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Our History

World YWCA history

In 1855, social activist and philanthropist, Lady Mary Jane Kinnaird, and committed Christian, Emma Robarts, founded the World YWCA. Following the industrial revolution in the Western world, both women were concerned about the safety and well-being of London’s working women. Many of these women had moved from their homes, which were often in rural areas, and into factories in the city. They needed housing, education and support.

Kinnaird had set up a house for young single women in London, with a library, Bible classes and an employment bureau. Robarts held a prayer circle on the outskirts of London called the Young Women’s Christian Association – and this ultimately gave the organisation its name.

When the two women met, they decided to combine their efforts and create a space with a “warm Christian atmosphere.” It was designed to help young women cope with the pressure of work, while involving them in activities to build the mind, body and spirit.

Global impact
With a global need for education, hostel, and other services for young women, the World YWCA grew quickly—spreading to western and northern Europe, India, and the United States.

In 1898, the organisation held its first world conference in London, with 326 participants from 17 countries. Participants agreed that the World YWCA’s principles should be based on service and faith on a global scale.

From the European refugee crisis after World War II, to the civil rights struggle in the USA and apartheid in South Africa, YWCAs have remained at the forefront of the women’s movement. Today, the World YWCA advances the empowerment, leadership and rights of women, young women and girls in 120 countries around the world.

Resources:
Carole Seymour-Jones, Journey of Faith: The History of the World YWCA 1945-1994 (London: Allison & Busby 1994)
Photo from our archive