YWCA of Cambridge: Labor Activism in the 1890s-1930s

The Cambridge YWCA Basketball Team, 1916. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission, Gladys G. Boyce Collection.

By Sarah Huggins, Intern, Lesley University
March 2020

 The YWCA of Cambridge established itself as self-governing in 1891 with a simple mission, “To improve the temporal, moral and religious welfare of those who come under its care, by personal influence and by industrial and educational classes.” The organization operated with liberal policies for their era in the formation of an inclusive environment with forward-thinking objectives. Highlighting the personal concerns of independent women, the YWCA defined itself as a “group-work agency” with an individual approach that linked women’s responsibilities to marriage and the home with birth control and other aspects of living, namely women’s newfound status as wage laborers. The Cambridge YWCA announced during its monthly meeting in January of 1903 that it had “no regard to creed or color,” and, beginning in the 1930s, allowed several clubs of African American women to use its facilities, although the black and white women did not mix.  The YWCA of Cambridge retained a finance committee of women, an employment bureau, various clubs for working women and girls, and “rooms for business girls,” all at a moderate cost.

While the Cambridge YWCA claimed that they could easily place plenty of housemaids, they noticed the growing sentiment among women who felt that they were “above” such work.

In May of 1933, the organization held a vocational conference in Hannum Hall for young women interested in occupational opportunities. Discussion groups provided exposure to careers that would have been seen as logical extensions of “women’s work,” like clerical work and nursing. One group challenged these customary notions, and encouraged women to explore opportunities in industry, or factory work. After World War I, the YWCA employment bureau denied ex-servicemen who were eager for jobs. Dedicated to their mission as a bureau for women only, the YWCA expressed sympathy for these men, but chose not to assist them. Members served as vocational counselors to help young women “[f]ind out their aptitudes and then to connect them with business and professional people.” They did not view themselves as job finders but, rather, aimed to guide women towards work that they would enjoy and at which they would excel. A 1934 Boston Transcript article found that the YWCA’s services for women in search of work proved more successful than those who sought the dimly-lit alcoves of crystal-readers, palmists, and tea leaf readers. While the Cambridge YWCA claimed that they could easily place plenty of housemaids, they noticed the growing sentiment among women who felt that they were “above” such work.

Before television and modern forms of entertainment outside the workplace, perhaps the most historically significant social service that the Cambridge YWCA offered were “after-hours” activities to promote leisure time for women employed in the factories of Cambridge and Boston. The organization set out to raise $15,000 for 500 girls employed in Cambridge factories to provide planned vacations, camping, basketball, bowling, tennis, and “dramatic entertainment” as a respite from work in the scorching summer months. Hikes and picnics in the Blue Hills of Massachusetts were common outings, reflecting changing attitudes toward women’s physical fitness. The Business and YWCA clubs of African American women produced plays during “Negro History Week,” to educate fellow (white) YWCA members on the feats of local women such as the African American poet Phyllis Wheatley and sculptor Meta Fuller, who even loaned them her art for display. The YWCA’s performance in 1937 commemorated the “Fifth Annual Celebration of Negro History Week,” with characters symbolically representative of “womanhood,” “labor,” “professionals,” “history,” “public opinion,” and the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. These productions went beyond entertainment and provided a platform for social and racial justice. An aim of the Cambridge YWCA in the present day is to position women on the front lines of racial movements.        

The overarching needs met by the Cambridge YWCA have shifted in recent years due to issues facing twenty-first-century women and their children. With an unquestionable rise in individuals experiencing homelessness, YWCA housing provides shelter, as well as a structured environment for women to ultimately transition to independent living. The mission of the Cambridge YWCA has, in many respects, remained the same, operating “for women, by women, and from a woman’s perspective” in order to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.