Portland YWCA Programs & Outreach

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Programs: Girl Reserves & Clubs

Research by Jodelle Mistretta and Melanie Wright

Girl Reserves Ring Ceremony
Camera Club, 1920s

       The vital heart of the Portland YWCA was its club system. Clubs were voluntary associations of women and girls, often based in neighborhoods, schools, or by interest. Clubs fostered female solidarity, friendship, Christian faith, and civic-mindedness. Through clubs, YWCA staff and volunteers provided guidance to girls and young women in everything from bible study to career tips.


Business Girls' Conference, c. 1930

       The most popular and successful YWCA club program was the Girl Reserves, begun in 1918 to foster patriotic war work. After the war, the Reserves grew exponentially, with thousands of Portland junior high and high school girls joining in the 1920s and 1930s. The club system, including the Reserves, was the main way in which the YWCA accommodated the needs of women and girls of color. African-American, Japanese, and Chinese girls organized themselves into Reserves, often finding a sponsor among women in their churches or schools to guide and encourage them.


Y-Teens Spring Formal, 1950s
       While the YWCA leadership marketed itself as the "Best Big Sister in the World," documents show persistent efforts to keep up with the "restlessness of the younger girls" who always were one step ahead of the board.[1] After World War II, many young peoples' interest in single-sex and religious activities waned. YWCA staff members tried accomodate and direct these youths' needs by changing the Girl Reserves to the Y-Teens, which focused more on co-ed activities and socializing.

       Adult women's clubs were less systematic and rather more wide-ranging than programs for youth. Women sought outlets ranging from bridge and sewing to travel, from business and professional networking to religious study, from cultural enrichment to world missions. Today, the YWCA offers space for female networking in Portland through its Leadership Luncheon and Feminine Finance programs, striving to keep a wide range of dynamic women in the city linked and coordinated in their professional and volunteer work.


1. "Best Big Sister in the World" is a phrase printed on a fundraising poster, visible in a photograph dated 1919. See Portland YWCA Archives, photograph collection, box 1, file AD-2-2. On the "restlessness" of YWCA girls, see Young Adult Department Committee Minutes, 10 February 1947, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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