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YWCA Minneapolis Women’s History: Trailblazers, Philanthropists and Role Models

By Cori Mattli, YWCA Strategic Communications Specialist
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Throughout history, women’s contributions to society were often unacknowledged and forgotten, much less recorded for the history books. Even today, women’s leadership goes unrecognized and unpraised far too often.

From health access to racial justice, the leaders of YWCA Minneapolis have long been at the forefront of change. To close out Women’s History Month, YWCA Minneapolis wanted to celebrate a few women leaders of the past, call out their accomplishments and show the ripples of change their actions have inspired.

Exercise as a Right for All

In the late 1800s, physical exercise itself was seen as “unlady-like” and unsafe for women. Exercises that we acceptable by society’s standards focused mostly on improving posture and balance, not health.

In 1892, YWCA Minneapolis, led by Board President Mrs. T.K. Gray, was ahead of its time. They expanded the focus of the organization to encourage active lifestyles. They rented a larger space so that women and girls would have a place to attend group exercise classes, and participate in group bicycle and rowing outings.

Nearly a century later, YWCA Minneapolis has three full-service fitness centers and hosts the only all-women triathlon in Minnesota, an athletic event that is welcoming, inclusive and empowering for women.

A Chance to Swim

Like other types of exercise, there were numerous societal barriers facing women who wanted to learn to swim. In the late 1800s, the only acceptable swimsuits for women were too heavy and flowy for actual swimming, weighing them down in the water.

But not knowing how to swim was to put one’s life at risk. In 1904, nearly 1,000 women and girls drowned in the East River near New York City because a boat caught fire and the passengers were unable to swim a short 50 yards to safety. This tragedy caused public outrage and was a turning point for women’s swimming in the U.S.

In 1908, YWCA Minneapolis began offering swim lessons to women in Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun). In 1911, YWCA Minneapolis President Emma Benton raised $10,000 to build a YWCA pool so that girls would have a place to swim year-round. She did this despite public opinion that “the girls could do very well without one.”

By 1945, YWCA Minneapolis was the first to offer a racially-integrated swimming pool in the Twin Cities.

And following that pattern of advocacy, 62 years later in 2007, YWCA Minneapolis Channel Challenge swimmers crossed the English Channel to raise awareness of racial disparities in swimming in Minnesota.

A Push for Racial Equity and Justice

YWCA Minneapolis was an early adopter of multiculturalism and saw the necessity of challenging societal barriers for all women.

In 1942, Phebe Mae Givens was the first African American woman elected to the YWCA Minneapolis Board of Directors. Phebe was a philanthropist, co-founder of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature and was known to be the first African American woman to be licensed as a nursing home administrator in Minnesota.

In 1970, at the YWCA National Convention, women leaders adopted the One Imperative: “To thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism, wherever it exists, by any means necessary.” That same year, YWCA Minneapolis leaders championed this call and held a three-day seminar at Lyman Lodge with the purpose of combating racism.

In 2003, with Alice Kim as Board President, YWCA Minneapolis held its first It’s Time to Talk: Forums on RaceTM to break through barriers by engaging in dialogue. The event continues annually, bringing together over 1,000 people to discuss facets of racism and further action for equity and inclusion in our community.

A Look to the Future

Today, YWCA Minneapolis is led by an all-women board of directors and a majority-women leadership team. In 2016, Luz María Frías joined the organization as President and CEO to carry on the organization’s legacy, offering Child Care programs with an anti-bias curriculum, Girls and Youth programs that inspire academic success and leadership skills, Racial Justice and Public Policy programs that promote and campaign for equity, and of course, our fitness centers that are inclusive and welcoming spaces for all to achieve good health.

Only when we remember how far we’ve come, can we envision what the future can be. It’s thanks to all the champions of the past who decided to stand up, raise their voices and pave the way, that we have a better, more equitable community for all.