The Magazine

Not Your Grandma's YWCA

From the June 9, 2003 issue: A Christian organization in name only.

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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IN MID-MAY, Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women, assumed her new position as CEO of the Young Women's Christian Association. A small flurry of protests ensued, led by pro-family and conservative groups who charged that Ireland--an avowedly secular liberal and bisexual--was hardly fit to lead a Christian organization. But a glance at the recent history of the YWCA suggests that Ireland's appointment is less a departure than it is the culmination of a decades-long migration away from the YWCA's mainstream Protestant roots.

Many people think the YWCA's principal purpose is to manage gyms and swimming pools. In fact, the organization has always done advocacy work, reflecting its origins in the 19th-century Christian social service movement. The YWCA began in 1860 as a boardinghouse for working women in New York City; by 1900 there were Ys in over 100 cities.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, local chapters joined with other social service organizations to lobby for reforms designed to protect women and children. But since the 1960s, its advocacy has taken an increasingly liberal turn. Influenced by second-wave feminist activism, representatives of the Y were present at the founding of the National Abortion Rights Action League in the late 1960s, and the group vigorously supported the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s.

Today, the YWCA is in the midst of a multi-year reassessment. With nearly 70 percent of local chapters operating at a deficit and participation among the young at an all-time low, according to Advertising Age, its leaders have streamlined their national board and redefined their priorities. "Our mission is to empower women and girls and to eliminate racism," says the current statement of purpose, ". . . in order to attain a common vision: peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all people."

Another change was the decision to relocate the headquarters. "We moved the national office to Washington [this spring] to be closer to the Hill," says Audrey Peeples, chair of the organization's national coordinating board. "Are we doing this to usher in a new era of advocacy for the organization? Absolutely," she says. "And Ireland had such a wonderful record at NOW."

Advocacy, for the new Y, means promoting the standard feminist agenda: opposition to any restriction on abortion including parental notification, support for affirmative action across the board, and vigorous defense of Title IX requirements for college athletics. For good measure, the YWCA issued a statement denouncing the war in Iraq. Every year the organization joins forces with Lifetime Television for Women to decry "gun violence, violence linked to racism and bigotry, and violence in the media."

It turns out, then, that Patricia Ireland is a natural to head the new YWCA, an outfit whose rhetoric is indistinguishable from that of feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

One matter of organizational identity, however, remains in the balance: whether the Y will retain any token Christian affiliation. Partly to help settle this matter, the group recently hired Landor Associates, a consulting firm, to lead a major "rebranding" effort.

"I'm not the head of a Christian organization," Ireland told the New York Times soon after her appointment, "I'm the head of a social justice women's organization." Would the YWCA consider dropping "Christian" from its name? "That's what this branding effort will tell us," says Peeples. "Landor Associates is conducting focus groups and we'll go where the path leads us."

Whatever Landor recommends, a fundamental change of direction has already taken place. Historically, the YWCA's mission was firmly grounded in biblical morality. The Y mobilized volunteers who acted as surrogate parents for young women living away from home. Local chapters sponsored Bible studies and prayer groups as well as job training. In the 1890s, the Boston YWCA described its purpose as the careful tending of "the temporal, moral, and religious welfare of young women who are dependent on their own exertions for support."

To the growing ranks of girls working in factories, the YWCA offered respectable lodgings and opportunities to socialize. In the 1890s, YWCA chapters lobbied state lawmakers to raise the age of consent. During World War I, they deployed female physicians to communities near the Army's domestic training camps. Their mission? To "emphasize the responsibility of women and girls for right social standards" when they came into contact with male military recruits.