Thursday, March 01, 2001

History lesson

Pointing fingers at the YWCA

        Lore from the feminist archives in honor of Women's History Month:

        In 1929, the first crease-resistant cotton fabric was introduced, and Nestle began selling blue rinse for gray hair. The New York Times reported that business girls averaged $33.50 for a 50-hour week. Pope Pius XI pronounced “coeducation false in theory and harmful to Christian training.”

        Police raided Margaret Sanger's clinic that same year, and a government report noted that contraceptives were commonly used by women in the professional and business classes but rarely among working-class wives. Estrogen was identified. Daniel Gerber began selling strained baby foods through grocery stores. Gerber salesmen, whose cars were equipped with horns that played “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” peddled 590,000 cans the first year.

        Also in 1929, the stock market crashed, Bessie Smith recorded “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out” and the Cincinnati YWCA opened its headquarters downtown.

"Agonized testimony'

        Times were changing, and the building at Ninth and Walnut streets was ready. Not that everything started with this building. Founded in 1868, the YWCA here sponsored the country's first women's employment bureau in 1876, the first women's basketball team in 1915 and the first training for women in auto mechanics in 1917. The YWCA opened Cincinnati's first integrated cafeteria in 1950 and our first shelter for battered women in 1978.

        The YWCA's executive director Charlene Ventura remembers Aug. 26, 1976. “We sponsored a public hearing on domestic violence. Three hours of agonized testimony.”

        One woman told about living in her car for two weeks with her children. Bobbie Sterne, who was mayor at the time, listened. So did Simon Leis, then Hamilton County prosecutor. Judges. Police. Victims. Horrified onlookers.

        “After that, we really started moving on it,” Charlene says, “working with lots of other groups. It was sort of "we'll do this, you do that.'”

Spectacular overhaul

        Try to pin these women down and they will point the finger at somebody else. Charlene shrugs off compliments, pointing to the work of YWCA officers such as Jeane Goings or Marian Spencer or Francie Pepper or Patricia Smitson or Carolyn McCoy. And they are likely to point to YWCA staffers, such as Child Care Services Director Karyn Cotton.

        Who points right back at Charlene.

        When the spectacular overhaul of this building was completed last November, Charlene said, “We have the community to thank for all the success of this ambitious project.”

        See what I mean? Finger pointing.

        “Well, everybody knows you can't do this yourself,” Charlene says.

        Literacy. Job training. Fitness and health. Shelters for battered women and their kids. Programs to help abusive men who want to change. More than 20,000 people will pass figuratively if not literally through those recently buffed and well-used bronze doors at the front of this historic building.

        A monument. That's what it is. Not the kind that presents a stationary target for pigeons. Not the kind to commemorate one person or one war. The YWCA building is a tribute to thousands of battles won by women on their way to a better life.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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