In honor of Women’s History Month, the Y is honored to commemorate and celebrate female figures within the history of the YMCA movement who were vital to the success and empowerment of all current and future women leaders in the Y.
Ellen Brown was the first female YMCA employee in 1886 when she was hired to serve as the “boys work secretary.” Brown taught a night class at the Y that grew so rapidly, it eventually became a whole department!
As part of the YMCA’s massive World War, I support effort, Addie Hunton was one of only three African American women assigned to serve over 200,000 segregated Black troops stationed in France. Hunton was also YWCA secretary for Black student work and vice president of the NAACP.
Marguerite Cockett graduated from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1905. In 1916 she bought a car and brought it to France where she worked as an ambulance driver under the American Fund for French Wounded. She spent three months in Serbia establishing a French-Serbian hospital and served on a hospital ship in the Mediterranean. In 1917 she established the first canteen under the YMCA American Expeditionary Forces.
Fighting to improve the status of women in the YMCA, Winifred Colton began her extensive YMCA career as women’s and girls’ work secretary at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. In 1957, the YMCA’s National Council’s statement of purpose no longer applied to “males only,” and Colton became the first woman professional on the national staff.
Xinia Brenes Jenkins
One of the founding members of the San Jose YMCA, Xinia Brenes Jenkins was deeply involved in the Costa Rican Catholic youth movement. The Latin American Confederation of YMCAs reached out to Jenkins for her assistance in instituting a national Costa Rican YMCA. Jenkins’s work for the Costa Rican YMCA focused on providing programs for refugees, relief for those affected by housing shortages, and offering vocational skills training for women and agricultural skills training for Costa Rican natives.
Violet P. Henry
After holding various executive leadership roles in the Newark and Chicago YMCAs, in 1976, Violet P. Henry became the first woman to be named to a top management position at the Y’s national office. She provided leadership for numerous national and international commissions and committees that worked for the rights of women and people of color.
Wilhelmina “Willie” Aveling
Wilhelmina “Willie” Aveling began her YMCA career as a physical director in Atlantic City. In 1933, she joined the staff of the Chicago Metropolitan YMCA to find ways to improve programs for women and girls. For the next 28 years, she helped develop policies and recruit women leaders within the YMCA movement. She was the first woman to be inducted into the YMCA National Hall of Fame.
In 2021, Suzanne McCormick became the first woman to serve as CEO of the YMCA of the USA.
Visit the YMCA Archives to learn more about the history of women leadership in the YMCA.