Our History

Through the decades, the one reliable
resource women and families can count on.


Historical info excerpted in part, with permission, from 1998 essay by Mildred Andrews for www.HistoryLink.org

Women helping women

In 1894, a group of 28 women led by Mrs. Rees Daniels founded the Seattle Young Women's Christian Association to help “the working girl” toward self support. Initially, they opened a lounge and a cafeteria offering 10-cent lunches for working women. With help from the Union Pacific Railroad Company, the YWCA hired a depot matron who met trains and steamers “to guard and guide young women traveling alone.”

Turn-of-the-century Seattle was a wide open town, rife with bawdy houses and saloons. From its early history, the YWCA organized multi-interest, multi-cultural clubs to keep young women and girls “interested in the best things,” according to Secretary Emily Southmayd, “and thereby prevent their being attracted by questionable amusements.”

There were clubs for young married women, factory workers, domestic workers and office workers. African-American women joined the Culture Club, and women of Japanese, Chinese and Russian descent met in their respective clubs. High school girls joined the Girl Reserves, and younger girls joined Bluebird or Rainbow Clubs.

In the early 1910s, the YWCA launched a whirlwind fundraising drive for its own building. Working women throughout the city made their own contributions and canvassed businesses for funds. The $400,000 was raised through the sale of bricks for $1 per brick and concessions at the 1909 Alaska Yukon Exposition. The eight-story brick building located at 5th Avenue and Seneca Streets in downtown Seattle opened in 1914. It remains our headquarters today.

Also in 1914, when the Legislature enacted a landmark $10 per week minimum wage for women, the YWCA declared its chief aim to be “the training and fitting of girls to enable them to earn at least minimum wage.” The Vocational Training Department held classes in millinery, dressmaking, cafeteria work, tearoom management, practical nursing, manicuring and salesmanship. A home economics program prepared girls for marriage or for domestic work. The YWCA developed strong relations with the business community, arranging job placements and promoting better conditions for women in the workplace.


A commitment to empowering women, eliminating racism

In 1919, the Culture Club established its own branch in the heart of Seattle’s Central District. Despite the YWCA’s long-held inclusive philosophy, social mores of the day prevailed in the downtown building, where African-American women could not rent a hotel room and where they could swim in the pool only on Saturday afternoons – before it was drained and cleaned.

The new Phyllis Wheatley Branch (named for the famous black poet of the Revolutionary War era) was the first of its kind in the Northwest, providing social, educational and employment programs to 150 African-American members. The branch provided lodging and became a popular venue for weddings, dances for young people, and meetings of community women’s organizations.

From the start, the Phyllis Wheatley Branch sent a non-voting representative downtown to YWCA board meetings. As the new representative in the 1930s, Bertha Pitts Campbell protested, saying that if she was expected to attend meetings, she wanted to vote. The board requested a change in policy from the national association, which granted its approval, giving Seattle the distinction of having the first racially integrated YWCA board in the nation.

Years later, Campbell said that despite difficulties, she felt that the city’s racial climate might have benefited, because “the 'Y' always listened.”


Championing social justice

Throughout the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, our local YWCA remained a champion of social justice and equal rights. Our Board of Directors went on record in support of President Johnson’s war on poverty and sent telegrams to lawmakers urging immediate passage of civil rights legislation “as a first step in eliminating poverty and racism in the U.S.A.” We sponsored public forums on equal rights and civil liberties, housing and health programs for low-income groups.

As we began to acquire and build additional permanent housing units for low-income women and families in the 1980s and 90s, we committed to fair housing practices that reject discrimination based on race and other factors.

For the next two decades, the YWCA opened regional service centers in Renton and Everett, Opportunity Place in downtown Seattle, the YWCA Family Village in Redmond and Greenbridge Learning Center in White Center. Each new facility reflected the growing needs of the community and the shift in the diversity of the region. Culturally appropriate employment, counseling and family services were offered including programs to support girls of color as the next generation of successful women leaders.