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Y.W.C.A.: Brief History of Service in Times of War


Symbol of the Young Women's Christian Association: a triangle pointing downward inside a circle with the letters Y. W. C. A. Four wars in a lifetime of eighty-six years is the record so far of the Y.W.C.A. This international fellowship of women, sworn to the task of applying to daily life the ideals of the Christian religion, was born of one conflict and it was learned early that those ideals must be expressed in terms of each day’s need.

In 1855 when the Y.W.C.A. was founded in England its first practical job was to find homes for nurses returning from the Crimean war; which incidentally, saw also the founding of the Red Cross. When the American Association was founded near the close of the Civil War its first task was to tackle the problems of women whom the industrial development had made “dependent on their own exertions for support.” World War I inspired the Y.W.C.A. to form a war work council of its own, and this council later cooperated with seven national agencies in the United War Work Campaign. In logical sequence comes the participation of the Y.W.C.A. in the joint effort of the six agencies that form the U.S.O.

In one particular the Y.W.C.A. war service of 1917 differs from that of 1942. Then the Y.W.C.A. operated hostess houses on camp grounds as well as in large manufacturing areas. Today it operates U.S.O. centers close by camps, near navy yards, and in the big industrial defense areas. Now as then, while doing its share for the men in uniform, it never forgets that its main purpose is to supply the needs of women and girls—wives and families of service men, workers in cantonment areas and in war industries, nurses and employees at military posts, and others directly affected by the emergency needs of the nation. The program included recreation; education in health, nutrition, first aid, and other essential subjects, counsel on personal problems, and spiritual guidance.

"Emerging forces of community leadership" A woman points at a display as she appears to be explaining something to a man and another womanHeading the Y.W.C.A. in its cooperative effort with the U.S.O. are Mrs. Henry A. Ingraham, president of the National Board of the Y.W.C.A. and vice-president of the U.S.O.; Miss Emma P. Hirth, executive secretary of the Y.W.C.A. and a member of the executive committee of the U.S.O.; and Miss Genevieve Lowry, correlator of the Y.W.C.A. acitivites in the U.S.O. Throughout the country the Y.W.C.A. maintains directors and assistant directors in its U.S.O. centers. At the close of the year 1941 this staff numbered 155 operating in 92 centers in 75 different localities. Twenty-one of these centers were exclusively for Negroes.

While the immediate war effort of the Y.W.C.A. is now being channeled through the U.S.O., the grand total of its 990 permanent Associations and centers and 329 residences is at the disposal of the nation. This represents the contribution of 104,903 volunteers and 2,544 professional women, serving a total constituency in the United States of 2,625,968 women and girls.


The Jobs in Which They Are Engaged

Women as workers are involved in almost every phase of the national war preparation. They have been hired to fill office positions in various industries working on war orders. They are employed in large numbers at manual jobs in powder plants, ammunition factories, arsenals, airplane factories, factories making gas masks, parachutes, time-bomb fuses, instrument factories and assembly plants, etc.

According to a pamphlet “Effective Industrial Use of Women in the Defense Program,” issued by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, there are certain types of manual work required in war industries that women do particularly well, such as:

Work requiring care and constant alertness, keen eyesight, and use of light instruments, such as gages, micrometers, verniers calipers—work calling for little physical exertion. These are characteristics of such jobs as inspection of castings, machinings and finished parts; of routine powder analysis; of testing electrical equipment.

Work which requires manipulative dexterity and speed but which permits the individual to set her own tempo and work in a sitting position. These are characteristics of bench work calling for laying out work for machine operators, operating very small and irregular parts, assembling delicate instruments and machines, loading shells, filling powder bags.

Work requiring skill but little strength, either in handling parts or setting up machines. These are characteristics of drilling machines, lathes, milling machines, grinding and polishing machines operating on small parts.

Operating large machines when such work, whether done by men or women, requires the use of lifting devices and pneumatic chucks.

Another and very large group of women war workers are those employed in army camps and naval bases as nurses, clerks, and laundresses.

A fourth group are women and girls who come from near and far to take jobs with regular businesses in the so-called “boom-towns”—towns in or near newly established or recently expanded war plants and army and navy bases. The largest number of such workers are waitresses in cafes and restaurants. There are also many clerks, stenographers, sales people, etc.

General Problems of Women War Industry Workers 

In general, the problems these workers face and which the U.S.O. is establishing constructive programs to meet, are as follows:Everytown U.S.A. Women's Work is Just Begun

1.Difficulty in finding decent housing facilities.

2.Crowded living with other women and girls in the same room, which is proving unhealthy physically and morally.

3.Low salaries and the increasingly high cost of living that makes their salaries little more than subsistence wages.

4.Nervous and physical exhaustion, due to dangerous jobs, pressure on the job, long hours, and work six and seven days a week.

5.Complete lack of any proper social environment and opportunity to meet and make friends.

6.Inadequate or no opportunities for physical recreation and mental stimulus in the communities in which they are living.

7.Absence of any family member or friend with whom they can discuss problems or get guidance and advice on personal problems.

8.Living in environments that foster the lowering of moral standards.

9.Adverse effect of war hysteria on their health and normal standards of living.


In almost every camp or war industry area where women and girls are working, there is a housing shortage. So acute is it in some places that workers have to drive as much as one hundred miles a day to get to and from their homes. Many have given up their jobs because the strain of such transportation added to the tension of their work is too great.

Where the worker does live in or near the town in which she is employed she faces problems of a different nature. Rooms, when they are available, are likely to be high priced; that is, in relation to her salary. Cases have been reported where several girls not only share the same room but the same bed, as well. The girls work in three shifts at a local plant and sleep in three shifts.

In some towns radio stations have broadcast regular appeals to local families to rent rooms to these war workers as a patriotic duty. Nevertheless, there are still many places where landladies refuse to make their rooms available to single girls, especially if they are waitresses in cafes.

Many of these waitresses are forced to live four and five in one room over the café in which they work. In most cases that is the only way they can afford to live, for the pay of waitresses in many of these war areas averages from $5 to $7 a week, augmented by very small tips. When it was pointed out to one café owner that the girls couldn’t live on these salaries, his answer was: “They can work the streets at night and make more money that way, so why should I raise them?”

Incomes are Low

Contrary to the general impression, war industry salaries, especially for women workers, are not high. A survey of twenty-four industries in which both men and women are engaged, showed that women’s wages averaged under $20 a week.

Women workers in a plant for the bag-loading of powder make 40 cents an hour, 45 cents on night shifts. Laundresses working in army camps average from $15 to $17.50 a week. The salaries of waitresses working in cafes in war industry areas range, as already stated, from $5 to $7, plus very small tips.

The rate of pay for women working as clerks in quartermasters’ drafting offices, army posts, etc., is form $105 to $120, with no privileges except permission to buy food at the post exchange. The Army makes no provision for their food, clothes, transportation or medical care. Only Army nurses get these essentials. Even such trained workers as X-ray technicians must provide their own.

Cost of Living is High 

In almost every so-called war area prices have risen and are now going sky-high.

Landladies in many sections are justly accused of profiteering. They not only charge high rents, but also refuse to allow roomers to cook or do laundry on the premises. An army camp laundress (earning between $15 and $17.50 a week) was cited. She was paying $9.00 a week for a far from luxurious room with no “privileges.” In another case a girl told of paying that same amount for a furnished room in the rear of a store; because the room was on a fire escape she had to sleep with her door open.

A case of two girls working at Ft. Bragg and living in Fayetteville ten miles away is typical of this high-cost-of-living situation. Their landlady charges them $30 a month for one room, which they share. They have the use of a bathroom, which is also used by three other girls and two boys. The landlady refuses to let them do any laundry or cooking in the house. These girls says laundry costs them $4 a week and food $1.35 a day (this is a so-called “boom-town” where prices have gone way up). Dry cleaning amounts to $5 or $6 a month. And their fare to Ft. Bragg (if they have a book of tickets) is 30 cents a day. Added up, an average month’s expenses of these items come to about $103. All this must come out of a salary that ranges from $105 to $120 a month.

It is estimated that after these women and girl war workers pay for necessities of life and transportation to and from jobs, they have less actual cash at the end of the month than the $21 a month selectee who gets clothes, food, housing, medical care, equipment for his job, transportation to and from camp and cigarettes for 4 cents a package.

Furthermore, women war workers have no margin of security. It is impossible to save on their present pay and with the existing high living costs. Many are members of families who have been rendered destitute by the depression.

What the U.S.O. Is Doing to Help

In every section where U.S.O. has set up a club or unit one of the first problems they tackle is housing. Their approach to the problem is to find out the individual needs of the workers in thisWomen work with the U.S.O. respect and what can be done to put facilities at their disposal. Where the situation is acute, the U.S.O. directors have gone so far as to visit and appeal in person to local families to make their spare rooms available to women and girl workers. Some local directors also try to use their influence to bring room-rent prices down to fairer levels. Later, when the U.S.O. Service Clubs buildings, now planned or in construction in some areas, are completed, living facilities will be offered defense workers within many of these buildings. Until that time, however, the Y.W.C.A.-U.S.O. workers are trying to meet the immediate pressing need by serving as a “clearing house” for information on available housing facilities, whenever possible.

For those who have no more than a furnished room to call home the U.S.O. tries to offer a restful, homelike place at their local headquarters where girls and women can come at the end of a hard day to sit, chat and relax; where they can make friends, meet and entertain their men and women friends, if they do have any, and gradually come to feel that they have a place in community life.


Factors Contributing to the Need for Recreation

"New Hobbies for Wives" Women appear to be making crafts or sewingWomen and girl war workers are in acute need of a constructive and inexpensive or free program of recreational activities.

The jobs of many are long and tiring. All work six and some seven days a week. Others work on night shifts. Many are working fifty-four hours a week. Girls report weariness or even exhaustion.

A girl working in an electrical plant now handling war orders marks the contrast between former and present conditions in a letter written to the Y.W.C.A.: “We were a merry lot of people before the national emergency came into effect. We had our work to do, but at the same time we had a breathing spell where we could get up, move around and stretch a bit as the saying goes, and have a short chat with one of the girls or boys. Then we would get back to our work again. At the end of the day we were not too tired to go out and enjoy ourselves or attend our union activities, but now that has all changed. Everything is speed now and more speed. Every job is marked ‘rush,’ and when you finish that one you will get another and another…Accidents are increasing, the worker is tired, he or she gets careless… Everybody is taking it out on somebody else. They don’t mean it, but they’re all keyed up and it relieves their minds to let off steam…That is how National Defense is affecting me and my coworkers. It’s not that we don’t want to do our work…but we also believe there is a limit to human endurance.”

Girls working in ordnance plants, sometimes seven days a week, were asked if they minded the long hours. They replied: “We’re pretty tired, but he (presumably the foreman) says we’re helping to beat Hitler, so it’s OK with us.”

Many girl workers, away from home for the first time, are living miserable and often dangerous environment due to a lack of proper housing facilities.

Two, three and four girls are living in one room, often sleeping in the same bed when they work on different shifts. They have no privacy nor place in which to relax, read, meet or entertain friends—if they have any friends. Being away from home, hundreds suffer from loneliness.

Barracks now being erected by government to house 500 girls in one war industry area, have no provision for food and not a single lounge room; only sleeping quarters are provided.

The fact that many girls and women have gone to strange towns to work means they are without friends or family. One girl working in a government arsenal in the middle west said that she didn’t even know the name of the girl working next to her. The strict supervision placed over employees by the head of the department was intended to discourage friendships among co-workers.

Average pay checks give no leeway for recreational expenditures, they just allow basic necessities. Salaries of women war workers, according to a survey of twenty-four industries, average $20 a week. Living expenses are high. In most “boom-towns” in which they are working landladies are profiteering and prices for everything else have sky-rocketed. The situation makes it financially impossible for most workers to spend anything for recreation or entertainment.

Many workers travel as much as one hundred miles to and from their jobs because of a housing shortage in towns where they work, leaving little time for recreational pursuits.

Complete lack or inadequate amount of recreational opportunities for workers is found in many sections. In industrial areas, “boom-towns” have mushroomed and there has been no time or thought given to providing means for entertainment. In well-established towns near army camps, on the other hand, girls say they do not want to go to the usual places of entertainment because they and every other part of the town are over-run with men, lounging and smoking.

Clerical workers in one industrial town said that bingo games were the only form of entertainment in town they could afford. “Who wants to go to bingo all the time?” they complained. “If we want any other kind of entertainment we are forced to do things that are below our standards.”

What the U.S.O. is Doing to Meet Recreational Needs

U.S.O. is offering a wide variety of hobbies and entertainment for workers and also a healthy, normal environment in which to enjoy them. The program is designed to stimulate the creative "Traveling Library Facilities" Two women look at a book in a library settingtalents of the girls and thus provide them with an enduring and absorbing form of recreation.

Clubs frequently provide attractively furnished lounges, where women can come to read, relax, chat, entertain old friends, and make new ones.       Many clubs are able to supply books and magazines, music, arts and crafts, equipment for card playing, table games, and occasionally badminton, tennis, swimming, etc.

U.S.O. provides opportunities for social activities by arranging teas, picnics, candy pulls, dances, Sunday afternoon informal parties, concerts, roller-skating parties, etc. The workers’ appreciation and enthusiasm for such activities is evidenced by a case in Rock Island, Ill. One U.S.O. club planned a picnic for girls working in the government arsenal. They expected between 40 and 60. Two hundred arrived and were so enthusiastic that they asked for more such affairs.

A group of women and two men gather around a piano singing. "Song when they need it"In many cases the U.S.O. organizes group activities—in dramatics, sewing, book discussions, singing, and the like. In one town in North Carolina an Early Birds’ Club has been formed for girls who arrive in town so early in the morning that their places of business are not open and they have no place to go. Now they go to the U.S.O. and once a month they have a coffee and doughnut party.

Local volunteers are often drawn into these activities and help to arrange and run them. This is one means of interpreting U.S.O. efforts into the social and recreational life of the community. In Portsmouth, N.H., a woman who was opposed to the U.S.O. changed her attitude after she participated in its work. At first she was opposed to anything being done for war industry workers, feeling very strongly that U.S.O. should confine its efforts to enlisted men. She now cooperates even to the extent of offering her home for a small group of boys and girls.

By giving girl and women workers interests and leisure-time activities that refresh them physically and mentally and help to keep them morally and emotionally stable, the U.S.O. is making a great contribution to the war of production in which, as government statistics state, sixteen men and women must be employed as “civilian soldiers” behind the line before one boy in the Navy or Army can be equipped to do his share at the front.


"Food and Fun for Girl Workers" A woman pours coffee for a female workerThe problems of women and girl war workers are not all economic or recreational. Those of a personal nature are numerous and are one of the chief concerns of the U.S.O. personnel.

The danger and tension of many workers’ jobs create nervous instability and in their wake follow many complications—physical, emotional and moral.

The environment in which they live is often unhealthy, due to overcrowding and other bad conditions, and often leads to lowered moral standards.

Residents of many communities resent some of these women and girls, particularly the migratory workers, considering them intruders, referring to them as “trailer trash” and treating them as such.

Many of the workers are very young and inexperienced. In Dublin, Va., for example, it is reported that girls from the local high school are working in the bag-loading plants and learning to run machines.

Girls who have gone to strange towns to take war jobs have little opportunity for making normal friendships with young men or other girls. Because of their crowded living quarters they have no opportunity to entertain young men in decent surroundings and enjoy normal social pleasures.

War hysteria is adversely affecting the health and moral standards of many of the girls. Doctors and sociologists speaking at the annual meeting of the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol, in New York this winter, blamed the war for the increase in prostitution.

Girl and women war workers have health problems, too, created or accelerated by dangerous work, long hours, constant pressure of the job; all of which impose a physical and nervous strain.

"Concern for Young Matrons" African American woman holds a small child (less than a year old) in her arms.Many of the older women workers have dependents. A survey made of a group of 163 workers of various ages showed that ninety-six had dependents, principally children. In such cases problems of education, medical care and the like arise and are often brought to the U.S.O. worker. For example, a director in a defense town in Illinois reported: “We were able to direct one mother to a baby clinic for a check-up on a physical condition that was worrying her.”

Another case of help in a health problem was reported by a U.S.O. director in Tennessee. A sick woman was brought to her by the mayor, a policeman and an ambulance driver. The director tried to have her taken to the nearest hospital, seventeen miles away and out of the county, but could get no action. “Consequently,” she says, “I could only put her on the couch in the parlor, close it off, and in the midst of a busy day, consult with the doctor, prepare her food and nurse her.” A cot was borrowed later as the parlor was to be used that night by a group of business girls who were to hold a supper there. After nursing the woman several days, the director got her well enough to take a bus to her home, some distance away.

Many of the women and girl war workers need and want a sympathetic person with whom to discuss their personal problems and give them mature, sound advice and guidance. And every U.S.O. worker is experienced enough to give advice.

Morally as well as socially, directors of U.S.O. clubs operated by the Y.W.C.A. feel a responsibility to women war workers, which they try to meet not only with advice but education—education that approaches in a positive rather than a negative manner such subjects as sex, marriage, venereal disease, and the like. Some of the Y.W.C.A.-operated U.S.O. clubs have even organized “education for marriage” courses.

There is, in fact, probably no phase of the average girl or woman’s daily living with which U.S.O. directors do not at some time or other have personal contact—from helping a girl decide on a new hair-do, to deciding on a husband.

The welcome that newcomers in war industry communities enjoy at the U.S.O. club goes a long way toward offsetting the lack of hospitality and the coldness often shown them by the natives. Furthermore, the informal social and recreational activities to which they are invited provide the atmosphere in which those who are lonely in a strange town find it easy to make new friends and gradually achieve a real sense of “belonging.” That feeling of “belonging” eventually helps to build a feeling of responsibility for the community in which they now have their home.


Wives of Service Men are U.S.O. Responsibility, Too

"Help with Veterans' Problems" A veteran holding a cane sits with his wife. They are enjoying watching their small child in a nearby stroller.As the one organization in the U.S.O. essentially dedicated to and responsible for the welfare of women and girls affected by the national defense emergency, the Y.W.C.A. in its U.S.O. work considers help to the wives and families of men in service one of its major concerns.

The number of such wives and families has increased at a more than normal rate during the past year or two. “War weddings” are largely responsible for this ever-growing number. Dr. Janet Fowler Nelson, director of the U.S.O. Family Relationships division for the Y.W.C.A., estimates that these “war weddings” are of two kinds:

1.The marriage that has been hastened by the heightened emotional tension and general feeling of insecurity induced by war.

2.The marriage in which the individuals first met each other “in uniform.” In other words, the glamor-of-the-uniform infatuation.

More and more wives of service men, whether newly married or not, are congregating in the towns near camps and navy bases in ever increasing numbers. They bring their families with them. Some wives are taking jobs because of financial necessity.

One instance was reported where army wives were working as waitresses because there were no other jobs to be had in the vicinity.

Service Wives, Their Needs and Problems

The presence of such great numbers of women and children in towns in or near army camps and navy bases, has created various types of problems and needs which U.S.O.-Y.W.C.A. workers are attempting to meet. Very few social agencies are giving these women attention.

Wives who go to strange cities to be near their husbands complain of loneliness, lack of friends and the lack of opportunity to make them which naturally reacts on the morale of the service men. A sergeant’s wife stationed in California, when visited by two Y.W.C.A. workers, urged them to stay as long as possible, saying: “It would be a favor to me: I don’t see anyone to talk to all day long. I don’t know anyone in town and I’m very lonely.”

Many of these women who have formerly lived in large cities find life difficult in a small town. Some of them were working part time in local stores, others were spending a good deal of time at Red Cross sewing rooms. In this instance they said they wanted “study groups to keep from getting too far behind.”

Finding proper living quarters for themselves and their families in the already over-crowded cantonment towns is another problem they face. Some, like the wives and families of men defense workers, are forced to live in trailers. In the state of Washington it was cited that there were many housing projects, under way or completed, to take care of the greatly increased population. But, as the local U.S.O. director stated, “They’re not intended for low-income groups.”

Wherever wives of service men have moved into new towns and brought their families with them the presence of children creates additional complications. Inadequate educational facilities due to over-crowded schools, the need for recreational activities and, in cases where the mother works, nursery care of the smaller children, are a few of their needs. Already there are numerous cases of war widows who need help.

“On leave” weekends for soldiers bring hordes of visiting wives, families and sweethearts to the army towns. The visitors not only have difficulty locating sleeping quarters but, as one case illustrates, they often cannot find a place in which to talk or have any privacy. An instance reported by a U.S.O. worker told of a soldier, his wife and child walking down the crowded streets of the town. The wife was over-heard to say: “Don’t you suppose there is some place where we could go and sit and just talk? We can’t walk the streets all evening.”

How the U.S.O. Helps 

Into this picture of housing inadequacies, loneliness, friendlessness, boredom and child-care problems, the U.S.O. workers have stepped with constructive assistance.

In towns where the soldiers meet week-end visitors, the U.S.O. office often tries to help by maintaining a room registry of places available; by holding down prices and by welcoming these menWoman serving coffee to a navy man at a snack bar. "Hospitality in War or Peace" and their visitors to the club, where in pleasant lounges they find a place to relax and talk; by helping to take care of the soldiers’ children; and in many other similar ways.

Where wives and families are living permanently near the men, the U.S.O. is able to develop a long-range program of help.

Men and women dancing "Square Dance or Jive"The hospitality and use of the club are, of course, extended to the wives and children. Interest groups are organized. Classes in craft work, such as knitting, crocheting and rug making are formed. Informal social activities that provide opportunities for the women to make friends are arranged. Small groups are entertained at tea or luncheon. In San Antonio, Texas, a Table Tennis club, organized for officers and their families, enjoyed immediate popularity. In another town the U.S.O. worker enlisted the interest and help of the local parent-teachers association, the individual members of which, as their first step in cooperation, agreed to invite new couples to their homes.

At a navy base in the South, the director of one U.S.O. center has organized a teen-age club for boys and girls of Navy families. Not only that, but she has become “patron,” arbitrator of disputes and personal advisor for the members of the group collectively and individually. She is just as likely to get a frantic phone call from a seven-year old asking what to do to a bigger brother who hit him with a mop, as she is to be called upon to settle a romance problem between the president of the club (a boy) and the vice-president (a young girl).

Aside from the routine ways in which U.S.O. directors help wives and children of Army and Navy men, these workers often find themselves called upon for much less orthodox service. One director reported hunting down a private home in which a young Army officer could have his wedding performed. Another told of a caller who rushed to her desk with a bundle. “This,” the visitor said, handing over the bundle, “is the colonel’s baby. You’ve got to keep it till I come back. I have no maid and someone has to look after it while I’m doing my marketing.” The director took the baby and kept it happy till its mother returned to reclaim it.


The Y.W.C.A. Starts

The Young Women’s Christian Association, which is one of the oldest women’s organizations in this country, originated in England. Two groups were started in 1855: the General Female pamphlet cover "You, Y.W.C.A. and the Future"Training Institute, originally a home for nurses returning from the Crimean War, which was opened in London by Lady Kinnaird; and the Prayer Union which Miss Emma Roberts started among her friends “for their mutual benefit and for that of any young women in their respective spheres whom they might be able to influence for good.” In 1877 these two organizations, which had rapidly spread from London to other parts of England united, adopting a common Christian purpose and taking the name of Young Women’s Christian Association.

In the meantime, largely due to the development of factories employing women, a similar movement was developing in the United States. In 1858 the Ladies Christian Union was organized in New York “to labor for the temporal, moral and spiritual welfare of self-supporting young women.” The most obvious need of these young women was a safe place to live, and one of the first acts of the Ladies Christian Association of New York was to open a boarding home. The women of Boston were equally concerned over the difficulties and dangers of self-supporting girls, and in 1866 the first organization in this country to use the name Young Women’s Christian Association was organized there.

The Y.W.C.A. Grows 

Other cities were quick to follow the example set by New York and Boston. During the next five years Associations sprang up in Providence, Springfield, Hartford, Philadelphia, Germantown, Pittsburgh, Washington, Utica, Buffalo, Dayton, Cincinnati and St. Louis. By 1875 there were Associations in thirty-four cities. Today there are 1003 Associations in cities, towns, rural communities and school and colleges.

From the outset the Christian purpose of the Association motivated all its activities. The “leadership of Christian women,” the “effect of Christian influences,” the need for “a Christian home” were constantly emphasized. Bible classes and meeting for prayer were an important part of its program. But the Association had been brought into being by the very practical needs of girls, and its Christian purpose found expression also in the varied channels through which it sought to meet these needs. Recognition of the necessity of safe places for girls to live in was followed by the realization that they needed help in finding work and training for it. It was evident, too, that they must be helped to keep well, to have good times and to make friends. So employment bureaus were opened, classes in physical, vocational and general education started, and lunch rooms giving good but inexpensive food provided. Comfortably furnished rooms, equipped with books and magazines, met the need of a place in which to spend leisure time, and friendly young women (known as “secretaries”) were always there to make them welcome and to give any advice or help that might be desired.

As the Association movement developed its membership became more inclusive of all groups of young women in the community, and its work became more varied as it adapted itself to the needs of different groups. Within the fellowship of the Association today, sharing in making its policies and programs, are teenage girls and mature women, the industrial girl and the business and professional woman, the Indian and the Negro, the foreign-born and the college student.

Following the interests of its varied membership the Association has inevitably become concerned in regard to all that affects them. Thus it has sought to promote interracial understanding, to secure the passing of social legislation needed for the protection of women workers, to help bring about international cooperation, and to take its part in such other public causes as are related to the lives of women.

A number of activities or services which have been begun by the Y.W.C.A. in response to some need of girls have developed so vigorously that they are now strong, separate organizations. The National Association of Travelers Aid Societies, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the International Migration Service and the National Institute of Immigrant Welfare all originated within the Y.W.C.A., and are now independent movements with no organic connection with the Association.

Work Abroad 

Almost from the beginning the Y.W.C.A. of the United States has been concerned that the young women of other countries might also have the benefits of Young Women’s Christian Associations, and in 1895 Agnes Hill, the first Association secretary to represent the American Association abroad, was sent to India. In 1906, thirteen foreign secretaries were working in India, China, Japan and the Argentine. In 1935 there were 32 in the Far East, Middle East and Latin America. The Foreign Department of the National Board has worked in close cooperation with the Church mission boards, and has never initiated work in a country without consultation with them.

In undertaking work in other countries the policy of the American Association has not been to transplant itself, but to offer help to the women of these countries in the development of an Association movement of their own. Because of this policy, as leadership within a country has developed, the number of Americans secretaries has decreased in relation to that of those who are nationals of the country. Now, in all the countries in which American secretaries are still working, they are present not as leaders, but as colleagues of the national Association leaders, contributing some special experience or ability to an Association that is in every sense a national movement.

All young women, in whatever part of the world they may be, have certain fundamental needs. Thus all Associations in every part of the world have certain similarities. The programs of practically all of them seek to provide for the physical, social and spiritual needs of girls; most of them offer educational classes and help in finding and preparing for employment. In other respects the programs of the Associations of different countries may very greatly, due to differing customs, attitudes toward women and of women, and social and political conditions. The Association program of some countries is very like that found in the United States, while in others it is distinctly different. That which is common to each is the Christian purpose and its flexible expression according to the needs of the young women it serves.

The Y.W.C.A. in Times of Crisis

The Y.W.C.A. has proved to be an organization flexible enough to adapt itself swiftly and effectively to the needs of periods of crisis.

In 1917 when the United States entered the first World War, the Young Women’s Christian Association was well established, nationally as well as locally, with work in every state, and wide experience in meeting the needs of girls and women. When its representatives were called to Washington to face with the government the demands of those critical days, the National Board was able to say that the 129 members of its staff could be used at once, and that all the resources of the organization would be at the government’s disposal for the benefit of women and girls.

Shortly after the declaration of war the War Work Council of the National Board of the Y.W.C.A. was appointed, and given full responsibility for all war emergency work both in the United States and abroad. The War Work Council’s unique contribution to the government’s activities was its emphasis on women’s interests. During the entire war period it was administered by women and continually served as a reminder of their service and their needs.

It was because of its experience that the Association was called upon for war service, and this service developed in line with its purpose and its pre-war program. “Where it could, it used
15 the high road; where it was necessary it blazed new trails. But there was always one objective—the needs of the women and girls of this and other countries.”

As needs increased the War Work’s Council’s program included such varied services as:

(1)The organization of centers for recreation and club work, under trained leadership, in 198 communities in the United States, in the Canal Zone and in Honolulu.

(2)The provision of hostess houses for women visitors in camps, 116 in army training camps, 4 in naval stations, 2 in marine and 2 in hospital camps, 7 in embarkation and debarkation ports, 7 in Hawaii and 2 in Puerto Rico.

(3)Care of war brides. More than 3,000 brides and 383 children were cared for, some in French ports before embarkation, some during the journey, and some on arrival in America.

(4)Demonstration of housing for women war workers, both in connection with camps and factories working on war supplies and in Washington.

(5)The organization by the War Work Council’s Committee on Colored Work of service centers for colored women and girls in 49 communities and 8 industrial centers, and the provision of hostess houses for them in 17 camps.

(6)Work with foreign-born girls and women, which included:

a.An International Translation and Service Bureau which translated government bulletins, provided articles for foreign language newspapers and rendered any similar service that was needed.

b.Work with foreign-born girls in communities near camps and munition services, this work being based on the principles that had been found successful in International Institutes, but adapted to the emergency situation.

c.Home Information Service for the foreign families of enlisted men. Y.W.C.A. workers, speaking the necessary languages, were put into camps and war-affected communities to interpret the camp situation to those at home and to keep the men in the camps in touch with their homes. Nine camps had such hostesses.

d.Inter-country work which involved the locating of refugees’ relatives, protection at the ports, and giving help to foreign people in America in their efforts to be of service to their countrymen hero and abroad. The provision of training centers where Polish-American young women could fit themselves for service in Poland after the war (they were known as the Polish Grey Samaritans) was a part of this work. Another part was on the Mexican border, where hospitality houses stationed near the bridges daily cared for hundreds of outgoing and incoming Mexicans.

(7)Industrial Service Centers for women working in munition plants or other industrial communities. Twenty such centers helped to sustain morale by providing varied
16 recreation, clubs, opportunity for study, and a center of friendliness. Where needed cafeterias and room registry services were maintained.

(8)Social Hygiene. The Commission on Social Morality, which was a part of the Y.W.C.A.’s pre-war health program, promoted lecture programs in communities near camps and other centers, paved the way for the establishment of a section on women’s work in the Social Hygiene Division of the Commission on Training Camp Activities of the War Department. Later a Y.W.C.A. Bureau of Social Education initiated a program of health education through physical examinations, lectures, and instructions on flood, clothes and daily living. In the autumn of 1919 the first international conference of women physicians, bringing together women doctors from 14 countries, was convened by this Bureau at the national headquarters of the Y.W.C.A.

Overseas Work  

The overseas work of the Y.W.C.A. was undertaken in response to appeals from the women of France and Russia and was entered upon only after thorough investigation had led to the conclusion that the Y.W.C.A. could render a much needed service for women, and would in no way duplicate the other organizations working abroad, all of which had men as their primary objective. As a result of this investigation the Overseas Committee of the War Work Council was formed, and during and just after the war 407 women were sent to work in nine European countries. The work in France was both French and American women. Work with French women in munition factories was done in cooperation with the French War Department. That with women serving the A.E.F. was in cooperation with the United States Army. Nurses’ clubs, giving opportunities for rest, recreation, and companionship were developed in connection with the base hospitals, in cooperation with the Red Cross. A series of hostess houses, three in Paris, others in the provinces and, after the Armistice, with the army of occupation in Germany, were established to serve all American war workers in France. They offered lodgings to transient women, a home to permanently stationed women, and food and hospitality to both men and women. All signal corps girls were housed by the Y.W.C.A. Later port work was begun for the war brides, and hostess houses were opened near the military cemeteries.

Work in Russia was started in 1917 in Petrograd and Moscow, but the rapid changes in political conditions necessitated its early withdrawal.

American Association units were also sent to Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In the first three of these countries Y.W.C.A. work was already established and the service which the American workers rendered in cooperation with the Association leaders of the country became a part of the existing work. In Rumania and Czechoslovakia the wartime programs developed into permanent national Associations. The work begun in Russia could not be resumed, and the work of the Polish Greys was merged with that of other organizations, but Associations were developed during the postwar years in the little Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia.

The Objectives of the Y.W.C.A. Today 

In a report of the National Board at the Eighth National Convention, the basic philosophy of the organization was stated as follows:

“The root idea of the Association always has been association of effort, doing things together. We declare the Association to be in essence a fellowship, a fellowship of persons, the cement of their fellowship being the purpose of the organization.”

Interpreted in more specific terms, the “Guiding Principles and Program Emphases” describe the organization direction as follows:

Building an educational and recreational program for the development and enrichment of the individual.

Serving girls and women in various forms of individual adjustment, in employment, housing and food service.

Working as a social force or movement for a better society.

Source: YWCA National Board/United Service Organization Records. Box 9. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN.

4 Replies to “Y.W.C.A.: Brief History of Service in Times of War”

  1. I am trying to track a camp I attended in the 1950’s in North East MD. It was on the North East River where it meets the Bay, My sister and I attended from approximately 1950-1958. It was not a YMCA camp. My mother had been a member of the YWCA in the 20’s so I think it was YWCA. Any help would be appreciated. Lorraine Middleton

    • I wasn’t able to identify this camp, but perhaps someone at the Cecil County YMCA ((410) 398-2333), the YWCA of Elkton, or the YMCA of the Chesapeake would remember the camp. Anyone else have a suggestion?

  2. I would like to obtain information about the YWCA’s Hostess houses established at American military camps during world war 1 and am particularly interested in the Hostess House at Camp Kearny in San Diego that was a gift from Ellen Browning Scripps.

    • Dear Ms. Harris: I am unable to provide any information in connection with your question. I recommend you contact the Social Welfare History Archives as the University of Minnesota Libraries as they maintain some historical records of the YWCA. Good luck. Jack Hansan

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