Archive photo of group of girls at a YMCA pool
Apr 5, 2021

Women and the YMCA: then and now

Photo Courtesy of the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.

This Women’s History Month, the YMCA of Metro Chicago will highlight the myriad ways women have shaped the Y—from women’s groups that created spaces for themselves early on in the YMCA’s history to our own Association’s trailblazing, present-day women leaders.

While the YMCA was originally founded to provide healthy recreational and community activities for men, women’s involvement in the Y dates back to 1858, when the first recorded women’s auxiliary was established at a YMCA in Charleston, South Carolina.

During both the Civil War and World War I, women continued to play a present, albeit unofficial, role in YMCAs throughout the nation, volunteering in wartime efforts, developing women’s programming, and creating self-governed groups and committees.

In 1933, the National Council of YMCAs began allowing local Y associations to admit female members. Still, the fight to fully acknowledge women at the Y had a long way to go. A special national council committee titled “Principles and Standards of YMCA Work with Women and Girls” formed in 1941, and it wasn’t until 1957 that the YMCA formally incorporated women and girls in their purpose statement.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the YMCA continued to actualize that renewed purpose, recommending gender-inclusive policies, holding conferences around the world about gender issues, and advocating internally for equal opportunity among women staff.

As the YMCA evolves to fully support and empower women and people of all gender identities, we’re guided by our own history and the generations of women leaders who organized locally, nationally, and globally to build a better, more inclusive Y.