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YWCA of the U.S.A. records, Record Group 5. International work

 Record Group
Identifier: SSC-MS-00324-RG5

Scope and Contents

The records of the YWCA of the U.S.A.'s international work consist of minutes, reports, publications and other printed materials, studies and surveys, position papers and statements, historical materials, subject and reference files, correspondence, conference and training materials, rosters and other personnel files, lists, and memorabilia.

The bulk of the records of the international work are dated from 1907 to 1970, the interval covered by the microfilmed Central File and Minutes and Reports. After 1970 the surviving records are more scarce and fragmentary due to decreased attention to the central filing system and the reduction of international staff and program.

Some of the major subjects of the records are the history, organization, and functions of YWCA international work: the international study of the YWCA and YMCA, conducted in the late 1920s; budgets and finance, including the International Building Fund; World Fellowship; leadership training for national staff and volunteers and YWCA women in other countries; conferences, meetings, and international study seminars; international affairs and development; cooperation with other countries; and relationships with other organizations, especially the World YWCA, United Nations and the U.S. government.

General minutes and reports of the Department's meetings, as well as its sections and committees provide an overview of its activities through the years. Overseas secretaries recorded their experiences in reports and correspondence from approximately 1907 through the 1960s, but the bulk of them, and the ones containing the most depth and detail, span from 1915 through World War II, the heyday of the overseas secretaries. After the war, the change in focus from Asia and Europe to Africa and the Middle East (attention to Latin America was more consistent), means that there are more reports from those countries for the decades after World War II.

The bulk of the surviving paper records are dated from the 1920s through the 1980s. There is a great deal of duplication of records on the microfilm, which has been digitized and is available in our online repository, but they also include materials donated to the National Board Archives after the microfilming was completed that probably were not filmed, such as office files of individuals working on a particular project or program.

1970-2000 (post-microfilm) materials include published and printed materials about the international program of the YWCA, minutes (far more sparse than for earlier decades), records of numerous committees active in that period, and a large proportion of the Projects and Programs Series, reflecting the shift after World War II from focus on recruiting, training and supporting overseas secretaries to broader subject programs. Countries and Regions is a combination of older records, such as staff reports and minutes of various Sections that are duplicated on the microfilm; and reference materials about the various countries and regions that were collected by the National Board Library/Archives from various sources, including individual YWCA personnel.

Dates of Materials

  • 1906-2000, and undated
  • Majority of material found within 1920s-1980s


Conditions Governing Access

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

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that it owns copyright, YWCA of the USA has retained copyright in its works donated to Smith College, but has has authorized Smith College Special Collections to grant permission to publish reproductions or quotations from the records on its behalf.

Copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those few instances beyond fair use, or which may regard materials in the collection not created by YWCA of the USA, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Prior to the founding of the YWCA of the U.S.A. in 1906, local YWCAs made financial contributions to church missionary work. Some of them decided to send overseas staff, or "secretaries" under their own auspices beginning in 1894 when Agnes Hill volunteered to go to India, supported by the Toledo City Association. While both predecessor organizations, the International Board and the American Committee, were interested in missionary work, the latter was most active due to its roots among college students and more evangelical character. YWCAs in the United States forged bonds in India, Japan, and China when association workers went to those countries to introduce association work to, and ultimately work with, the indigenous local associations.

The YWCA of the U.S.A. and its Foreign Department were part of an international movement. When the National Association incorporated in 1907, its original Constitution and By-laws gave it the power to cooperate with YWCAs in other countries and to participate in the program and purpose of the World's YWCA (later World YWCA), which had been founded in 1894 to federate, develop, and extend the YWCA in all lands. The first convention in December 1906 reported that thirteen overseas secretaries were serving in India, China, Japan, and Argentina. The convention report also outlined the Association's policy of having secretaries develop indigenous work appropriate to the particular country rather than imposing their own structure. In 1908, of the twelve officers appointed to the Foreign Department, eight were members of the World's Committee, one of seventeen National Committees affiliated with the World's YWCA. Great Britain, Canada, and the United States were the three national committees sending secretaries to other countries.

In the first Foreign Department Annual Report (1907), the National Association was conceptualized as two "co-ordinate" departments "one for the home and one for the foreign work." The Foreign Department had two primary functions, "home cultivation" and "foreign supervision." Home cultivation encompassed visitation by foreign secretaries on furlough to local associations for fundraising, publicity, and recruitment; and work among "Oriental students" in the United States. These programs took place in close cooperation with the Home Department. The Foreign Department's "foreign supervision" function involved sending workers from the United States to "strategic points" across the globe. Finding, training, and supporting secretaries, and providing buildings and other equipment were the primary activities of staff and board members responsible for this function. The two arms of the division were intertwined in order to solicit contributions for support of the foreign secretaries from the local associations and to strengthen the "missionary spirit and religious life of those associations." Sometimes specific local associations in the U.S. were paired with overseas counterparts, for example when the Harlem Association assumed responsibility for supporting Bombay. The aim at this time was to eventually have each state and territorial committee have financial responsibility for a designated part of the overseas work and, in fact, it was an unwritten policy that student volunteers in association work provided a pool of candidates for overseas secretary-ships. From 1907 to 1916 fifty-nine secretaries were sent from North America to China, India, Burma, Ceylon, Japan, Latin America, and the Near East, and the budget for foreign work tripled. By 1929 there were ninety-five secretaries in those places, as well as the Philippines, Turkey, Europe, and the Caribbean.

Just as the Social Gospel influenced the work of the YWCA in the United States, it informed the work abroad. In 1906 the World's YWCA sent out a questionnaire to local organizations in all countries about what they were doing to address the social and industrial problems of women. In 1920 an industrial committee was appointed to oversee this work. Similarly, recreation and health education assumed greater importance in the United States and abroad as experts began to emphasize the importance of its role in building the character of young women. These changes in philosophy reflected the changing point of view of North American secretaries who served abroad. Their preparation was more technical and they brought less evangelical dedication and more professionalism to their work. Progressive era ideas combined with feminist principles influenced the mission of the National Association, prompting some secretaries to emphasize social rather than religious development, reversing the emphasis of many church missions. Moreover, the secretaries came to appreciate the cultural and spiritual resources of lands where they lived and worked, sometimes for years at a time, side-by-side with indigenous colleagues. Rapid institutional growth in the early years of the Foreign Department accelerated the transition from the original evangelistic purpose toward the emphasis on social reform. The influence of the Social Gospel, coupled with an internationalism generated by work abroad, eventually allowed for the accommodation of non-Christian faiths.

World War I significantly impacted the international work of the YWCA by diverting resources from places like Latin America and Turkey to organized relief efforts in Europe and elsewhere. The National Board organized the War Work Council in 1917, and the bulk of the National Association's war relief work in Europe and the Near East was carried out under the auspices of the War Work Council. [See World War I for more details] When relationships between national associations were renewed at the end of World War I, leaders from the U.S. became more involved in the councils of the World's YWCA Executive Committee and the YWCA of the U.S.A. began to participate regularly in the World's YWCA. In 1920 the work of the War Work Council combined with that of the Foreign Department under the Foreign and Overseas Department (re-named the Foreign Division in 1922). There were 118 secretaries in thirty-two centers in Asia and South America, and a larger number in fifty-nine centers in Europe and the Near East.

The International Survey of the YWCA and YMCA, a collaborative effort of the two organizations published in 1930, concluded that the aim of the Associations in North America in launching the foreign work was to assist in founding "self-supporting, self-directing and self-propagating national movements." This aspect of the YWCA's international work was at its apex between WWI and WWII, after which staff abroad decreased and programs in those countries increasingly came under the administrative purview of the World YWCA. This transition began in earnest in 1923-24 when the National Association checked expansion of its program abroad. Former colonies of the British Empire viewed themselves as equals of other nations. Control of the older national associations, i.e., in India, Japan, and China had indeed been shifting more to the hands of national leaders rather than secretaries sent by the YWCA of the U.S.A. Reconstruction in Europe and the programs in the Near East and Latin America were beneficiaries when the organization began redistributing its financial resources.

The decade of the 1930s and the Great Depression brought with it the need for further reduction of the Foreign Division's budget. Its high point in 1920 was $574, 040; by 1944 it had fallen to $112, 195. In the midst of steadily falling revenue, the Japan-China war broke out in 1937 and relief for the National Association in China became a priority. The devastation of World War II prompted eight years of special relief efforts in a number of European countries. [See World War II] In 1946 the YWCA of the U.S.A. launched the Round-the-World YWCA Reconstruction Fund campaign which successfully raised over $2,000,000 for aid to leaders in countries affected by the war.

Training leaders had always been an important emphasis in the Foreign Division, as in the larger YWCA, but it became even more of an organizational priority after World War II. In cooperation with the World YWCA, the National Association began to hold seminars and conferences to help form and run Associations under the direction of local staff in countries other than those where American secretaries were working. It also brought leaders from other countries to the U.S. for training. The National Association placed special emphasis on training volunteers to implement activities and classes that would increase membership in the various countries. Financial contributions to associations in other countries were sometimes enough, but in other cases U.S. staff acted as consultants to local staff. During 1949, forty-two staff members from the U.S. served in twenty countries. In 1957 the National Support staff raised $150,000 for buildings abroad and leadership training, including implementation of a training center for twenty-two Asian women in Japan.

YWCA cooperation with governmental and voluntary agencies increased during the post-World War II era. "Statement on Foreign Economic Aid," a Foreign Division report issued in 1956, noted that since 1949 the YWCA had expressed support for U.S. efforts toward improving the well-being of less economically developed areas through technical cooperation and assistance, the United Nations, and bilateral arrangements. Within the YWCA, there was a growing awareness that colonialism's day was over. An emphasis on joint planning, not only through World's YWCA, but in cooperative relationships with churches, and government and social work agencies having overseas work reflected the YWCA's grasp of changing realities. A 1957 women's education program in Ethiopia, for example, grew out of an application for funds to the U.S. Technical Cooperation Administration, discussions with the State Department, and a survey by a YWCA staff member in Addis Ababa.

The emphasis on international cooperation, including working with the UN, was closely linked to the YWCA's experience in World Fellowship, or World Mutual Service, a commitment of YWCAs across the world to a mission of helping one another by sharing staff, funds, and other resources. The YWCA General Secretary reported to the National Board in February 1957 that "[t]he current world situation and the tensions in the Middle East have pointed up again the need that some understanding of world relationships is becoming standard requirement for any citizen, for any mature girl or woman who is adequately prepared for life today . . . Let us not be apologetic in asking local Associations for contributions for support of a national and international organization but rather let us more fully realize the enormous potential of these facts and point them out to the public and our communities." Throughout the years, those responsible for the international work of the YWCA repeated similar refrains regarding their deep commitment to the idea of World Fellowship and the continual need to educate the local associations about their part in a world movement. They worked to incorporate this basic message into the work of all the other departments of the National Board, as well as the individual associations. [see also (?) for more about the role of World Fellowship in those departments.]

Though no longer the primary focus, Foreign Division field staff worked with local staff to help develop new YWCAs in Rhodesia [Zimbabwe], Uganda, Liberia, the Philippines, Thailand, Egypt, Lebanon and Japan in the late 1950s and helped raise funds for grants toward the budgets of others. In 1958 there were still fifteen overseas staff members. However, the International Division (re-named in 1961) continued to direct funds and other support toward creation of programs and projects that involved cooperation with other agencies, leadership training, and World Fellowship, and devoted fewer resources to supporting overseas secretaries. The 1961 Program and Budget Committee authorized the National Student YWCA to request funds from outside sources for student exchanges, including the USSR Exchange, and the College and University Division sought funds jointly with the World University Service for financing travel grants for a Travel Seminar for staff in Asia. The same year the National Board minutes noted that World Fellowship should be a year-round interest and that the Division's continuing aim should be to make each member of a local Association in the U.S. feel part of the world movement. The Latin America/USA Project placed teams of U.S. and Latin American participants at U.S. and Latin American locals for various portions of the leadership training project.

The Division staff also advocated with the National Association for increased funding for World YWCA for staff positions related to new buildings and international travel exchanges, study tours, work camps, and conferences. Through the Mutual Service Committee of the World YWCA, a number of cooperative projects with several countries participating and contributing to financing were developed. In 1962 the U.S. YWCA contributed staff or money to more than one-third of the associations helped by the World YWCA Mutual Service Committee and in the mid-1960s the U.S. was contributing over a quarter of the staff for mutual service positions even though it was only one of ten countries doing so. Another cooperative project begun in the early 1960s was the YWCA Peace Corps Project in Chile. Peace Corps officials were interested in working with voluntary agencies like the YWCA that had experience working abroad, and through the Peace Corps, the YWCA could reach new people.

The number of staff overseas continued to shrink in the 1970s-in 1970 there were nine staff members serving in advisory capacities overseas and by 1975 there were only two. One of the last places where a U.S. staff member continued in an advisory capacity was the American Girls Service Center in Turkey, which in 1989 celebrated its 65th anniversary. "Program for Action, 1973-76" proposed to "work deliberately to enable Third World women to participate fully in the YWCA and assume active leadership," as well as "promote support of Third World people to achieve self-determined social change." Symbolizing this emphasis, the International Division became the World Relations Unit (later Department) in 1971. As financial difficulties beset the larger organization, the staff produced position papers on issues of world peace and justice, and proposals for outside funding to promote education on world issues like disarmament and the reordering priorities of the U.S. military budget in an attempt to engage local associations with global issues. Concrete proposals to reawaken commitment to a world movement included "program models," such as the International Study Program, working papers, a task force to integrate world issues in the Five Year Plan of the Program Unit, World YWCA interpretation in member associations, and leadership development.

The International Study Program (ISP), begun in 1977, and initially focusing on Asia, was an effort to replace the professional overseas staff visits with exchanges of staffs from local associations in the U.S. and abroad for study tours and conferences. In 1984 only two overseas positions, in Turkey and Latin America, remained. In the 1980s the ISP planned programs involving YWCA staffs from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The 1984 South Africa tour was designed "to foster a dialogue between members of the [U.S. associations and the YWCA of South Africa] on the root causes of racial and economic injustice and oppression; to share experiences of empowerment in the struggle for human rights and to formulate effective action plans . . . [and] to assist U.S. members to work for the end of apartheid."

As was the case in the larger organization, in the 1990s the international work of the YWCA diminished along with the level of financial support and staff cuts. PROJECT REDESIGN (1992) by KPMG Peat Marwick, a study of the National Office and what member associations wanted from it, showed that provision of program development and support services by the National Association were no longer wanted. A fifty percent staff reduction resulted. Staff and National Board members committed to the importance of international ties fought to keep its agenda of global responsibility in the forefront. A successful 1989 proposal to the U.S. Agency for International Development for a 3-year $150,000/year grant sought to institutionalize global education in the YWCA movement. The program it created, Education for Global Responsibility (EGR), held workshops for educators, service providers, and activists to teach strategies for global education; awarded grants to local YWCAs to create program models for education of volunteers, staff, and members; and conducted study-tours. The National Association created World Relations Volunteers in 1993 to assist the staff with former World Relations functions they wanted to continue despite diminished staff and program cuts.

The National Association continued to support the World YWCA by participating in the International Pilot Project, developed to promote international fundraising, with Japan, Tanzania, and Sweden. The Association also continued to send representatives to world events, for example the World YWCA Women's Summit in Seoul and the Fourth UN World Women's Conference in Beijing, both in 1994. In 1997 the YWCA of the U.S.A. co-sponsored the World conference on Family Violence in India. On the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, in 1998, the YWCA launched Human Rights Heroes campaign to identify and recognize twenty national and international heroes on Human Rights Day.

The new Global Affairs Unit was established under direction of the former project manager for EGR in 1996, and renamed the next year the Mary French Rockefeller World Relations Unit. A YWCA publication outlined its purpose: " . . . to establish a strong international presence for the YWCA of the U.S.A. through education, leadership development and advocacy initiatives for the empowerment of women, gender equality, racial justice, economic justice, and development and environmental justice." The study-tours or "immersions" were one way of accomplishing this purpose, by having YWCA volunteers and members visit countries struggling with racism, sexism, and poverty in order to reach a greater understanding of poverty's impact on women around the world. The YWCA's efforts to seek corporate support toward the end of the decade prompted it to work with major U.S. retailers to explore possibilities of funding childcare services in YWCAs in Latin America and Canada, and the focus on exchanges between YWCAs in the U.S. and abroad continued.

Chronology of administrative locations for international work within the YWCA of the U.S.A.

1907-October 1920
Foreign Department
October-November 1920
Foreign Department, Overseas Committee, and Committee, and Continuation Committee
November 1920-1921
Foreign and Overseas Department
1922-February 1961
Foreign Division
March 1961-1971
International Division
World Relations Unit
beginning 1996
Global Affairs Unit


15.543 linear feet (38 containers)

Language of Materials



This record group documents the history, organization, and functions of YWCA international work: the international study of the YWCA and YMCA, conducted in the late 1920s; budgets and finance, including the International Building Fund; World Fellowship; leadership training for national staff and volunteers and YWCA women in other countries; conferences, meetings, and international study seminars; international affairs and development; cooperation with other countries; and relationships with other organizations, especially the World YWCA, United Nations and the U.S. government. Materials include minutes, reports (notably those of overseas secretaries), publications and other printed materials, studies and surveys, position papers and statements, historical materials, subject and reference files, correspondence, conference and training materials, rosters and other personnel files, lists, and memorabilia. Forms part of the YWCA of the U.S.A. Records.


This record group is arranged in six series:

  1. General, history, and administration
  2. Minutes and reports
  3. Committees
  4. Projects and programs
  5. Publications
  6. Regions and countries

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The YWCA of the U.S.A. donated a portion of its records to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1964 and the remainder in 2002 and 2003.

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

For pre-1970 materials, the microfilmed records of the International Division, which have been digitized and are available online through our repository, are far more extensive than those that have survived in their original format. Most of the original format records of international work, with the exception of Minutes, some staff reports, and the International Study, where there is a great deal of overlap, were discarded after microfilming, so it is crucial to consult the microfilm. [Note that reels 152-153, containing reports from China, are missing. The Original Format Records described in this record group appear to include at least a few of these missing reports.]

The microfilmed records include subjects that are barely touched upon in the hard copy files, such as budgets, or not addressed at all, such as activities related to specific countries like Australia, Canada, and a number of European countries.

Within the Microfilmed records, the Minutes and Reports of the Foreign Division also include minutes and reports of "Sections," such as those for Europe and Latin America. There are also other records such as newsletters to the staff abroad and the International studies for the various countries. For minutes related to international work after 1961, see the Original Format records.

The Subject File includes some administrative records concerning finances, annual meetings, committees, statistics, relationship with the World YWCA, subjects like emigration/immigration and "World Emergency" (World War II); and files of publications, lists, manuals and other miscellaneous activities of the International Division. The bulk of the records are extensive reports, correspondence and other materials arranged alphabetically by country. The international work department is notable for retaining far more correspondence than other departments of the National Association, perhaps because it was often the best documentation of the department's activities and accomplishments abroad and thus had a secondary usefulness for promoting international work in the local associations. The voluminous reports and correspondence of overseas secretaries are the heart of this portion of the microfilm, but there is also material about conferences, conventions, history, studies, real estate, personnel; and constitutions and publications from national programs, in China for example.

Records relating to International Work can be found on the microfilm under:

Minutes and Reports -- Foreign Division

Subject Files -- Foreign -- Foreign countries -- International

Related Materials

This Record group forms part of the YWCA of the U.S.A. Records

Like other divisions or departments of the National Association, the variously named department dealing with international work's activities and programs were very intertwined with those of the other departments, as well member associations. Anyone desiring information about the international work of the YWCA of the U.S.A. must look at these materials, but depending upon the specific topic, will probably also want to consult the records of other relevant departments. For example, RECORD GROUP 7. STUDENT WORK, documents the International Division's interest in Foreign Students visiting the United States and student support of international mission work, among other things. Materials in RECORD GROUP 6. PROGAM, SERIES V, Subseries E. Religion inudes records related to World Fellowship, a major concern of the international arm of the national association.

Because the YWCA of the U.S.A. was a participant in an international movement and affiliated with the World YWCA, information related to international work/relations is located throughout the records. The following materials are particularly relevant:

RECORD GROUP 1. SERIES VI. and VII contain reference files on 'Foreign' YWCAs and the World YWCA.

Records of early international work by American YWCAs can be found in the records of the predecessor organization known as the American Committee in RECORD GROUP 2.

YWCA of the U.S.A. officer and staff correspondence with YWCAs worldwide and with the World YWCA is in RECORD GROUP 3. NATIONAL ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE.

Discussions of the program for International Work can be found in RECORD GROUP 4. NATIONAL CONVENTIONS AND CONFERENCES.

Public advocacy on international problems is documented in the work of the Public Affairs program in SERIES III of RECORD GROUP 6.

Tools and methods for presenting the concept of World Fellowship and the international work of the YWCA to various Constituent Groups can be found in SERIES IV and SERIES V of RECORD GROUP 6. PROGRAM.

SERIES 6. PUBLICATIONS: The main YWCA serial Association Monthly/Womans Press/YWCA Magazine/YWCA Interchange has many articles on international work and YWCAs in other countries.

RECORD GROUP 9. PHOTOGRAPHS contains a large collection of photographs of YWCAs in other countries.

RECORD GROUP 10. AUDIOVISUAL MATERIALS contains audio for a 1982 slide presentation, "Breaking Barriers;" video from the Uganda Study-Travel Program and a "Fact Finding" trip to El Salvador in 1991; and 1991-92 visits between Chinese and U.S. YWCA leaders.

Elsewhere in the Sophia Smith Collection

The Records of the Committee of Correspondence contain correspondence with YWCA women.

The Sophia Smith Collection also houses the papers of a number of YWCA Overseas and World YWCA staff members including:

The SSC Periodicals collection contains Today: Magazine of the YWCA of India for 1963-79

See also the online exhibit of five YWCA overseas secretaties (Bessie Boies Cotton, Virginia Heim George, Ruth Lois Hill, Elmina R. Lucke, and Ruth Frances Woodsmall) "An Ever-Widening Circle of Friendship": YWCA Overseas Secretaries from China to Liberia.

Processing Information

Processed by Maida Goodwin, Amy Hague, Kara McClurken, Amanda Izzo, 2008.

Finding aid to the YWCA of the U.S.A. records, Record Group 5. International work
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Finding aid prepared by Maida Goodwin, Amy Hague, Kara McClurken, Amanda Izzo, and amended by Scott Biddle (2020).
2008, 2019
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of the YWCA Records was made possible by the generous support of the National Historical Records and Publications Commission and the estate of Elizabeth Norris. Digitization and description of a selection of photographs, microfilm, and publications was made possible by the Council on Library and Information Resource (CLIR) 2106-2018 Digitizing Hidden Collections grant.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2019-08-15: Parsed existing description into better fields for PUI. Updated with current language, and with post-CLIR grant info
  • 2020-08-28: Added info. to flat file folders

Repository Details

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

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063