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This 1987 account, titled “The Topeka YWCA In an Era of Changing Women’s Lives, 1887-1987” was prepared in honor of the first 100 years of YWCA Topeka by Sara W. Tucker of Washburn University.
The Topeka Young Women’s Christian Association was founded November 19, 1887 by a group of Topeka women wanting “to work for young women…in a systematic way.” Although no formal national organization of YWCAs yet existed, the constitution adopted was the one recommended by the National Committee of YWCAs, and the Topeka organization thereby became a full-fledged member of one of the fastest growing mainstream women's organizations in nineteenth century America.
In the 1880s this YWCA movement was still a very young one. First emerging in England in the 1850 as a separate women’s version of the YMCAs founded there in the 1840s, the YW movement had crossed the ocean to the United States by 1866, when the first American YWCA was founded in Boston. English and American YWCAs were organized in response to many of the changes coming out of industrialization and the growth of cities. Traditionally, respectable young women lived and worked at home until marriage provided a new home, or until they went to a job within another respectable home. Now increasing numbers of young girls were leaving home to go alone to distant cities where they would be exposed to new temptations and dangers without family and church to guide them. The protection and guidance of such young working women was the central cause of the early YWCA movement which took as its overall goal “the elevation of women physically, mentally, morally, end spiritually.”
By 1887 the city of Topeka was ready for its own YWCA. Several years before in 1884, Topeka’s Washburn College had begun a YW chapter, but none was available for the women of Topeka itself. Founded In 1854 with a total population of nine, by 1887 Topeka was booming. That year its rapidly growing population stood at 29,973, up almost four thousand from the year before when it had been 25,005. By 1889 it would be 35,622.
People were flocking to the capital city of Kansas take advantage of the new jobs available there; by the 1880s Topeka employers included not only state government and the Santa Fe Railroad, but also a broad assortment of mills, factories, and stores. While most workers hired were men, women were also beginning to find work in factories where they were often preferred because they were willing to work for lower pay and caused less trouble on the job. Hired women were also wanted for more traditional women’s work as seamstresses, milliners, washerwomen and maids to the better established ladies of Topeka.
The needs of such young women were the primary focus of the Topeka YWCA during its earliest years. Starting with no meeting place and almost no funding with which to pay for one, within two years the YW had raised funds, rented rooms, and begun the recruitment of needy young women to use them. It was able to do so first because of the long hours as well as funds given by its founding members, and by the new supporters soon recruited. But behind this was also the support of many other members of the Topeka community, who regularly helped “the YW ladies” with contributions of money, goods, and services. From its earliest years the Topeka YWCA was a community institution seen as serving a community need.
The Topeka YWCA’s first address was 108 East Sixth Street, in rented rooms, over Fish’s Spice Mills; before moving there in March 1889 YW organizational meetings had mostly been held in the Topeka YMCA’s chapel. The amount appropriated to meet operating Costs the first year, March through December 1889, Came to $870 including $250 for room rent and $250 for a full-time staff member to receive members as they visited the association rooms.
Although very small by today’s standards these yearly costs, along with those special ones associated with outfitting their new rooms, kept the founders of Topeka’s young YWCA busy collecting funds. Membership dues, set at one dollar a year so as not to discourage anyone from joining, could not be expected to pay all costs. As a result, pledge drives became a frequent and permanent feature of YWCA life along with expressions of gratitude local businesses willing to donate or discount gifts of labor or materials.
The result was a set of YWCA rooms in which young working women could gather for safe, inexpensive meals, and then return to after work for bible study meetings, self-improvement classes, teas, sing-alongs at the parlor piano (purchased on time payment for a total of $165.00), or quiet work In the library. As early as 1889 the Rooms and Library Committee was able to report proudly that 150 books had been donated for the library shelves, and that among other magazines, girls could read The Voice, Woman’s Journal, Golden Rule, The Ladies Home Journal, Demarest’s Family Magazine and The Topeka Daily Capital. That year educational classes were offered in Bookkeeping, Stenography, Physical Cultural, Penmanship, and Dressmaking. Six continuing bible classes were taught, and 45 onetime gospel meetings were held.
The YW also supplied services outside its rooms running both an employment bureau and a boarding house referral services. During the year 1889 the YW reported that almost 200 women had come to them looking for girls to hire, 117 girls had asked the YW to help them find jobs and 92 jobs had in fact been arranged. The result of all these activities can be seen in the explosive growth in membership during the first year of full operation, 1889. As of 1888 the YW had 72 members; by the end of 1889 its numbers had more than tripled to a total of 254 members.
The YW Builds a Home, 1910 - 1911
By the end of 1909 the YW was becoming almost too successful, growing too large for its second home, another set of rented rooms at 610 South Kansas Avenue. For the month of December alone that year, YW records showed 175 attending physical classes, 101 at education classes, and 886 present at religious classes and meetings, including the now-famous bible study classes of Mrs. Flo V. Menninger. In the same month 3,553 lunches were served. Statistics for that year also showed 167 young women referred to rooms or boarding houses, 156 applications for help in finding employment, 224 requests for girls to be hired, and 71 employees and employers matched up. Paid membership stood at 625, with many hundred more women involved with the YW as volunteers or as sustaining members.
The next step was an obvious, although also very large, one: the Topeka YWCA needed to build its own building. Over the next two years this is what was done thanks to a series of fundraising campaigns in which a total of $82,000 was pledged. On June 16, 1911 the YWCA’s new building at 7th and Van Buren Streets was formally opened. Altogether it cost $67,942: $9,000 for the double lot site, $51,287 for the building, and $7,655 for its furnishings.
For this sum the YW got a three-story building, plus finished basement. The YWCA finally had enough space for its present activities, and enough space to begin new ones. New activities began at both the bottom and the top of the new building. In the basement the YW had the only swimming pool in Topeka open to women in an age of separate swimming for the two sexes. Income from this pool as well as from the YW’s interest in Mount Hope Cemetery was expected to pay the larger facility’s increased operating expenses.
Fifteen residential rooms occupied the top floor. While a few were reserved for women travelers passing through Topeka, most were rented to young women working or studying in Topeka and needing a safe, inexpensive place to live. Limits were placed both on how long a young woman might live in the residence and how much salary she might make while there. The idea was to keep YW rooms for those most needing them, and to make sure that established girls moved on, making room for more needy newcomers.
In between its residential rooms and its pool the YW had two full stories in which to carry on all of its established activities, now on a much expanded scale. Some began even before the new building was ready. Young girls from the Red Seal Manufacturing Company organized a Gymnasium Club and then kept themselves busy until the gym was ready making themselves the bloomers in which they would be exercising. Once the building was open they were charged ten cents a week combined membership and gymnasium fees.
The list of activities carried out in the new YWCA was almost endless. Over 43,000 lunches were served in 1911 to an average daily attendance of 180; this was up over 9,000 from the year before. There were 267 enrolled for swimming and 172 for gym classes the first year. The building’s bathrooms were used not only by residents, but also by city women with no other place to take a hot bath. The YW building also served as a center for Topeka women in general, as its parlors were available for women’s gatherings of all sorts. The first year YW parlors were used for WCTU, DAR, teachers, suffrage and grange meetings, as well as operettas, recitals and numerous club and board meeting of local church and charitable organizations. In order to handle all of this activity the full-time staff grew to five, fund drives reappeared, and continued to be a regular feature of YWCA life.
In addition, World War I soon brought a new cause to the Topeka YWCA. Even before American involvement in the war, YW girls worked to send aid to civilian war victims in Europe. At least one gift brought unexpected results, when a sack sent full of flour to Belgian children in 1915 was returned in 1919 with an embroidered picture of a happy child dipping into a full flour barrel. Once the United States entered the war in 1917, the women of the Topeka YW, like those in YWCAs across the country, also prided themselves on holding jobs outside the home. While in peacetime these jobs might have been seen as “men’s work” or as suitable only for working class women, in wartime they were seen as ways that women night free men to go fight in the war.
The YWCA and Change in the 1920s
By the end of 1918 the war was over, and by the 1920s women’s lives were changing again across America. Thanks to the Nineteenth Amendment, after 1920 women were able to vote. But in many ways this made little difference to women’s daily lives, as most women still expected to make the job of being wives and mothers their life careers, and most active politics and well-paid jobs were still left to the men. On a different level, however, women’s lives were changing, and in ways which soon affected YW programs, and which later also contributed to the much larger upheavals of the present feminist era.
Basically, most of these changes were improvements. Increasing numbers of both working girls and married women were well enough off to begin looking to the YWCA as a place for entertainment and cultural improvement. This happened for a number of reasons. More and more working women were anything but needy or helpless; greater, although still limited, numbers of them were not working-class at all, but professionals. Improvements in public education meant that increasing numbers of young women were qualified for jobs very different from those of factory girls or untrained housemaids. At the same time changes in the economy produced more and more “white collar” women’s jobs such as secretary, salesclerk, telephone operator, librarian, teacher and social worker. Although severely limited, some opportunities did exist for women to have careers as physicians, lawyers, and business women. The influence of women’s wartime employment carried over somewhat into peacetime, since it remained more acceptable for single girls of comfortable backgrounds to take jobs before marriage. For all of these reasons, by the mid-1920s while some YW working girls continued to come from very poor families and hold unskilled jobs, others did not.
At the same time, lives of married women also were changing. Up until the first world war perhaps only a small minority of married women could afford enough help at home to let them escape the burdens of housework and child care long enough to come regularly to the YW, usually as volunteers interested in raising funds or working with the “needy.” But by the 1920s technology began affecting more and more married women in ways that lightened their home duties, thereby increasing their spare time.
Technology did this in a number of ways. Beginning in the 1920s all sorts of new household machinery began appearing in normal middle-class homes. Furnaces and electric lights kept homes cleaner, while vacuum cleaners, washing machines and electric irons made laundry and housecleaning chores easier. Modern stoves and refrigerators improved kitchen work, as did prepared foods. Factories now produced more clothes, leaving less sewing to be done by women at home. Of course the new scarcity of young women wanting to be housemaids made the lives of some better-established women more difficult, but on the whole most women who could afford such machinery found their household duties much improved.
Women were also spending a shorter period of their adult lives being mothers. In part this was simply because women were living longer thanks to modern medicine and improved diets. But it was also the result of the fact that birth control first became available to most married women during the era of the 1920s and 1930s. As a result average family sizes continued to shrink, meaning that young mothers had fewer children to care for at home, and older mothers had longer and longer lives left to live once their children were grown.
The result was that in the 1920s increasing numbers of women came to the YWCA for things in addition to its established programs of benevolent work and bible study, or as a place for help in getting started. While continuing those programs, the YW also served increasingly as a center at which women with established jobs or homes came together to develop new interests. During this and the following several decades much of what happened at the YW happened through its many clubs established from the 1920s through the 1940s. Included among the most active and long lived of these were the Matrons, the Business Girls League, the Negro Business and Professional Women’s Association, the Negro Industrial Girls, the Girl Reserves, the Sunflower Girls, the Senoritas Club and the Y-Toastmistresses.
Through these and many other YW-linked organizations, Topeka women were able to share one large culture of Christian womanhood while also staying within the divisions of class, race, and separate interests that still divided most American women. It is true that these separations were also found at the YWCA, where most activities took place in groups almost always divided along racial, and often along ethnic and economic, lines. But it is also true that the Topeka YWCA served all categories of Topeka women, even if this was often done, in accord with the customs of the times, at separate times and in separate groups. YW facilities were available following the “separate but equal” ideas of the time, but throughout its history the YW was reaching out to the different groups in Topeka to encourage them to be associated with the YWCA.
The YWCA in Hard Times and Another War
With the stock market crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it, times turned hard again in Topeka as they did across the United States and the world. Despite a reduced income of its own in this era the YW again focused its energies on the old familiar jobs of serving needy families and training women in survival skills. A soup kitchen was set up in the basement to serve meals to unemployed men working for the city. A women’s unemployment office was set up in the YWCA building, and talks on economical housekeeping were given while women waited their turn for its help. One such talk in January 1933 told women how to feed their families a ten cent meal. Other talks and classes that year covered subjects such as home nursing, child care and inexpensive recipes, with special emphasis on reaching the woman that might never have needed to know these things. Free recreation programs were also given for unemployed families. Usually a movie was shown, often followed by games in the gymnasium and perhaps ice cream or some other sort of refreshment.
By the end of the 1930s the grip of the Depression was lessening, but in December 1941 it was followed by the Second World War. The YWCA immediately plunged into activities supporting the American war effort, primarily through area USO programs. Funds were also collected for war relief programs both within the United States and abroad, especially in China. Women soldiers from the new air base outside of town were invited to use building facilities, and YW groups travelled to the Topeka VA Hospital to entertain patients there.
The war finally ended in the summer of 1945, and Topeka and the YWCA settled back to enjoy well-deserved peace and prosperity. But within a few years things were again changing. The issue of integration was one increasingly discussed within the Topeka YW at least since the final years of the war. By the late 1940s, about the same time that President Harry Truman moved to integrate the armed services, the YWCA National Board began moving its policies toward racial integration. In February 1953 complete integration also became a Topeka YWCA policy with a simple statement in its Board Minutes that all YW facilities and functions would be open to all qualified members. The Topeka YWCA was thereby integrated a year before the now-famous Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court case.
Other, smaller changes also signaled continued change under the fabric of American life: women were beginning to expand the scope of their lives again after years of depression and wartime limitations. The post-war years brought an increase in the ever-present interest of YW groups in events abroad, reflecting widespread belief that this was an area in which women could and should be active. By the 1950s the schedules of various YW organizations reflected another change in women’s lives: meeting times began shifting toward nighttime hours to accommodate growing numbers of working women. By the late 1950s most Board meetings were held in the evening; until then the established time had been ten in the morning.
The YWCA and the Age of Feminism
But such changes were only faint shadows of the much greater ones of the 1960s and 1970s. Women’s lives had been changing radically at least since the mid-nineteenth century. But one thing had remained unchanged for most Americans: the assumption that men’s and women’s lives were basically and profoundly different, and so should follow different patterns, and be protected by different laws and customs. A woman’s normal calling was motherhood, and a man’s was to work in the world.
Finally, beginning in the 1960s and spreading across America by the 1970’s, this assumption was challenged and rejected by many middle-of-the-road mainstream, “ordinary” Americans. It is not clear what finally made this revolution happen. Perhaps it had simply taken several generations from earlier changes in the vote, education, lifespan, family size and household burdens to become widespread enough to change basic ideas about women and the family. Perhaps these changes would have happened earlier without the terrible emergencies of world depression and war. Perhaps it took the later philosophical challenges of the civil rights movements of the 1960s before society’s most deeply held assumptions about family and gender could be shaken.
Whatever sparked it, by the 1970’s more and more people were rejecting the idea that the ideal woman, if a wife and mother, should under no circumstances have another career. Soon new voices joined in, adding that even if some lucky homemakers were perfectly happy remaining within their homes, this still only masked the fact that for great numbers of American women, often non-white and poor, daily life was not a choice between fulfilled homemaking and a satisfying career, but rather the reality of low-paying jobs, political powerlessness, crushing family burdens, and legal discrimination.
Soon feminists were at work challenging all sorts of established American patterns and policies. Mothers began going back to work or to school in record numbers. Qualified women challenged barriers, acknowledged and invisible, limiting their opportunities in the professions, in politics and in business. Women’s labor laws, once sought by earlier women’s activists, were now attacked as barriers to women’s equality and advancement. In rapid progression long established practices in areas as scattered as credit policies, segregated clubs, and women’s exclusion from military academies fell under attack.
Soon the YWCA was at the center of new activities reflecting much of this change, as usual through new programs and policies introduced in response to the changing needs and ideas of its members. The current YWCA building at 225 W. 12th Street, built in 1976 to replace the crumbling old building at 7th and Van Buren, reflected both program change and continuity. Partly because of funding limitations, no residential rooms were included, as the YW recognized the fact that most young women saw themselves as well able to look after their own purity and safety. But most programs continued in some form, often taking a new lease on life as YW women attacked the problems of combining parenthood and career, or the cause of changing public policies, with a new zest and commitment.
Along these lines, Topeka’s battered woman’s shelter program was started under YW leadership, and might be considered a continuation of a sort of earlier YW residential rooms. The Everywoman’s Resource Center was also started under YW sponsorship, as was a large Latchkey program that offered supervised after-school care for children of working parents. Begun at the YW building, the program is now operated across Topeka at various neighborhood sites. In 1987 the YW assumed responsibility for the Girls Club of Topeka. Women’s changing interests are also reflected in various adult programs which include ones for displaced homemakers, personal development training, and single parent issues. By 1985 so many of these programs were proving successful that overcrowding forced construction of a new building addition, opened and dedicated in 1987.
Perhaps the final sign of both change and continuity at the Topeka YWCA can be found in the current staff of the Topeka YWCA. The tradition of Topeka YW directors is a distinguished one, perhaps headed by Miss Hazel D. Butterfield, who served as YWCA director between 1927 and 1946. But no matter how distinguished, all YW directors before the current director, Joan Wagnon, shared one characteristic; they were unmarried women who would not have been offered the job had they had the “home duties” of wife and mother to fulfill. Today’s Topeka YW director is not only married and the mother of two sons, she is also a member of the Kansas Legislature, representing her Topeka district. In fact much of the rest of the YW staff, like its board and its general membership, reflect the new complexities of women’s lives as they, and their families, juggle the many roles of career, community service, and family.
At the same time, the most basic ingredients of YWCA programs have not changed over the past hundred years. They remain those that serve women “physically, mentally, morally and spiritually.” For much of the YW’s first century, however, the assumption remained that these goals would be accomplished differently for men and women, as their lives followed different patterns. In its second century the YWCA is again beginning a struggle to help women in an era of rapid change. But this time, change is centered on women, and on the problems and opportunities raised by the feminism of our times.
More information about the history of YWCA Topeka is available at the Kansas Historical Society http://www.kshs.org/archives/44240