The Women of the Y

YMCA poster, 1918 (source)
During the First World War up to 40% of the YMCA's staff on the Western Front were female. It is likely that the percentage working in the British base camps was even higher. In part, this was a result of the manpower crisis: men were needed in the armed forces far more than they were in the recreation huts of the YMCA. But the female workers were also seen to be able offer support in ways the male workers couldn't: they were reminders of home and the traditional domesticity left behind in war.

For a healthy soldier at war, the sight of women was a rarity. Those that were present in France and Flanders, beyond the hospitals, were predominantly working in the estaminets and brothels frequented in the evenings, or touring in concert parties. Veteran Donald Price recounted in his interview for the IWM sound archive decades later that if there was a woman 'it was a godsend just to look at her'.

The YMCA took advantage of this appeal of women, but ensured that the women it hired were not sexualised. The historian Jeffrey Reznick, in his study of wartime caregiving, highlighted the importance of the Association presenting its female workers 'as a "sister" and/or "mother", as opposed to a wife', with the stereotypes of women as maternal caregivers being emphasised.

YMCA hut workers with soldiers (source)
Lady Rodney was charged with the recruitment of female workers through the Women's Auxiliary Committee and she specifically selected those who were middle-aged and middle-class, making the women of the YMCA not only representative of domesticity, but also as symbols of aspirational domesticity.

It was the mission of the YMCA, under Sir Arthur Keysall Yapp, for the huts to serve as much as Tommy's home as possible. He therefore saw the role of the ladies as being 'invaluable' in their ability to provide 'that home touch that means so much to men'. If the hut was a home, then working there fell within the domestic sphere in which it was deemed "appropriate" for women to work. Yapp identified that 'games, music, decorations, and flowers have all come within their domain', in addition to refreshments. These were all traditionally female roles within the private sphere and there were no attempts to confront or challenge such images.

One of the most gendered descriptions of their work came in an article for the YMCA's monthly journal in June 1918 entitled 'The Perfect Hut'. It celebrated the good work of the "ideal" hut's female workers, but in particular highlighted their qualities of 'being gracious, kindly, serious and tactful'. It went on to describe 'their great function [as] the establishment of a refinement, a faint, chaste atmosphere of English womanhood, a fragrance which permeates through the hut more subtly, no less surely, than the smell of meadow-sweet'. It went on to also celebrate their religious work and organisation of debates for soldiers, but the emphasis of their work is clearly on this sickly sweet description of a female purity and domesticity, which is not only gendered but also nationalised to celebrate the YMCA's workers over the local French and Belgian women.

In the writings of the female workers themselves, such images were also perpetuated. Mrs Stuart Wortley wrote of how it was their mission, as female hut staff, to create the 'home away from home', and a fellow Association worker described how they 'represent their homes' to soldiers who 'are suffering keenly from separation from their womenfolk'. In a war in which duty was so often talked about, these women saw it as their responsibility to provide that domesticity so lacking in conflict.

To a modern reader, the misogyny of the YMCA's approach to women's work is clear. However, at the time this went largely without question. Wortley celebrated the inclusion of women in the Association's work as one of the few opportunities for women to make an actual difference to the war effort, and she considered in far preferable circumstances to being turned yellow in a munitions factory!

The element of class must also not be ignored. The YMCA accepted only "respectable" women as workers and the majority of them were volunteers, needing their own funds to support themselves. By and large it was not the same women who were working in the huts as were in the factories, and in this way Wortley's comment does suggest entitlement.

Another female hut worker, Jessie Millar Wilson, described the women she worked alongside in Le Havre. They included Mrs  Hope-Johnstone, 'a little, dark, eager woman who had lost one son in the war, with another serving. She was the very example of the Association's desire for maternal women, with Wilson considering her son's death to have 'dedicated her to the task of bringing pleasure into the lives of the men' with her 'warm and loyal heart'. There was also the hut's 'leading lady', Miss Stainforth, who took on much of the management with her 'wonderful moral fitness'. Wilson describes her almost matronly, albeit with affection, noting that she liked to take command and the soldiers 'more respected than loved' her.

These women hardly appear to have been repressed by their wartime role providing domesticity for soldiers. In fact, they considered this an opportunity, especially in the case of Hope-Johnstone, to do their bit and try their best for the men who needed such comfort. Nevertheless, this was one of the few options open to them, with very few roles in the military accepting women and preventing them from taking an any more direct role in supporting the war effort.

However, it also must not be neglected that not all women worked in the "home" of the huts while on service with the YMCA. Betty Stevenson, a 20 year old from Harrogate, worked as a driver for the Association at the Etaples base camp. She was no stranger to living on the continent, having studied music in Brussels before the war. Stevenson worked for a time in the huts, alongside her mother, but then took on the role of transporting lecturers, concert parties, and supplies for the Association, in addition to providing transport for the families of injured soldiers visiting France.

She was evidently a confident and capable woman, who undertook most of her journeys alone. In her diary she recorded that on one occasion she 'had a puncture ... and had to change the wheel' and that she once had to fix the car's lights with her hair pin. However, she also noted the rarity of what she was doing. She remarked of how 'everyone stared at me because they never see a girl driving'. This did not appear to have deterred Stevenson, who was described by the male YMCA secretary in charge as 'full of mischief and pranks, and humour and jokes at the expense of us all'.
Related image
Betty Stevenson (source)
As the war went on, it became more dangerous to be stationed at Etaples, especially in the German Spring Offensive of 1918. Air raids damaged the camp and even Stevenson's own bedroom became damaged with shell holes. The YMCA workers were evacuated to Paris-Plage yet Stevenson was among those who bravely continued to return to aid the refugees at the railway station.

On 30th May 1918, Stevenson was with a group returning to Paris-Plage when an air raid came, forcing them to seek shelter in a bank at the side of the road. She was hit and killed by a bomb, which injured two others. Her bravery saw her posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme and she was buried at Etaples Military Cemetery, her gravestone recorded both this award and the phrase 'the happy warrior', taken from Wordsworth's poem which was in turn based on Lord Nelson.

The image of Stevenson as the Happy Warrior is a difficult one to reconcile with the descriptions of the YMCA women as domestic symbols. However, the overall rhetoric of the Association remained highly gendered into typifying the female worker's role as one responsible for the domesticity of the huts. It is certainly true that the many women working for the YMCA worked hard providing an invaluable service for the soldiers. Yet it was nonetheless a severely limited role which was one of the few deemed "suitable" for ladies during the First World War, and one that reinforced so many traditional presumptions of what women were capable of.


Joan E Duncan, Aunt J: Jessie Millar Wilson MBE
Told in the Huts: The YMCA Gift Book
The Red Triangle Journal
Arthur Keysall Yapp, Romance of the Red Triangle

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