Portland YWCA Programs & Outreach
How Did the Portland YWCA's Outreach to Women and Girls Change over the Course of the Twentieth Century?
Research by Sinnamon Harris and Nancy Hungerford-Levine
The YWCA's early mission focused on the young women and girls who occupied new social spaces in the industrializing cities of the United States, especially factory workers, retail clerks, and college students. Most outreach focused on white, native-born, Protestant women, although African-American women were consistent participants as leaders and members in their own communities. The YWCA was a pro-woman, evangelical organization, self-described as the "handmaiden of the church." Rather than adopt a political or feminist stance, the YWCA positioned itself as a friend, mother, or big sister to women and girls in need. The organization drew on both the new "social gospel" popular in Protestant America before World War I, which accented an applied, practical Christianity, as well as on older Protestant traditions of women teaching women and of "home" missionary activity in the major denominations.
Always pressed for cash, the Portland YWCA made outreach pay. Classes, job placement, and lodging were available on a fee-for-service basis. Clubs also had membership fees and, in exchange, provided peer support and access to YWCA resources. In all its programs, the YWCA sought to instill Christian faith and social comportment in keeping with its "ideals of womanliness and modesty." Protestant church membership was required for full voting rights in the YWCA. Interaction with boys and men was highly regulated, with a no-alcohol policy on the premises that is still in place today.
After World War II, secularization, suburbanization, the expansion of higher education, and a declining marriage-age for middle class white women drew off the YWCA's historic constituency. The Civil Rights and women's movements revitalized the YWCA nationally, but as this site explains, Portland's established leadership struggled with the challenges these movements posed. Instead, during the 1960s and 70s, Portland's YWCA embraced not activism, but social service to new constituencies: senior citizens, disabled persons, girls and teens in need, and families in the crises of homelessness or abuse. However, new executive director Jean DeMaster has recently affirmed the Portland YWCA's activist mission. "We don't think of ourselves as a social service organization, but as a social change organization." Many in Portland eagerly anticipate the YWCA's revitalization in its second century.