Skip to main contentSSC banner Smith College Libraries

SSC Home | Contact us | Search site | Site Map 
Introduction Interracial Education Christian Faith and Social Action Industrial Awakening

The Industrial Awakening of the YWCA

Employed women were the YWCA movement's first constituency.  Concerns over the welfare of young, single, self-supporting women who had moved to urban areas for jobs prompted the establishment in the second half of the nineteenth century of a variety of organizations for their aid.

Associations which eventually became allied with the YWCA movement offered these women a range of services (such as housing, job placement, and cafeterias), vocational, recreational and enrichment opportunities (such as classes, concerts, libraries and gymnasium facilities), and prayer groups and other religious activities to serve their mental, moral, physical and spiritual welfare.  The idea was to introduce workers to a way of life beyond drudgery, to offer the potential for self-expression and to provide training that might prepare them for more fulfilling work.

Fourth Annual Report, 1872

from the Fourth Annual Report of the Woman's Christian Association of Cincinnati, Ohio, 1872

Photograph, 1916

YWCA Bible class in a Chocolate Factory, Birmingham, Alabama, 1916

Eager to expand their membership, YWCAs developed “Industrial-Extension” work.  With funding from employers, YWCA secretaries established lunchtime meetings inside factory buildings.  As they became better acquainted with factory working conditions and their effects on workers' lives, YWCA secretaries came to believe that this arrangement compromised their ability to work effectively and on behalf of the employees.  Clubs that were originally organized “within factory walls” moved off-site and Industrial Secretaries began to encourage the Association to see in its Christian Purpose a responsibility to work for a social change.

“By failing to define clearly its position in regard to industrial problems, the Association subjected itself to adverse criticism from other social agencies who feared that the secretaries were trying to make wage-earning women contented with bad working conditions and were not living up to their purpose of undivided loyalty to the interests of working women.”

from “The Industrial Awakening and the Young Women's Christian Association” by Genevieve M. Fox, 1919

pamphlet, 1915, page 1pamphlet, 1915, page 2pamphlet, 1915, page 3

Industrial work pamphlet, 1915

“Women of leisure who came into the Association as volunteer club leaders or committee members and became acquainted with the industrial club girls often got glimpses into a new world.  They saw a world in which girlhood was not girlhood as they had known it, a happy period of training and development for spirit, mind and body, but rather a premature shouldering of heavy burdens and a stifling of normal play instincts.  They saw a world in which women struggled to hold onto health and decency against fearful odds….

“…Mary B, the club cheer leader and the life of the whole club…suddenly dropped out because she had a bad abcess on her knee.  ‘Did she fall and hurt her knee?’ was the perfectly natural inquiry.  ‘Oh, no, she hadn't had an accident, but she'd been working a foot treadle and it did something to her knee.’ Inquiry revealed that the girl had been pressing a foot treadle 14,00 times a day for two years.  Thus did the West Side find out how the East Side lived.”

from “The Industrial Awakening and the Young Women's Christian Association” by Genevieve M. Fox, 1919

Pamphlet cover, 1928

Pamphlet cover, “The YWCA and Industry,” 1928

Makonikey northeastern region Industrial
 Conference, Martha's Vineyard

Makonikey northeastern region Industrial Conference, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, 1920

Discouraged by the slow growth of membership among industrial women, the YWCA adjusted its tactics around 1911, switching “from the adaptation of the girl to the organization to the adaptation of the organization to the girl….” As a “natural outgrowth” of this new policy, the Association worked toward “further development of the principle of self-government in the club work.” For the program to be truly useful. its clubs had to be initiated and run by the members, not the YWCA staff.

From 1913, the National Association encouraged “federation” of these small self-governing clubs into larger city, state and regional Club Councils.  These self-governing groups gave members a chance to experience democracy, learn leadership and group techniques and to begin to understand the interdependence of all working women.

In the first few years, Club Councils were primarily concerned with “executive technique,” such as how to organize groups and raise money.  By 1917 the Council experience had broadened the industrial club member's horizon to include a larger unit than “just her own factory” to the needs of women employed in industry throughout the country.  Participants were seeing themselves “industrially,” making recommendations about how Industrial Clubs might work on behalf of minimum wage laws, advocate for health insurance and promote efforts aimed at improving working conditions.

The Councils asked the National Association to develop “new kinds of evening classes different in many respects from the older type of ukulele and millinery.” Included were topics such as economic and labor problems, history, English, and public speaking, legislative questions, and how a city is governed.

“You cannot really get together a very faithful and reliable club on the common ground of a swimming pool and a ten cent supper.  The supper may be poor…and if at the end of the year, as is probable most of the members have learned to swim, the club ceases to exist.  Just how to…show them the deeper satisfaction of greater achievement was the problem of last year.

“Then, behold, there came the first awakening.  There were other cities and other clubs and other girls doing things that Rochester had never dreamed of…. The Altamont girls came back fired with a flame that could not be quenched, with a new vision and strength from the everlasting hills…. They saw that the only way to make four hundred girls wake from lethargy was to unite them…to the federated bodies of the Northeastern Field.”

from “The Influence of a Club Girl's Council on the Year's Work” by Lillian Preston Hull in The Association Monthly, April 1916

Cartoon, 1931

Cartoon by Florence Nichols and Barbara Abel, from The Womans Press, March 1931

Congoleum plant workers

Congoleum plant workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1917

Through their Studies and interactions with Club members, Industrial Secretaries on the National staff and in the Community Associations had ample experience of the struggles of industrial workers, but the YWCA's intense involvement in World War I brought much more direct consciousness of these problems to the Association as a whole.

After the war, the YWCA called its first National Conference of Industrial Club members “with the hope of phrasing a message” that would “clarify the relationship of Christianity to the present situation of women in industry.” The conference produced a set of resolutions for eventual submission to the YWCA National Convention.  The resolutions included a list of basic labor standards accompanied by a recommendation that the National Association should promote education on industrial questions among all Association members and that “women should use their newly acquired power of the franchise to secure the writing of these standards into laws.”

Munition workers at Penniman Plant, Va.

“Munition workers at Penniman Plant, Va. find recreation through YWCA Clubs,” 1918

The resolutions reached the YWCA's National Convention in 1920 as a recommendation that the YWCA adopt the “Social Ideals of the Churches” as its social program.  The “Social Ideals,” articulated by the Federal Council of Churches in 1912, called on its member denominations to assume responsibility for changing deplorable working conditions as a matter of Christian duty.

Suggestions from a group of Representatives of our Industrial Membership

from “Suggestions from a group of Representatives of our Industrial Membership”
sent to local Associations as preparation for the 1920 Concention

Detail from  Reasons Back of Convention

Detail from “Reasons Back of Convention,” published in The Association Monthly, March 1920

For the first time, Industrial Club members took an active part in Convention proceedings, and their speeches from the floor “were quite largely responsible for the passage of that platform.” Adoption of the “Social Ideals” marked the moment at which the “social thought of the Association had crystallized sufficiently so that it was ready to take a stand nationally.”

The basic shift in the emphasis of its work resulted from the YWCA's identity as a membership-directed association of “all kinds of women and girls.” Historian Dorothea Browder has described the transformation this way: “Having begun by seeking to convert working women to Protestantism, YWCA leaders found themselves converted – by a mix of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish women – to political activism as an expression of faith.”

Newsletter, 1931

Womans Press “Industrial Number,” March 1931

“Because of the experience out of which these girls had come, their interpretation of a world ruled by the Spirit of Christ was in terms of the hours of the working day; one day's rest in seven; a wage based upon the cost of living in a community; an opportunity for women in industry equal to that of men; the prohibition of child-labor and the right of employees to organize in forms which would best represent their interests.”

from “What One Group Thinks,” a report on the first National Industrial Conference by Rhoda McCulloch in The Association Monthly, December 1919

Drawing with an industrial theme by Lynd Ward

Drawing with an industrial theme
by Lynd Ward for the 1934 Convention

See Additional Sources

Home  |  Introduction  |  Interracial Education  |  Christian Faith and Social Action  |  Industrial Awakening  |  Additional Sources

Back to top

Contact us | Search our site | Site map | Terms of use Smith College Libraries  |  Smith College Home Page
 © 2009 Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063 Page last updated on Monday, 27 January 2014