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Vol. LXII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
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Speaker Lauds YWCA’s Activism at Annual Friends Luncheon

Ellen Gilbert

“It makes sense to take time to think about history,” said scholar Nancy Marie Robertson as she began her talk last week at the YWCA of Princeton’s Annual Friends Luncheon.

The author of the recently published book, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations and the YWCA, 1906 — 46, suggested that the Y provides a “case study” that mirrors the concerns of a larger society. Lessons to be gleaned include “how to get through hard times,” and, more pointedly, how black and white women have worked together over the years.

Ms. Robertson’s discussion of the YWCA’s 150-year history was illustrated with slides of the Howard Chandler Christy posters that advertised the organization’s virtues during the first half of the 20th century. Besides encouraging women to participate in its “swim and gym” activities, she said, the Y’s notion of “empowering women” included involvement in the early civil rights struggle. As a result of the social stands it took on issues like civil rights, women’s suffrage, and achieving peace in the world, the YWCA was red-baited and identified as a communist-leaning organization from the 1920s through the 1950s. The extent to which the Y was reviled was reflected in the cover of a pamphlet entitled Behind the Lace Curtains of the YWCA, published by the Constitutional Educational League in 1948. Holding up a copy of the book, Ms. Robertson noted the hammer and sickle image superimposed on the “C” in “YWCA.”

Referring specifically to the Princeton YWCA, Ms. Robertson told the audience of approximately 65 Friends who attended the luncheon at the Cherry Valley Country Club that they “have a lot to be excited about.” The Princeton Y offers a particularly strong example of the significance of race in the organization’s history, she said. The fact that Princeton’s black community accounted for about 25 percent of the town’s population in 1920 “flies in the face of a lot of assumptions about race in this country,” she added. Although the white and black YWCA’s were separate at that time, there was considerable give-and-take between the two, and black women had a strong voice in determining the direction of the organization. The two finally integrated in 1948. two years after a motion to include “Negro women and girls” was passed unanimously at the organization’s national confernce.

“Grass roots organizations are how social change happens,” said Ms. Robertson, who is director of the Women Studies Program and associate professor of history and Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “If you don’t care who gets the credit, you can get lots done.” Unfortunately, she added, such behind-the-scene efforts often result in the perception of a particular local “hero” or mayor as the sole agent of change.

With respect to current issues facing the YWCA, Ms. Robertson suggested that the organization’s sights should be set at the international level, noting that “one of the real challenges for American women is learning to listen to other women” from around the world.

Back on the home front, though, it was announced that the Racial Justice Institute, a collaboration between the Princeton and Trenton YWCAs, recently received the Racial Justice Award from the national YWCA, which will use it as a model for other chapters.

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