Women’s History at the YMCA

When the YMCA was founded by George Williams in 1844, it was a societal group open only to men. Over time, the YMCA has grown to become an international movement that welcomes all people.

Women have been part of the Y Movement for more than a century, and we’re digging deeper into their impact during National Women’s History Month.

The first woman is believed to have joined a YMCA in the 1850s in Brooklyn, and there were several female Y members by the 1860s. Two decades later, Ellen Brown became the first female employee of a YMCA and the first “boys’ work secretary.” The night class she taught grew so rapidly it became a department of the Y.

In 1918, Addie Hunton was a nurse during WWI and one of three nurses sponsored by the YMCA to serve 200,000 segregated black troops stationed in France.

Wilhelmina “Wille” Aveling: First woman on the metropolitan staff of the YMCA of Chicago and director of YMCA women`s and girls` work activities for all Chicago in 1934. Over three decades she improved programs for women and girls, summer day camps and implemented proper standards for women’s and girls’ programs.

Winifred Colton was the first female professional on the national YMCA staff and Secretary for Programs with Women and Girls (1957-1970). She also served as Director of the YMCA National Family Communications Skills Center (1970-1979).

In 1970, Jean Anne Durades, regional associate of Region 1, became the first black woman to hold such a position on the National Council of the YMCA.

Xinia Brenes Jenkins: one of the founding members of the San Jose YMCA. Jenkins for her assistance in instituting a national Costa Rican YMCA. Following its implementation in 1975, she became director of leadership development at the San Jose YMCA in 1977. In 1983, she became national general secretary, and, in 1990, executive for refugees, development, and extension for the Latin American Confederation of YMCAs.

In 1985, Evonne Raglin became the first woman to lead a large urban association as the CEO of the Miami Metro YMCA.

As of 2017, 241 of the 814 YMCA CEOs were female (29.6%).

In 2021, Charlene Lyons made history by becoming the first female CEO of the YMCA of the Treasure Coast. She is also currently the only Indigenous YMCA President/CEO in the US.