The YWCA ‘herstory’ began in 1855 as a result of the work of two women: Mary Kinnaird and Emma Robarts. Mary Kinnaird started the General Female Training Institute for nurses working with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war. Emma Robarts started the Prayer Union to intercede for young women. In 1877, these two women combined their work under the name of the Young Women’s Christian Association.
“No greater formality was needed to bring about this union than the mutual agreement of the two leaders over a cup of tea.”
The YWCA of Dunedin was the first to be established in the Southern Hemisphere in 1878. This was followed by Christchurch (1883) and Auckland (1885). The World YWCA was set up in 1894. The national association, established in 1907, was originally part of the Joint YWCA of Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand formed its own national association in 1926, as the YWCA of New Zealand. This then became the YWCA of Aotearoa New Zealand in 1991.
Safety for women has been a concern for the YWCA since the organisation began. Member associations would provide support and shelter to young working class women arriving on the immigrant ships. This early work led to the establishment of the first hostels for immigrant women, and later for young rural women coming to the cities. In the 1950s and 1960s the hostels were used as student accommodation. By the 1980s several YWCAs had changed focus to provide boarding houses or emergency accommodation.
The safety of women’s souls, also a concern to early Christian YWCA members, led these women to take bible readings and hymn singing to women in factories. More recently the relevance of a patriarchal Christianity has been strongly questioned by the YWCA and the national association has called for a change in the exclusive language of the Christian basis of the World YWCA. Advice on sexual harassment was included in early publications and the YWCA pioneered sex education from 1913.
A major function of the YWCA over the years has been in providing leadership opportunities for women. The Girl Citizen Movement is an example and was active in the 1920s and 1930s. The Girl Citizens was joined by thousands of 14 to 20 year old women, who learned the skills of running conferences and meetings, speaking in public, organising fundraising, holiday camps, dances, plays and outings.
The YWCA was a pioneer of sport for women. The first YWCA recreation programme was held in Dunedin in 1883 and there was gymnasium work in Auckland by 1886, which was developed into eurythmics (rhythmical gymnastics) by YWCA Wellington in the 1940s. Most YWCAs had a gymnasium attached to their building, and the associations were heavily involved in all aspects of women’s sport until after World War II.
During the Depression, the YWCA faced a dilemma, its traditional clientele were those young women who were among the first to lose their jobs. Initially the YWCA provided them with some free meals, beds and set up employment services. However, this practical response was soon swamped by the enormity of the problem and the organisation decided to balance these activities (and its books) by initiating the Business and Professional Women’s clubs in the 1930s.
Employed women had to pay unemployment tax during the Depression but were not eligible for relief payments from the unemployment fund. The YWCA, together with the National Council of Women and unemployed women’s groups, lobbied the government to change this inequitable situation.
The YWCA’s leadership training came into its own during the war years. The YWCA had campaigned for peace and was less than impressed with men’s decision to go to war:
The Brotherhood of Man, alas, is rather on the blink
The Sisterhood of Woman, though, is possible, we think.
During the war years Member Associations organised hostel accommodation for women coming to the cities to keep industries running. They also ran thriving but respectable social clubs. The YWCA has always tried to respond to the current aspirations of women and in the 1950s and 1960s it reflected the emphasis on femininity, home and family. Classes such as millinery, international cooking and floral art attracted large numbers of homemakers who had become a majority of the association’s membership.
In the 1970s, financial worries with the hostels began to shake the YWCA out of its complacency. In the 1980s, the energy of feminism claimed the organisation, and it began to focus more on issues of social justice. This has attracted more young women, Māori women and lesbians to the organisation and initiated a number of women’s groups, including Te Kakano o te Whanau and the Pacific Islands Women’s Project.
The 1990s were a period where the YWCA sought to target its programme and activities to work with women with the least access to resources, and the new millennium has seen more changes in the YWCA of Aotearoa New Zealand. The focus on young women has been paramount in the success of national campaigns and projects that have been undertaken by the National association. Constitutional changes have enabled the association to be more proactive and empowering for the young women who are involved in the organisation.
The YWCA has been instrumental in girls self defence projects over many decades, promoting positive body images for young women through our Like Your Body booklet, and supporting young women’s leadership in promoting youth as a voice for social change with our DIY booklet.
Greta Jenkins, One Hundred Years, 1878-1978, Dunedin YWCA, 1978
The New Zealand Girl, 1 June 1940, p17
Every Girl; Sandra Coney, 1986, p243-244