YWCA -- Seattle-King County/Snohomish County

  • By Mildred Andrews
  • Posted 10/13/1998
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 290
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In 1894, a group of 28 women founded the Seattle YWCA 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, they hired a depot matron who, according to the association’s 1901-1902 Winter Prospectus, met trains and steamers "to guard and guide young women traveling alone." Membership was open to any moral girl or woman without regard to race or religion. Today the Seattle-King County-Snohomish County YWCA, headquartered at 5th Avenue and Seneca Street in downtown Seattle, focuses on youth and childcare programs and on issues like homelessness and domestic violence.

Clubs for Girls and Women

Turn-of-the-century Seattle was a wide open town, rife with bawdy houses and saloons. From its early history, the YWCA organized 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 (the forerunner of the local chapter of Business and Professional Women). The Cosmopolitan Club focused on world fellowship. 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.

A Class-A Building of Its Own

In the early teens, the YWCA launched a whirlwind fund-raising drive for its own building. Working women throughout the city made their own contributions and canvassed businesses for funds. Designed by E. Frere Champney, the eight-story brick building located at Fifth Avenue and Seneca Streets in downtown Seattle opened in 1914. It provided a tearoom, a cafeteria, Turkish baths, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a hotel, clubrooms, and a vocational school.

A Friend of the Working "Girl"

In 1914 when the legislature enacted the 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" (YWCA Class Schedule, 1914-1915). 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. Local businesses sponsored athletic teams and welcomed YWCA teachers, who conducted informal lunch-hour classes.

Commitment to Racial Justice

In 1919, the Culture Club established its own branch in the heart of the Central District. Despite the YWCA's 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 Phillis 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 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 Phillis Wheatley Branch sent a non-voting representative downtown to YWCA board meetings. As the new representative in the 1930s, Bertha Pitts Campbell (1889-1990) 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" (Author Interview with Campbell, 1983).

The YWCA Today

Today, the YWCA of Seattle-King County-Snohomish County is a major social service institution with facilities throughout the Greater Seattle region. The association focuses on youth work and child care, and on issues like homelessness and domestic violence.

In 1971, the YWCA initiated daytime, after-school, and summer childcare and youth programs to assist working mothers. A decade later it pioneered infant and toddler daycare programs at the downtown headquarters, where working parents could stop by during their lunch break. Recent programs assist at-risk youth as well as homeless families. Angeline’s Day Care Center for Homeless Women in downtown Seattle, and Family Village in Redmond provide shelter, counseling, medical services, and a safe haven for homeless women.

In 2004 the YWCA's stated mission is:

"To advance the quality of life for women of all ages, races, and faiths, and their families. In support of this mission, the YWCA provides services to meet critical needs, promote self-sufficiency, reduce violence, and achieve equal opportunities for all people" (YWCA Website).

The YWCA articulates its beliefs and vision as follows:

"We believe that, working together, we can create a community where:

  • Every woman and family has safe and adequate housing.
  • Every adult has the opportunity to be self-sufficient.
  • All children and youth can develop the personal qualities and competencies they will need for successful adulthood.
  • And all members of our community can live in peace and dignity, free from violence" (Website).

Through a variety of programs, the YWCA continues to fulfill its mission to advance the quality of life for women, children, and families of all races and faiths. As in the past, it is governed by an all-female board of trustees."


Mildred Tanner Andrews, Seattle Women: A Legacy of Community Development (Seattle: YWCA, 1984) 24-9; Andrews, Washington Women as Path Breakers (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1989), 60-6; Andrews, Woman's Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 200-3, 253; YWCA Seattle-King County, Records (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Manuscripts and University Archives, Seattle); YWCA Seattle-King County, The YWCA Works: A Century of Service (Seattle: YWCA-Seattle-King County, 1994); YWCA of Seattle-King County/Snohomish County Website accessed on September 1, 2004 (http://www.ywcaworks.org/).
Note: This essay was updated on September 1, 2004.

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