speakers Hand Book, 1921 Edition, issued by the National Speakers Bureau of the YWCAs]

Additional information about the work of the YWCA, these women, and their co-workers can be found in the historical records of the YWCA of the USA. For more information about the YWCA and for collections of other overseas secretaries, see Additional Sources.


“Between 1885 and 1970 over eight hundred American YWCA women – teachers, administrators, and social workers – served overseas in over thirty countries. Posted in refugee camps in Poland, in the slums of Buenos Aires and Istanbul, and in villages in rural China, they kept in touch with the home office in New York by mail and…telegram…. As emissaries for Christ and part of the ‘great era’ in Protestant missions, the Secretaries gave a high priority to work with women….

“Recent observers… point out that missionaries… often condoned exploitive practices, including gunboat diplomacy and outright war. They fault the missionaries for exerting a more subtle, yet in some respects more destructive power, importing Western practices and values under the guise of an alleged universal truth – Christianity – that disrupted the social patterns and created a sense of inferiority…. Though related to the woman’s foreign mission movement, YWCA women recognized that they were set apart…. From the start, the YWCA declared its independence from sectarian Christianity and interpreted the Gospel in its broadly social goals…. The women’s missionary societies were tied to the male-dominated church boards…. The YWCA, responsible only to its own membership, was free to set its own policies and carry them out in its own way apart from male opinion and male control…. In 1920 it dropped its requirement for membership in the Protestant evangelical churches, …opening the way to the full participation of…Catholic women and, eventually, women of all faiths.

Mildred Owen in China, circa 1925.
From the album of Grace Steinbeck
(YWCA of the USA Records)

“[YWCA overseas Secretaries] introduced Western ideas on free speech, public education, equal access to legal protection and health services. If they were ‘cultural imperialists’ in exporting the uniquely Western idea that women should be leaders, …in introducing Western views on sanitation and medicine that helped eradicate disease, …in opposing foot-binding, suttee, child marriage, and other practices that crippled and demeaned women, they gladly claimed the title…. In the early days of the YWCA, however, the women themselves were divided between those who identified women primarily as persons and those who stressed their prior dark side of the overemphasis on women as wife and mother…. In reflecting on their own roles… YWCA women, like the suffragists, raised questions that anticipated those of the feminism of a later era.

Delhi School for Social Work class of 1950 studying
welfare methods in Bombay (Elmina Lucke Papers)

“The YWCA Secretary was not to be confused with the office worker. Secretaries were executives, leaders who shared in the visionary scope of volunteers…. Work in a local Association was generally a prerequisite for foreign service…. At the same time more was expected of Foreign Secretaries…The YWCA wanted ‘only picked women of the first class who shall be ready for positions of leadership’.”

[Nancy Boyd, Emissaries: The Overseas Work of the American YWCA, 1895-1970 (NY : Womans Press, 1986)]


These collections are open for the use of the public. All items in this exhibit are owned by the Sophia Smith Collection. Copyright of materials may be held by the author or their heirs or assigns.

The materials available on this website are for research only. Publication and/or broadcast in any form (including electronic) requires permission from the Sophia Smith Collection and the appropriate copyright holder.

For more information on obtaining permissions and how to cite materials, see Terms of Use.

Original exhibit curated by
Amy Hague and Tricia Brooks (Class 1990)
Web exhibit designed by Jennifer Smar (Class 2006), Margy Jessup, and Maida Goodwin

© 2008 Sophia Smith Collection

Back to top

Go to next exhibit page

Exhibit Home | Introduction | Cotton |George | Hill | Lucke | Woodsmall | Additional sources

Contact us | Search our site | Site map | Terms of use Smith College Libraries  |  Smith College Home Page
 © 2008 Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063 Page last updated on Wednesday, 22 October 2014