How Did the Portland YWCA Enhance the Lives of Women, 1901-2000?


Invitation image here

Documents selected and interpreted by
Patricia A. Schechter, with assistance
Portland State University
Spring 2002

       The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) has its roots in Anglo-American evangelicalism and in the growth of the middle class in the nineteenth century. Women in the United States played a range of roles in the consolidation of this organization. Much of the YWCA's leadership came from educated and leisured women whose roots were in mainline Protestant church networks and who were interested in spreading the Gospel and doing Christian good works. Constituents and staff came from working women and college students seeking fellowship as well as from new professional social workers, teachers, and reformers with visions of social change. Women in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio built Association boarding houses, training schools, and day nurseries in the decades before the YWCA incorporated into a national organization in 1907, with its new headquarters in New York City.[1]

       Portland, Oregon's YWCA was founded in 1901. The founding Board was made up of women from some of the most economically and politically prominent white families in the city: Corbett, Failing, Ladd, and Honeyman. Like most "city associations," as they were called before national incorporation, protective outreach to working women in the downtown area was a priority. The Portland YWCA ran its early programs out of rented rooms, and included a dormitory, a visiting parlor, meeting rooms, and classroom space available to members or to paying customers. The YWCA built its first permanent building downtown in 1908. While the YWCA was one of the few organizations that did not turn away women of color looking for food and lodging in this period, public accommodations in Portland tended towards racial exclusion before the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.[2] As the web site images and text discussions make clear, African-American and Asian-American women had somewhat limited access to Portland YWCA services.

       The photographic record documented in this exhibit does not exactly match the Portland YWCA's program history or its political history. If researchers only had the photographs to tell the story of the organization, they might conclude that sunsets at Camp Westwind were the most important fact in its 100-year-history, since camping is one of the best documented aspects of YWCA life. In many ways, the photograph collection actually represents the public relations record of the YWCA, at least until about 1970; up to that time one or two professional photography studios in Portland were consistently employed by the organization to take pictures. The pictures kept in the archives tend to focus on activities of the downtown building rather than those of the numerous branches. An interesting dimension is offered in this web site by the inclusion of some newspaper images. Our researchers frequently reflected on the differences between the in-house, posed YWCA images and those photographs that reporters generated and printed. In the most general sense, the YWCA created images that accented harmony and order within the organization and the media tended to be drawn to images that triggered mainstream cultural notions of "difference."

       This virtual exhibit is organized around important themes and historical epochs of YWCA work. The Programs section is the largest section, and it documents the bulk of outreach, service, education, and social outlets provided by the organization. Program themes include sports, clubs, music, health, and employment. In all its programs, the YWCA sought to instill Christian faith and social comportment in keeping with its "ideals of womanliness and modesty." After World War II, secularization, suburbanization, the expansion of higher education, and a dropping 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 1970s, 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.

       The work of African-American women and of Asian-American women is documented in two separate sections to adequately capture the community and historical contexts of their YWCA participation. Their activities and concerns, however, are by no means confined to these sections. YWCA activity was one among many religious, benevolent, and educational undertakings by urban black women in the early twentieth century, and Portland's small black community was no exception to this pattern of association. Unfortunately, the Williams Avenue Center that served northeast Portland through the 1950s was sold in 1959. Asian-American women also were actively involved in the Portland YWCA. Supported by a dynamic local Japanese American Citizens' League (founded in 1928), Japanese-American women found in the YWCA a means of integration and support in their ongoing work of community building. Japanese-American women found also in the YWCA support in their resistance to internment during World War II.

       World War II is treated as a turning point because of the momentous changes wrought by the war in the city of Portland as well as the YWCA at the local and national levels. A key to this change was the phenomenal movement of people resulting from migration, employment, enlistment, and incarceration. Oregon witnessed tremendous human mobilization in the shipyards, the military, and internment camps and most of this activity touched Portland directly. Under these conditions, the Portland YWCA tried to offer kindness, flexibility, and support to African Americans and Japanese Americans.

       As the above three sections demonstrate, issues of racial and cultural differences were central for the Portland YWCA throughout the twentieth century. A section is dedicated to the themes of religion, race, and reform in order to grapple with these issues. The YWCA's purpose to "build a fellowship of women and girls" meant negotiating the inclusive and exclusive aspects of the organization's religious basis for membership. On the exclusive side, "fellowship" by definition excluded non-Protestants for most of the twentieth century. On the inclusive side, the religious basis could bridge barriers of age, class, and to some extent, race and culture.

       The exhibit dedicates a section to building construction because physically establishing female space was a priority for the YWCA everywhere.  Female-only space carried great import for the YWCA's social and evangelical mission. Buildings allowed for the protection of women and girls from the vagaries of social dislocation and economic change. Buildings and meeting space helped YWCA leaders to gather women together in order to spread the Gospel across lines of age, class, and neighborhood. The Portland YWCA, like other YWCAs all over the country, created a home-like environment without men from which women could exercise authority in the public sphere in an era of restrictions on female citizenship and mobility.

       Finally, the Oregon story would not be complete without a section on camping and the outdoors. YWCA camping aimed to gently challenge the cultural constraints on young women and girls' physical movement and personal development. The Portland YWCA also sought to ease class divisions and racial prejudice by fostering solidarity and friendship across social boundaries at camp. Camp thus nurtured alternate forms of camaraderie and friendship among women.

       The rich materials behind "A World of Difference: Portland Women of the YWCA, 1901-2000" are contained in the private archives of the YWCA of Greater Portland. Through a community partnership between the YWCA and Portland State University, undergraduate students went through these archives over a six-year period. Students amplified their archival research by doing oral history interivews with community women and by seeking out materials in the Oregon Historical Society. The National YWCA archives supplied further documentation via inter-library loans of microfilm.[3]

       This on-line exhibit represents the last in a series of public history incarnations of "A World Of Difference." Beginning in 1996, student researchers shared their findings with the community in a series of annual public forums, usually in a panel discussion format with a small exhibit of photographs mounted on display boards. We sometimes held these forums during Women's History Month at the various Portland YWCA branches. In November 2001, a major exhibit of these materials was installed at the Littman Gallery at Portland State University. The opening capped the YWCA of Greater Portland's Centennial Celebration year, and was accompanied by a conference with a student panel, workshop, and film. The exhibit is touring the state of Oregon during 2002-2003.

       For more information about this community-based learning project, please see our links below or contact Patricia A. Schechter, Associate Professor of History, Portland State University, 503-725-3007.

1. For "in-house" YWCA general histories, see Elsie Harper, The Past is Prelude: Fifty Years of Social Action in the YWCA (New York: National Board of the YWCA, 1963); Mary Sims, A Natural Histoyr of a Social Institution -- The YWCA (New York: J. J. Little and Ives, 1935); and Mary Sims, The YWCA -- An Unfolding Purpose (New York: Woman's Press, 1950). For a recent scholarly perspective, see Judith Weisenfeld, African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1997).
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2. For the Portland YWCA story, see Mary Osborn Douthit, ed., "The Young Women's Christian Association," in The Souvenir of Western Women (Portland: Presses of Anderson & Duniway, 1905). For Portland in general at the turn of the century, see E. Kimbark MacColl, The Shaping of a City (Portland: Georgian Press, 1976).
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3. Unless otherwise noted, the images in this exhibit are drawn from the photograph collection of the Portland YWCA Archives. Please also note that the archive is a closed, private collection, and is not currently accessible to scholars or researchers.
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