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Predecessor organizations, 1871-1907

Identifier: I

Scope and Contents

Records of the two predecessor organizations to the YWCA of the U.S.A. (each went through a succession of names before settling on the ones used here, "International Board" and "American Committee") primarily consist of their Conference and Convention reports and publications. There are some internal documents--minutes, reports, and correspondence--dating primarily from the period when the two organizations began to consider merging in the 1890s to early 1900s.

The Conference and Convention Reports of both organizations are rich with detail about the aims, programs and services of member WCAs and YWCAs as well as statistical information. Included are addresses given at the Conventions on such topics as "fallen women," women's education, "reformatory work," employment for women; and detailed reports given by the various member Associations about their activities and programs. These are some of the best descriptions of what the YWCA is all about. Both organizations' serial publications are also wonderful sources of similar information.

In addition, much about the organizational structure and methodology of the young YWCA of the USA is inherited from the two predecessor organizations.

Along with the materials created by the committees charged with accomplishing a merger in the Merger series, each organization's records contain particularly interesting and unusually frank reports about this slow and rather acrimonious process.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1871-1907

Conditions Governing Access

From the Record Group:

This collection is open for use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

History of Predecessor Organizations and the formation of the Young Women's Christian Association of the United States

The Young Women's Christian Association of the United States of America was formed in December 1906 when two existing national organizations held a joint convention and agreed to merge operations. The two forerunner organizations each went through a succession of names before settling on the ones used here, "International Board" and "American Committee."

The Young Women's Christian Association movement began in England in 1855, more-or-less in response to the creation of the Young Men's Christian Association in London in 1844. The men's movement made its way to the United States by 1851 when the first U.S.YMCA was established in Boston. Similar U.S. associations for women formed independently in New York City (Ladies Christian Union) in 1858 and Boston (Women's Christian Association) in 1866. The movement reached college and university campuses when a YWCA was formed at Normal University in Normal, Illinois, in 1873. Through the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, city and student associations formed all over the country under the names Women's Christian Association and Young Women's Christian Association.

Women's Christian Associations (WCAs) worked to develop the "temporal, moral, and spiritual welfare" of young women "thrown upon their own resources." There was great concern about the fate of young women living in the urban environment, away from the steadying influences of family. The services offered by WCAs were designed to fill gaps in the existing social infrastructure by providing such things as decent and affordable boarding "homes" (as opposed to boarding "houses"); free medical dispensaries for women and children; day nurseries for working mothers; affordable restaurants serving nutritious food; employment assistance (for such jobs as music teachers, governesses, copyists, type-setters, dressmakers, nurses, companions, and domestic service); temporary lodgings (homes for "fallen" or "destitute" women); and facilities where women and children could gather to do sewing with an associated store for the sale of their work.

Offerings for the spiritual welfare included Bible classes and prayer meetings. "Secular" classes included basics such as reading, spelling, writing, and arithmetic, plus subjects such as botany, and singing. "Industrial" (vocational) training included book-keeping, use of sewing and office machines, and character education. Libraries and free reading-rooms encouraged other intellectual pursuits and "social gatherings and entertainments" for the general public promoted "wider knowledge of the Association, besides giving pleasure."

Association staff and members hoped that providing "moral elevation," training "to fit the pupil for practical life," and other kinds of aid, the Association would steer young women toward greater opportunity and a more fulfilling life.

International Board

In 1871 the existing Women's Christian Associations held a national conference in Hartford, Connecticut, to exchange information, methods, and ideas. The conference was so successful that they resolved to "earnestly recommend that similar meetings be held at intervals of not more than two years." At their 2nd conference, in 1873, they appointed a committee on permanent organization and elected officers. With the addition of Canadian WCAs, the 3rd such meeting in 1875 was billed as the International Conference. In 1877 this group adopted a constitution under the name International Conference of Women's Christian Associations. It was a relatively loose association facilitated by a committee appointed at each Convention to plan the succeeding meeting. There was no permanent office and the organization had its headquarters wherever its current president resided. In 1891 they changed name again to International Board of Women's Christian Associations and in 1893 to International Board of Women's and Young Women's Christian Associations.

The member associations of the International Board were mostly (though not exclusively) city associations in the northeastern United States. The City Associations tended to be complex operations with multiple buildings in various locations in a city. Their membership was heterogeneous (encompassing whatever ethnic, religious, economic, and sometimes racial mix of women lived in the city) and their services and programs were designed to meet the specific needs of the populations they served. They operated more-or-less completely independently from other Associations in the International Board.

At its 1881 Conference, the International Board appointed a Committee on Associations in Colleges and Seminaries to encourage the formation of WCAs on campuses "that thereby the members of such schools will become familiar with, and trained in, the methods of the WCAs of our land."

At the 1883 Conference, a Standing Committee was appointed to foster YWCAs in schools and colleges. By 1889 the committee asked to be discontinued since the YWCAs at schools and colleges had "developed to such an extent that [they had] now assumed the form of a National Organization . . . ."

American Committee

As early as 1873 on college and university campuses, Associations began to form independently and with the aid of the Young Men's Christian Association. Initially, the membership of YMs at coeducational institutions included both men and women students. By about 1881 the women members realized that the YM's exclusive aim of the salvation of young men meant that work on behalf of young women was not being promoted. This lead to the formation of separate organizations for women students under the guidance of the YM's first collegiate secretary, Luther Wishard. Wishard worked in conjunction with the International Board's Committee on Associations in Colleges and Seminaries. On the YM model, the new women's student Associations allied into state associations beginning in 1884.

According to the American Department of the World's YWCA scrapbook, "After young women had become enthusiastic over association work [at college] it was a natural outcome that they should desire a similar organization in their own towns." As a result, the graduates started to form City Associations with the YMCA as their model. Most, though not all, of these student and city associations were located in the midwest and the western U.S.

The student YWCAs eventually came to feel that the ad-hoc nature of the International Board (an association, rather than an organization) could not provide the student organizations with the consistent administrative support they needed due to the regular turnover in membership as students matriculated.

In addition, the student YWCAs and the City Associations allied with them had adopted constitutions based on the YM's model which included two provisions not generally included in the constitutions of WCAs belonging to the International Board: the evangelical basis of membership (to be a member, one had to be a member of a Protestant evangelical church), and a commitment to work overseas. Having just separated from the YM in order to promote work among young women, the student YWCAs also felt their constituency was not a high enough priority for the International Board, which worked on behalf of women of all ages.

The student organizations' solution was to form their own national organization of Young Women's Christian Associations. In 1886, an assortment of student, city and state associations formed the National Association of Young Women's Christian Associations at a conference at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. This organization had a year-round staff and headquarters in Chicago. In 1891 the name was changed to the International Committee of Young Women's Christian Associations when YWCAs in Canada joined. After Canadian women formed their own national association in 1899, the name was changed again to American Committee of Young Women's Christian Associations. As a result of a lawsuit filed by the YWCA of Chicago (affiliated with the International Board), in 1901 the American Committee was prohibited from using the words 'Young Women's Christian Association' in its name due to the potential for confusion created when two Chicago-based organizations so prominently featured 'YWCA' in their names. From then until it merged with the International Board in 1906, the organization was known simply as 'The American Committee.'

Student associations of the American Committee held prayer meetings, Bible classes, and missionary meetings, and trained young women for religious work after graduation. City Associations did work similar to city associations belonging to the International Board: establishing boarding houses, reading rooms, and libraries; sponsoring social receptions, lectures, gymnastic and industrial training, and also gospel meetings and Bible classes.

The national office developed a dedicated staff and impressive program including work at the state level, student and city departments, extensive summer conferences, and a training school for YWCA staff.

The American Department of the World's YWCA (1894-1905) was an independent organization which took direction from the American Committee. It held regular conventions and reported biennially to American Committee conventions. The work of the American Department included Week of Prayer letters and other mailings, collecting funds for foreign Association work, consulting with American Committee members and Secretaries as to suitable candidates for the foreign field, and corresponding with secretaries in the field. Though the American Department was eager to become a regular department of the American Committee, it was not until 1905 that the American Committee felt it could take on the additional work and the American Department became an "organic" department of the American Committee "ranking co-ordinate" with the home work department.


At the International Board's 1889 Conference, a Special Committee was appointed to "confer with the national organization [American Committee] with the view of harmonizing our work, and inducing cooperation . . . ." While the two organizations did not initially see themselves as in competition, by 1893, a certain lack of "Christian harmony" between the two was noted in the International Board's Conference Proceedings: "Misunderstandings arose . . . from ignorance on the part of each of the purpose and work of the other . . . " Though it was deemed "at present impossible" to form an "organic union," various options for dividing up the work, or compromise measures that would allow a merger were discussed.

In her book The Natural History of a Social Institution-The Young Women's Christian Association, Mary Sims describes the elements of conflict between the two organizations as "the older against the young, the religious liberal against the more restricted, the East against the middle West, and the influence of the YMCA against a distinctly women's movement."

Associations affiliated with the International Board treasured their independence and were not anxious to institute national policies and procedures, particularly on the issue of the evangelical basis of membership. The American Committee saw many advantages to central administration-not least among them, the resources to expand the YWCA movement, but felt strongly that the evangelical basis was central to the movement. Both organizations knew the competition between them was counterproductive and fostered a good deal of confusion in the general public.

Various other attempts to bring the two organizations together failed until 1905 when a Joint Committee, chaired by Grace H. Dodge, an interested non-member, worked out a compromise. The two organizations agreed to merge and to support a national office and staff. Any existing Association could become a charter member of the new organization without changing its membership policy, but any Associations formed after the merger would require that all voting members and officers be members of a Protestant evangelical church.

The newly-formed Young Women's Christian Associations of the United States of America reflected its predecessors in several ways: separate administrative units served the interests of college and university students and city associations (as opposed to town or mill village or other, smaller, associations).

Much of the staff of the new Association came from the American Committee: Mabel Cratty, Florence Simms, Theresa Wilbur [later Paist], Louise Holmquist, Harriet Taylor, Bertha Conde, Effie K. Price [later Gladding], Helen F. Barnes, Mary S. Dunn, and Elizabeth Wilson.


7.25 linear feet

Language of Materials



Series I is organized in three groups: International Board, American Committee, and Merger of Predecessor Organizations

Relationship to Microfilmed YWCA of the U.S.A. records

The records related to predecessor organiztions in the Microfilmed YWCA of the U.S.A. records, which have been digitized and are available through our repository nearly duplicate the surviving paper records in this series, athough the surviving paper records also include some additional materials received by the National Board Archives after the microfilming project was complete. These include Conference and Convention reports missing from the microfilm, plus the serials International Messenger (published by the International Board, 1894-1902), The Bulletin (published by the International Board, 1903-06), The Young Women's Christian Association Evangel (published 1889-1890), and Evangel (published by the American Committee, 1892-1906), plus a number of brochures and other small publications.

The larger of these periodicals were digitized as part of the project that also digitized the microfilm, and are also available in our digitial repository at the following links: International Messenger, The Bulletin, The Young Women's Christian Association Evangel, and Evangel.

With these noted exceptions, the microfilmed records include most of the Conference and Convention Reports, some correspondence, and some other publications of the two precursor organizations that still exist in the paper records in this series. Most of the Merger materials are also on the microfilm. The Minutes and Reports sections of the microfilm also include some pre-merger materials from State and Territorial Committees of the American Committee.

Materials about the predecessor organizations can be found on the microfilm under "Predecessor Organizations and Formation of the National Board," as well as "Field and Terretorial Committees" under "Minutes and Reports."

Related Materials

The influence of the Predecessor Organizations is in evidence in many places in the records of the National Association. It is especially prevalent in the Minutes and Reports of early committees and departments and in early publications.

There is early material, created prior to the establishment of the YWCA of the USA, about some of the oldest Community and Student Associations in the SERIES IV. COMMUNITY ASSOCIATIONS FILES in RECORD GROUP 8. COMMUNITY ASSOCIATIONS and in the SERIES XI. STUDENT ASSOCIATIONS AND REGISTERED STUDENT GROUPS in RECORD GROUP 7. STUDENT WORK.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063