YWCA Dayton: Transforming the lives of women and girls for 150 years

In 1878 the YWCA Dayton started an English as a second language program for Mongolian refugee women. The organization was founded Nov. 26, 1870 and is marking 150 years this year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON
In 1878 the YWCA Dayton started an English as a second language program for Mongolian refugee women. The organization was founded Nov. 26, 1870 and is marking 150 years this year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON

How do we “elevate women in our midst?” That’s the question seven Dayton women asked themselves 150 years ago.

The answer: The YWCA Dayton.

The Women’s Christian Association of Dayton was founded Nov 26, 1870. Conceived in England in 1855, the YWCA is the oldest and largest multi-cultural women’s organization in the world.

The YWCA Dayton Central Building opened in 1913. The organization marked its 150th anniversary nOV. 26, 1970 DAYTON DAILY NEWS / WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES
The YWCA Dayton Central Building opened in 1913. The organization marked its 150th anniversary nOV. 26, 1970 DAYTON DAILY NEWS / WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES

Those seven Dayton women — Melissa Beall, Mrs. J. Davis, Mary Hammond, Eliza Hoglen, Julia Jacobs, Ann Martin and Mary Mitchell — established what was then the third YWCA in Ohio.

The organization set out to house destitute women, many who were widowed during the Civil War.

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“When we look at our history, we know that women’s ability to move through society and the world was really, really limited,” said Audrey Starr, director of marketing and communications at YWCA Dayton. “In the 1800s they couldn’t own property and couldn’t have anything in their name.”

The founders, who had the means to help, decided the most pressing need was shelter, housing and support for women.

Susan Bates Winters was the first YWCA Dayton president. The organization was founded in 1870 and marked its 150th anniversary this year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON
Susan Bates Winters was the first YWCA Dayton president. The organization was founded in 1870 and marked its 150th anniversary this year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON

A small brick house previously used as an orphanage on Magnolia Street, where Miami Valley Hospital stands today, became the first shelter for women.

Rooms rented for $7.50 a month. “Any widow or destitute women of good moral character being over the age of 60 who has also resided in Dayton for the past five years is eligible to become a permanent resident,” according to the organization’s historical narrative.

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The Widows Home, as it was known, would expand and relocate to a three-story brick Victorian home on Findlay Street.

Providing safe shelter for women has always been part of the YWCA mission along with a focus on intersectionality and racial justice — words that weren’t part of the culture at the time, said Shannon Isom, president and CEO of the Dayton organization.

A scene from the West Dayton YWCA in 1954. A small sewing club meeting at the Eaker Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first black church, led to the nation's first YWCA branch for African American women and girls in 1889. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON
A scene from the West Dayton YWCA in 1954. A small sewing club meeting at the Eaker Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first black church, led to the nation's first YWCA branch for African American women and girls in 1889. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON

“So, what we’ve been doing is not only housing since 1870, but we’ve been caring for women that move through levels of re-stabilization,” Isom said.

In its earliest years, YWCA Dayton taught sewing and leadership skills to young girls. The first class started out with a handful of students, but by the end of the 1870s, more than 1,000 girls had enrolled.

“At the beginning, we started our industrial school, and it looked at how girls from lower-income families could learn skills to help support the family financially and help create self-sufficiency and stability,” said Starr, who had done extensive historical research.

YWCA Dayton's Camp Wy-Ca-Key was founded in Morrow. A contest was promoted to find a name and the winning title used the YWCA initials plus the word “key” to indicate that camping would be a key to many new experiences. The camp was dedicated June 17, 1949 and was in operation until 1982. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON
YWCA Dayton's Camp Wy-Ca-Key was founded in Morrow. A contest was promoted to find a name and the winning title used the YWCA initials plus the word “key” to indicate that camping would be a key to many new experiences. The camp was dedicated June 17, 1949 and was in operation until 1982. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON

The organization blazed a path fighting for women’s rights and human rights through the decades.

In 1878, an English-as-a-second-language program for Mongolian refugee women was formed, and in 1886, the YWCA petitioned the Ohio General Assembly for “better legal protection for women against assault.”

A small sewing-club meeting at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Eaker Street, among the city’s first black churches, led to the nation’s first YWCA branch for African American women and girls in 1889.

“I believe we are the only association in our city organized for the relief of women and children, caring for them without regard to color or nationality,” Susan Bates Winters, YWCA Dayton’s first president, said at the time.

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YWCA Dayton opened Montgomery County’s first domestic-violence shelter in 1977. It was one of only 25 shelters in the country and the second to be opened by a YWCA.

Today, the YWCA is the single largest network of domestic-violence services and shelters in the country. It is still the only domestic-violence shelter in Montgomery and Preble counties.

Between all locations and programs in the two counties, the organization serves more than 100 women, girls and families every day.

A view of story time at the YWCA Dayton in 1980. The organization marked its 150th anniversary Nov. 26, 1870. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON
A view of story time at the YWCA Dayton in 1980. The organization marked its 150th anniversary Nov. 26, 1870. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO / YWCA DAYTON

Last year, a phase of the $17 million renovation of the historic downtown Central Building was completed.

The first major remodel since 1961 focused on permanent supportive housing and a domestic-violence shelter. Starr said single-bedroom and studio apartments with private bathrooms were created, providing “peace and dignity for the women and families we serve.”

Isom, who took the helm of the YWCA Dayton seven-years ago, said she is humbled to follow in the footsteps of the Dayton founders who, despite being hobbled by social norms of 150 years ago, helped achieve dignity for women.

“I feel like the luckiest person to get paid to eliminate racism and empower women,” Isom said. “In the next 150 years my dream is to see no YWCA because there is no need.”

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