Celebrating Women's History Month: Women at the YMCA

YMCA Central Branch, Philadelphia, PA, 1918.

Women and the Y: A Brief History

Original Article by YMCA of Greater Des Moines

The YMCA was founded in London in 1844 as the Young Men's Christian Association, but today the Y is so much more than its historical name suggests — the Y serves all ages, genders, religions and backgrounds. Although their role is not well documented, women have been part of the Y movement for more than a century, and we’re digging deeper into their impact during National Women’s History Month.

It was back in the 1850s in Brooklyn, NY when the first woman is believed to have joined a YMCA, and by the 1860s, there were several female Y members, at least unofficially. In 1866, the YMCA's Albany, NY convention refused to seat women delegates, asserting that representation at the convention must be based on male membership.

Two decades later, Ellen Brown became the first female employee of a YMCA and the first “boy’s work secretary.” She taught a night class that grew so rapidly that it became a department of the Y. Of course, women served in unpaid roles in the YMCA movement prior to this 1886 milestone, including as volunteer teachers and fundraisers. They “functioned as a ladies aid society would in a church. These committees of women were largely informal, and official Ladies Auxiliaries were not formed until the 1880s.”

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the YMCA was involved in running military canteens (called post exchanges today) in the United States and France; 5,145 of those Y canteen workers were women.

A secretary of the YMCA serves soldiers during World War I

YMCA women operating a motion picture machine for soldier entertainment (France, WWI)

Women playing volleyball in a YMCA gymnasium, circa 1920-1935

When the war ended, Ys had changed, as had the world. Approximately 62 percent of YMCAs were allowing female members, and “other barriers began to fall one after the other, with families the new emphasis, and all races and religions included at all levels of the organization.” By 1946, women made up 12 percent of the membership.

YMCA of New York Annual Report, 1945

In the 1960s as more women entered the workforce, the Y responded to community needs by offering full-time child development centers. More milestones in staffing followed as well, including:


  • Jean Anne Durades, regional associate of Region 1 in 1970, the first black woman to hold such a position on the National Council of the YMCA

  • Winifred Colton, the first female professional on the national YMCA staff; Colton was Secretary for Programs with Women and Girls (1957-1970) and Director of the YMCA National Family Communications Skills Center (1970-1979)

  • Evonne Raglin, who became the first woman to lead a large urban association in 1985 as the CEO of the Miami Metro YMCA

  • First Lady Michelle Obama, who chose the Y as the venue to launch her “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity in 2010

Over nearly 150 years, the YMCA of Central Ohio has grown along with the Y movement:

  • Today, approximately 58 percent of our members and 71 percent of our staff are women.

  • Our Van Buren Center gives women a safe, permanent place to call home — a place where they can find refuge from domestic violence, encouragement to become self-sufficient and compassion to manage any other situations that threaten their sense of security.

  • Our Child Watch and Kid's Time give moms (and dads) an hour or two reprieve so they can focus on their own well-being while knowing their child is safe, having fun and learning alongside peers.

  • Wellness programs like YMCA Diabetes Prevention Program, blood pressure monitoring and group exercise classes help women take time to be an effective caregiver to themselves and consequently to so many around them. These group programs also connect women to their neighbors, growing their support systems and strengthening one another in the process.

We've come a long way, and we're just getting started. Thank you for being part of this page in the Y’s history book!

Sources // Learn more:

Y-USA, University of Minnesota: Kautz Family YMCA Archives234Marshfield Area YMCASpringfield CollegeThe Great War SocietyPA History