By Paula Penebaker, President & CEO, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
January 10, 1893 marked the 125th anniversary of the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin’s incorporation, a mere 47 years after the incorporation of the City of Milwaukee. Unfortunately, we don’t have documentation that tells us what, exactly, drew 200 women together to sign a petition in 1892 to form the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee. However, John Gurda in his book The Making of Milwaukee provides great context clues.
Milwaukee’s first feminist, Mathilde Anneke arrived in Milwaukee in 1849. Her stated goal was said to be “the complete emancipation of women.” She started a monthly newspaper and hired women to set the type. Wow! That bold move sparked the formation of an all-male union to keep the trade “safe for men.”
Martha Reed Mitchell, wife of the venerable Alexander Mitchell, is described by Gurda as “no shrinking violet”, was known for her interest in the advancement of women. She founded the Woman’s Club of Wisconsin in 1876, “a group whose stated purpose was ‘to elevate and purify our civilization’ by sponsoring activities that would ‘excite women to intellectual and moral culture’.” She was the Club’s first president.
In the late 1800s, women were active—with limitations—in the city’s growing labor movement and in socialist politics. “The Milwaukee County Central Committee was the seat of power, but the party’s strength was in in its local branches” and “there were dozens of them…several composed entirely of women.”
We can safely assume that many of the strong 200 women that came together were interested in helping women find their place in the growing economy of the City; in providing training opportunities to facilitate workforce participation; in promoting health and wellness. With regard to the latter, we know fitness classes were offered at the association’s building on Jackson Street. We have a picture from the Historical Society of women exercising with weights that resembled bowling pins and another of them doing aquatic exercise. Yes! We were once a “swim and gym”!
Just think of what our foremothers would think if resurrection and time travel were possible, today!
When the association was founded, women didn’t have the right to vote and the civil rights movement was a pipedream. In 1893, black and brown women were not seen as peers of our foremothers and like other YWCAs before them, there was a “colored branch” of the Milwaukee association.
The organization that today is driven by the bold mission of eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all would shock and amaze the strong 200. Today, seven of 15 members on the City Council are people of the global majority, two of which are women. Today, gyms are full of young women in spandex exercise shorts and bare shouldered tanks rather than big bloomers and blousons that I’m certain would be shocking. Today, women driving City buses might result in heart failure. Certainly, the lack of substantive inclusion of women in organized labor would be a source of profound disappointment, as would the absence of women in corporate “C suites.” However, I think the #metoo and #timesup movements and the resurgence of an organized women’s movement would make their hearts sing.
This year, we will follow the tradition set by our foremothers by continuing to push the envelope. We will work to extend our reach to more women in unique ways. We will build partnerships to address health disparities. We will continue to energize people to register and exercise their right to vote. We will continue to engage diverse groups to address the pressing issue of racism in our community.