By Maida Goodwin
Interim Director of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
My co-workers make fun of me because I see the YWCA in everything! I am the lucky archivist who was given the job of arranging and describing the historical files of the YWCA of the USA when they were donated to Smith College some years ago. Since then, I’ve been the one who helps people locate information in those 1,123 boxes and 338 reels of microfilm.
I see the YWCA everywhere because it is nearly everywhere in women’s history. In just the past few weeks, I’ve answered questions about the English translation of the Dakota Hymn, architecture of residences for single women, the human rights framework for social justice organizing, two great aunts who worked for the YWCA, and two early African-American women leaders, Verina Morton Jones and Sue Bailey Thurman. During the first half of the semester here at Smith, the records provided compelling source materials for students in classes studying urban politics, women in East Asia in the 1890s to 1930s, working class and immigrant women in cities at the turn of the 20th century, Japanese Relocation Centers during World War II, and American Indian boarding schools.
There’s so much valuable information in the files because of the extraordinary flexibility and adaptability of the association. Two early leaders set the YWCA of the USA on this course by insisting it meet “the needs of the time, the girl, and the group.” The immediate task undertaken by first National President Grace Dodge and first General Secretary Mabel Cratty from 1906 to 1907 was to bring together two competing national organizations made up of more than 600 local and student associations. Their genius was in finding a way for all these disparate groups to work and evolve together.
Though born to great wealth, Dodge was known as “friend of the working girl.” Her chosen role was that of bridge builder between different groups of people, always insisting she was not working for but with them. Cratty’s obituary called her a “seer among her sisters” with “exceptional foresight in anticipating the direction which social and economic development of womanhood would take.” Both women had little patience for a narrow point of view. They devised an organizational structure and administrative style that fostered deep thinking and deep relationships among all YWCA members. Because Cratty and Dodge insisted that the YWCA be democratic and flexible, what it became and has done grew directly out of the lived experience of its members and their commitment to struggle together, always asking “gutty” questions.
That struggle has helped to bring about major changes in how American society thinks about women, work, poverty, immigrants, race, violence, health, class, and human rights. The magnificent evidence of that committed struggle is right there in the historical files. The YWCA is indeed everywhere.
For more information about the YWCA’s history and to view archival materials and photos, visit the Sophia Smith Collection.
Maida Goodwin is Interim Director of the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, the oldest and largest women’s history manuscripts collection in the country. She spent the years of 2004–07 arranging and describing the historical office files of YWCA USA.