The YWCA: Creating a Moral Landscape on the Prairie

The YWCA: Creating a Moral Landscape on the Prairie

Thomas Harlow, University of North Dakota

In November, Michael Lansing discussed the impact of women in prairie politics as participants of the male-dominated NPL in both the United States and Canada directly before and after World War I. Just as the NPL’s power was waning politically, there emerged a dramatic cultural shift as many young rural women fled the economic decline of the farms for the surrounding prairie towns, and beyond. Local YWCAs often served their temporary and long-term needs.

Beginning in the early 1920s—a full decade before the Great Depression—a growing number of young women left farms seeking employment to sustain themselves, and for many, to provide some support to their families. Frequently these women found assistance from women’s clubs. In turn, these clubs attempted to influence the behavior of these young women, and publically justify efforts to support them, by providing protective services and constructing fictive homes that reflected gendered ideals of family life. The YWCA of Grand Forks, ND provides an excellent case study of this relationship.

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James and Ruby Dinnie home (1910).  Courtesy of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota.


Directly after WWI, the national YWCA was undergoing a crisis of identity. In 1907, the incorporation of a national organization established evangelicalism and missionary work as their primary goals. However, community-based YWs sought a greater emphasis on the needs of industrial working women. Prairie YWCAs were inclined to support the more conservative view of Christian salvation. Typical activities included prayer meetings, bible studies, and evening Vespers services.

However, the reality of supporting the needs of so many required pragmatic policies of action that later served as a template for larger urban counterparts after the onset of the Great Depression. For example, the Grand Forks YWCA developed a community fundraising effort for the local Community Chest (the forerunner to the Salvation Army), which in turn redistributed funds back to local relief agencies. YW members also created an employment service networked to their husbands who made up many of the professionals and business owners of Grand Forks. In addition, they provided employment for many themselves through the operation of their cafeteria, short and long-term housing, and their central office.

The demands placed on the voting members of the YW at this time were significant. As the farm crisis worsened throughout the 1920s, the migration off the farms became a full-fledged exodus. In 1910, the population of Grand Forks stood at 7,600 individuals. By 1930, it swelled to over 17,000. Nearly 55 percent of these were women; many needing the services of the Y. Throughout the 1930s, the annual requests for these services exceeded more than 1,000 per year. For instance, in 1938 YWCA facilities housed 46 permanent annual residents, over 600 in need of temporary shelter, and almost 1,500 requests for employment.

Demographically there were of course striking differences between the association members and the young women they sought to protect. The YW members were generally older, more sedentary, and tied to property. In addition, they were almost all native born compared to the number of immigrants coming from the farms. Throughout the 1920s, the city of Grand Forks maintained a high immigrant population. In 1920, thirty-two percent of adult women living in Grand Forks were foreign-born. In contrast, Grand Forks YW members were almost exclusively born in the United States.

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The YWCA facility completed in 1957.  Facility is currently a recreation center for Central High School (2008).

These women saw their assistance as not only moral protection of these unattached women, but to the community as a whole, as they sought to demonstrate their values in a community with a large transient population. For example, their long-term residence at the North 5th Street House not only publically represented their moral vision of how young unattached women should live, but also as signifier to their middle-class status within the community. Club members policed the conduct of women staying in their facilities. They utilized the services of the city police matron to control such behaviors as drinking and smoking. And, in one extreme example in 1937, evicted the residents from their North 5th street house and destroyed the property, when the behavior of one guest was considered extremely egregious to the membership. 

While the efforts of the Grand Forks YWCA were foremost to be of service to God, and to carry His word to those they deemed at risk, their practical achievements during the inter-war period were astounding and had an impact on the urban landscape of Grand Forks. Even before the destruction of the North 5th street house, the Grand Forks YWCA had developed plans for a larger facility. It was to provide more services for young women, and serve as mechanism to resist the encroachment of the YMCA, which had expanded operations in the 1930s to include membership for women and families. They viewed their operations as a moral imperative, not a place for simply family gathering. Unfortunately, despite its completion in 1957, their services for protecting single women diminished after WWII. Further, prairie communities such as Grand Forks preferred to embrace the family strengthening model championed by the YMCA. The YMCA and YWCA merged in Grand Forks in 1970.



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