By the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed the United States from agrarian to urban. American cities grew as a result of both foreign immigration and rural American migration. The depression of the 1880s forced people off family farms and into cities to seek employment. For the first time, young American-born women joined their immigrant counterparts in the work force in offices and factories, laboring for long hours for little pay and with no hope for advancement.
But beginning in New York City in the late 1850s, women of means and social conscience joined together as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) to better working conditions, assist with housing and aid in the safe travel of those first working women.
Lunch for Under a Nickel
In 1893, Grace Whitney Hoff, daughter of lumber and real estate baron David Whitney, and fifteen other 'gentlewomen', joined this growing national movement and founded the YWCA of Detroit. Their first program included providing a noon rest and ham sandwich (at a cost of 3 cents) for the new breed of working girls. Soon the Detroit YWCA rented rooms on East Grand River Avenue to provide programs for the improvement of the physical, social, intellectual and spiritual conditions of women in Detroit.
Following the lead of their Eastern counterparts, these society matrons soon began visiting railroad stations and boat docks to assist travelers, new arrivals and immigrants, beginning what Detroiters now know as the International Institute and Traveler’s Aid.
In 1900, the Detroit YWCA opened its first residence hall to provide safe, supervised, reasonably priced housing for those working girls who were new to the city. To provide a place for its Campfire Girls (now a separate agency), the Detroit YWCA established Michigan’s first organized summer camp.
By the mid-1920s the Detroit YWCA was at work advocating for better working conditions and against child labor in 96 different locations through the city. An appeal to raise money to build centralized ‘branch’ locations raised more than $2 million in just four days. The flagship Downtown Branch was opened in 1929, the Northern Branch in Highland Park opened in 1931 and the Lucy Thurman Branch for ‘colored’ girls and women opened in 1933. (For many years, the Lucy Thurman Branch was the only place in Detroit where blacks and whites could meet and dine together in dignity.)
Where Rosie Learned to Rivet
During the Depression, the YWCAs in Detroit and across the U.S. were the first to teach typing classes to young women seeking employment. Like other businesses in Detroit, the YWCA geared up for World War II by dropping typing instruction, instead teaching women technical skills such as mechanics, blueprint reading, aviation and nursing. Only fifty years before, a woman in the work force had been scandalous. Now working women built and fueled the Arsenal of Democracy.
By the end of the War, Detroit’s International Branch had become the International Institute, and Traveler’s Aid spun off into an independent agency. Another well known and respected organization first sponsored by the YWCA is the Detroit Business and Professional Women’s Club.
In 1947, the national YWCA adopted the nation’s first interracial charter, years before the better known civil rights struggles.
The postwar years rough a baby boom and suburban sprawl. Four new branches (Macomb, Downriver, Oakland and Northwest) were established during the fifties. The Lucy Thurman Branch was consolidated with the Downtown Branch in 1963. The Oakland Branch burned in 1969 and was rebuilt one year later.
Immerging Needs Bring New Programs
In the 1970s, women began to talk publicly about two previously taboo subjects: breast cancer and domestic violence. The YWCA responded with ENCORE, a support and exercise group for breast cancer surgery patients and Interim House, a shelter for women and children survivors of domestic violence. The national YWCA adopted its One Imperative, ‘to eliminate racism, wherever it exists and by any means possible.’
As the YWCA has been committed to the burning social issues of each era, the 80s brought about a renewed interest in activism in areas that included peace and nuclear disarmament, violence in all segments of our society, open housing, equal access to health care, teenage pregnancy, gun control, the Equal Rights Amendment, families and child care.