Women’s Empowerment and Racial Justice – What’s the Link?

Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, YW Boston President & CEO

The mission of YWCA Boston is boldly stated:  eliminating racism, empowering women.   Many ask about the connection between these two goals.  It’s simple.  YWCA’s foremothers realized that they could not empower ­all women as long as racism exists.

The long racial justice history of YWCA is not well known, but dates back to the 19th century.  Early leaders noticed that African women (as they were then known) and other non-white women (e.g. Irish and Italians) had even greater struggles than poor white women.  Leadership wisely decided that the cause of helping women should not be exclusive, but expansive.  In 1889, the first African American YWCA branch opened in Dayton, OH and in 1890, the first YWCA for Native American women opened at the Haworth Institute in Chilocco, OK. 

Given Boston’s history and image, it surprises many to learn that Boston was one of only two YWCAs in ­the north to never have a separate, segregated branch for women of color, but included all women from its beginning in 1866.  In light of Boston’s status as a hotbed of the abolitionist movement, it makes sense that YWCA leaders reflected the belief that advocacy for the rights of all women was a noble cause.

Racial justice initiatives were significant in the work of YWCAs before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  In 1934, members were encouraged to speak out against lynching and mob violence and to work for interracial cooperation and efforts to protect African American’s basic rights.  In 1942, YWCA extended its services to Japanese American women and girls incarcerated in World War II relocation centers.  The 1949 national convention pledged that YWCA would work for integration and full participation of minority groups in all phases of American life.

The link between women’s empowerment and racial justice continues in the 21st century.  YWCA Boston’s health education and outreach programs for women and girls are aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes.  Our Community Dialogues and Youth/Police Dialogues programs are designed not only to increase understanding and build connections between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also to change attitudes and behaviors, making Boston a better place for all of its residents.

YWCA Boston is moving toward its vision of peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.  That’s a cause worth fighting for and I invite you to join us in our efforts by volunteering your time or contributing resources.