'Not just a "club for girls" but "a women's movement": the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), citizenship and voluntary action in Britain during the interwar years

Dr Caitriona Beaumont (London South Bank University)
16 May 2016

The history of the women’s movement, female activism and voluntary action in the decades following the 1928 Equal Franchise Act has featured a wide variety of women’s organisations and key campaigns.  These histories include post-suffrage feminist societies, women’s sections of the established political parties, women citizens’ associations (WCAs) and working-class organisations such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild (WCG) (Caine 1992, Scott 1998 & Pugh 2000).   More recently this scholarship has expanded to include a wider variety of women’s groups, including professional societies, religious groups and mainstream voluntary women’s organisations (Andrews 1997, Moyse 2009 & Beaumont 2013).  As Kirsta Cowman has observed, the inclusion of a more diverse range of women’s organisations, some openly rejecting a traditional feminist agenda, has broadened the size and scope of the interwar women’s movement considerably (Cowman 2010).

In 1928 the YWCA welcomed the introduction of the universal suffrage by declaring that women in Britain were now entitled to the full political privileges of citizenship.  This paper will explore the way in which the YWCA, previously omitted from histories of the British women’s movement, sought to educate and inform its members about the rights and duties of democratic citizenship.  The involvement of the YWCA in citizenship education and its role in campaigning for the citizenship rights of women will be assessed, with a particular focus on the rights of women workers.  Despite its reluctance to be identified as overtly feminist, the YWCA was determined to ensure that women had access to social and economic rights within a democratic society.  The paper will conclude by arguing that the voluntary action of the YWCA on issues pertaining to women’s everyday lives in the interwar years demands that the association be recognised as part of ‘a women’s movement’.

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