YWCA: Off course ... again

Rebecca Hagelin
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Posted: May 14, 2003 12:00 AM

So the Young Women's Christian Association – the YWCA – has named Patricia Ireland, former head of the National Organization for Women, its new president.

Many have expressed outrage at the hiring of Ms. Ireland, assuming her ideology is foreign to current YWCA initiatives. But if one looks at the agenda of NOW and the history of the YWCA since around 1900, unfortunately, the hire makes a lot of sense.

First, a brief look at NOW. Their self-identified victories include organizing "record-breaking crowds for protests on issues such as violence against women and abortion rights;" electing "record numbers of feminist women to Congress and state legislatures;" and their achieved goal to "organize, organize, organize to fight the right wing," including their attempts to "outlaw basic civil rights for lesbians and gay men."

Now let's take a look at the YWCA. It was founded in the United States in 1858 to help women who had moved to cities for jobs in the factories. Leaders of the movement feared women would slip into prostitution if they couldn't find housing and make ends meet, so they sought to offer the spiritual and material support women needed to meet their new challenges.

By the late 1800s, the YWCA had grown substantially and even begun to make its presence known on college campuses, providing exercise opportunities for women as well as facilities for Bible discussions and other gatherings. But by the early 1900s, the original purpose had begun to fade, replaced by political advocacy because of "the recognition that not all women had been treated equally."

At its national convention in 1911, the YWCA voted to lobby for a minimum wage. By the start of World War I, it had begun to urge more sex education. And by 1964, it had called for "frank facing of current sex practices in our culture as they affect young women of different backgrounds" – which morphed into a dangerous dance with the politics of redefining the family.

Today, its legislative agenda is a litany of liberal social causes – from expanded federal child-care funding, to laws mandating mentoring programs, to so-called women's rights issues.

The YWCA openly boasts of hiring Ireland, 57, because of her "wonderful connections in Washington." Ireland says the YWCA has become "too diffuse," and she seeks to "return it to its original missions of fighting racism and women's empowerment." The disconnect is simple: "Fighting racism" (although a worthy cause where racism truly exists) and "empowering women" (i.e., abortion rights, ERA – remember that? – etc.) had nothing to do with the YWCA's original mission.

To see where the YWCA veered off course, compare it to the YMCA, also formed in the mid-1800s to protect young people who had moved to the cities to work in factories. The YMCA has gone through many changes over the last 160 or so years, but it has never wavered from its purpose: to provide a moral underpinning for the young and vulnerable.

Perhaps that explains why the YMCA has been so much more successful than the YWCA. Or why there are 2,400 YMCAs and only 313 YWCAs in the United States. YMCAs boast 17.9 million members, making it America's largest community service organization, while the YWCA has perhaps 1 million members. The YMCA brought us basketball, volleyball, softball, the first summer camps in this country and the first aerobics classes ... the YWCA brought us some of the nation's earliest backing of a women's "right" to abortion.

Regarding the liberation of Iraq, the YMCA – as it has done in every conflict since the Civil War – pitched in and helped those affected by the war with Iraq. Its efforts focused this time on the families of soldiers, but during World War II, it ministered to prisoners of war from 36 countries, and during the Civil War its members helped treat the wounded. The YWCA busied itself during the last few months with issuing proclamations against the liberation of Iraq.

During the Vietnam War and afterward, the YMCAs got busy reinventing themselves to meet the challenges of a new, more disillusioned America. They placed new emphasis on physical training, which had begun to gain interest in the country in the early 1970s. And, in the 1980s, they started new programs focused on character building for youth that continue to this day. The YWCAs offered one more shrill voice against war and everything American.

If Patricia Ireland wants to fix the YWCA, she should return it to its true roots – helping women meet the substantial, and sometimes overwhelming, moral and physical challenges in the world today. Many women are looking for guidance in these areas and the company of others on the same path.

And they shouldn't have to go to the Young Men's Christian Association to find it.