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"A Strong Voice for Women"

For the week of Monday January 20, 2003

From January 22 to 23, 1895 the Dominion Council of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) gathered for the first time in Ottawa, Ontario, with its president Miss Bertha Wright.

Working Women's Club, Senior Employment Department, Toronto YWCA, ca. 1928

Working Women's Club, Senior
Employment Department, Toronto YWCA, ca. 1928

© LAC / PA 123613

By the First World War, this national organization “of women, by women and for women” had become the most widely respected and popular social organization for young Canadian women and girls.

The first Canadian YWCA was formed in Saint John, N.B., in 1870; its agenda inspired by YWCA’s in Britain and the United States. Though its existence was short-lived, permanent associations were formed in Toronto (1873), Montréal (1874), Québec and Halifax (1875). Some of them were independent and others affiliated with the American YWCA. New associations appeared throughout Canada and, by 1893, a Dominion (Canadian) YWCA was created to unite them.

YWCA Schoolgirls' Camp, Muskoka District, Ontario, ca. 1917.

YWCA Schoolgirls' Camp,
Muskoka District, Ontario, ca. 1917.

© LAC / PA 123627

The role and status of women changed considerably during the rapid industrialization of the 19th century. Single women left their parents’ homes in greater numbers to work in cities. The YWCA, a volunteer organization of middle-class women, hoped to assist these “Modern Girls” in facing the “dangers” of urban society. The greatest fear was that single women, easily victimized by poverty and unemployment, might fall into intemperance, crime or prostitution without parental guidance. To “protect” the girls, the YWCA offered wholesome entertainment and affordable lodging, run and supervised by women.

Junior Girl's Banquet, Montréal YWCA, 1921.

Junior Girl's Banquet, Montréal YWCA, 1921.
© LAC / PA 138590

YWCA founders believed that women had great influence as mothers, wives and citizens. If given the necessary skills, they could rid society of many ills. Early services, such as Bible classes, reading rooms and Traveller’s Aid, focused on preparing girls for motherhood or, if they remained single, a purposeful independence. With time, the YWCA emphasis on the moral supervision of girls was lessened to increase the provision of practical help, with employment bureaus, vocational courses, Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) programs and summer camps. The YWCA aspired to meet the real needs of girls, demonstrated by the extension of their programs to benefit younger girls, women with various backgrounds, and students. This was also evident during the war years, when they opened “Hostess Houses” and organized war-work for women.

The YWCA continues to work for the improvement of women’s spiritual, intellectual, social and physical well-being. For this reason, the Young Women’s Christian Association has been designated of National Historical Significance.

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