The Young Woman Christian Association (YWCA) emerged at Iowa State College as the largest student organization on campus during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. After a prayer meeting in March, 1878, a group of both female and male students stayed afterward and organized themselves into a group called the Student’s Christian Association. Besides holding prayer meetings, the coed Student’s Christian Association developed a Sunday school for the small children of faculty on campus, welcomed new students at the train station at the beginning of each term, and created an employment bureau.
As early as 1884, state officials called for the organization to split into two separate organizations, one for men and one for women. The group maintained its coed status for another six years, however, until May 25, 1890, when, on the advice of the visiting secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Student’s Christian Association established two separate organizations, the YMCA and the YWCA.
Sixty-eight members, including female faculty, began meeting regularly as the YWCA. President Jennie Morrison boasted in 1891 that while the coed Christian group accomplished a great deal of good, “more thorough and systematic work is done under the present plan. The Y. M.’s and Y. W.’s are still one in purpose, and walk as brother and sister in Christ.” By the early 1900s YWCA had strong missionary programs, sending clothing to children in Russia and supporting missions in India. On campus, the group arranged an all-college women’s “mixer,” greeted new students as they arrived in Ames for school each quarter, and provided Sunday prayer meetings.
One of the most lasting legacies of the YWCA for the Iowa State campus is Alumni Hall. In the spring of 1900, discussion began for a building to house both the YWCA and the YMCA. The Alumni Association offered financial support to the building project, requesting that in return they be allowed space in the building. Fundraising efforts by the YWCA, YMCA, and Alumni Association paid for initial construction costs, and the cornerstone was laid July 4, 1904. However, it took extra financial support from a prominent alum, LaVerne Noyes, to cover the costs for the completion of the building. Finally, in October 1907, Alumni Hall opened to all students to a total cost of around $63,000 for the building and all furnishings.
During World War I, the YWCA rushed to action, raising $6587.50 towards the United War Work Fund. The members even maintained a Hostess House in Alumni Hall during the influenza epidemic in 1918, offering rest and reading rooms and telephone and telegraph service to those quarantined with the flu on campus.
Through the 1930s, the YWCA fought for protective legislation for women workers in the US. The growth of unionism, however, shifted the YWCA away from labor issues to domestic issues such as cooking, sewing, and child-raising. At Iowa State, the YWCA focused on making freshman women feel welcome in their new environment. This work expanded during the 1940s to include an emphasis on international students. With the establishment of a program called the International Caravan, the YWCA monitored the arrival of foreign students to campus and encouraged them to share about their cultures with the Iowa State community.
By the 1950s, instead of restricting membership to people who “sought to understand Jesus and to follow Him," the YWCA accepted into membership all women who merely “affirmed Christian principles.” It also created a new program, the Ames Business Girls group, which offered “friendship and recreation to college and young business girls in Ames.” Work with foreign peoples also continued to be a major focus of the group. Joining with the Foreign Student Office, the YWCA sponsored a Good Neighbor Program (GNP). The members established the program to help foreign students adjust to life in the United States and at Iowa State, writing letters to incoming foreign undergraduates during the summer and then meeting their foreign friends at the beginning of the fall quarter. They also held International Friendship group meetings where foreign students spoke about the educational systems in their home countries.
YWCA Members Serve as Babysitters, 1955
By the 1960s and 1970s, the YWCA coordinated numerous service projects, fundraisers, and educational and social activities at the local level. They organized a clothesline art fair where students displayed their artwork and sold it to the Ames community. In 1961 the Clothesline Art Fair sold sixty-one works from thirty-four artists. Members volunteered at Wilson school, working with children with disabilities. The YWCA also sold UNICEF cards with proceeds going to the United Nations children’s fund. They also supported the United Native American Student Association by organizing the Sioux Indian Christmas Toy and Fund Drive. Educational seminars and workshops for students focused on many different topics including parent-child communication, self-development, and leadership training. The YWCA even sponsored an evening hangout called Catacombs, housed in Alumni Hall. On Friday nights students and community members enjoyed Bluegrass and Folk music, while Saturday nights were Christian Coffeehouse nights.
YWCA Members Enjoy a Casual Meeting, 1967
The 1970s also witnessed a drastic transformation in the purpose and services of the YWCA. It offered the first women’s issues class in 1971; the class paved the way for the development of the Women’s Studies Program at Iowa State. In 1972, the YWCA held women’s meetings in which attendees aired grievances regarding university employment discrimination. The women also advocated the creation of a women’s center, and one woman noted that “we have grown so much in the past few years that we need a specific place for women to get information, get involved, and get together.” By May, 1973, the Iowa State Daily headline announced “Conservative YWCA is Changing Its Image.” Gone was the “staid old lady of the women’s organizations.” Instead, the YWCA. emerged in the thick of the battle for sexual equality. The YWCA “realized how deeply sexism was embedded in society” and responded by offering programs created to combat sexism. The article pointed out that “consciousness-raising sessions and courses on female sexuality and job discrimination are taking place beside cooking, exercise and sewing classes.” In 1972 the YWCA national board voted to support the Equal Rights Amendment. They advocated the liberalization of abortion laws, joining other women’s organizations in filing a “friend of the court” brief before the Supreme Court in the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion case.
Since the 1980s, the YWCA has continued to offer programs devoted to the empowerment of women and eliminating racism. It offers an annual babysitters list for the Ames community and provides programs regarding childcare, health issues, and leadership for young adult women. In 1990, the YWCA celebrated its 100th anniversary on campus. At the time of the celebration, YWCA director Judy Dolphin emphasized the mission of the YWCA: to eliminate racism and empower women. During the next twenty-six years, Dolphin was instrumental in breaking down barriers, especially cultural barriers. Shortly before the Gulf War began, she created a program called Weekend Voyagers. Partnering with cultural groups on campus, she organized a series of weekend presentations about different cultures from around the world, including Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The YWCA also took over direction of the International Friendship Fairs, or visits by international students to various central Iowa classrooms during November and March. The international student participants used games, crafts, music, stories, and dress to educate children on their culture and country. Finally, the YWCA also hosted Embracing International Spouses. In a series of workshops and activities, spouses of international students can learn English, cooking in Iowa, and share their experiences with other international spouses.
In addition to its international programs, the YWCA has partnered with the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center to organize “Take Back the Night,” an annual march meant to educate the community about sexual assault. In 1995, with the national headquarters, the local YWCA chapter organized a “Week Without Violence” program. In 1997 it also implemented a mentoring and leadership group called “G.I.R.L.S. Power,” pairing Iowa State female student mentors with seventh-grade girls in Ames. The program concentrates on five areas of development: leadership, social events, community service, fund raising, and career exploration. In 2005 the YWCA organized the first annual “Race Against Racism,” a fundraiser for a multicultural day camp in Ames.
The YWCA continues to provide assistance for women and men at Iowa State and in the Ames community. YWCA Board member, Tanya Zanish-Belcher noted that the YWCA “reaches groups ranging from middle-school students to international spouses, to everyone in-between." Her favorite event is the “Just Desserts: A Taste of Chocolate and More” fundraiser organized by the YWCA Board. She said, “Local restaurants and donors donate chocolate (and now, other desserts) for a YWCA fundraiser. It helps support the YWCA office and also scholarships for students.” To Zanish-Belcher, the YWCA serves an important role in Ames. She stated that the YWCA “focuses on the areas I care about and which are important to me…[The] Y gives me the opportunity to connect with others who feel the same, and also allows me to more directly connect with students. This includes both our student Board members and the students impacted by Y programming.” The YWCA will continue to be a strong force for “peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all people.”