Our story

The YWCA is one of the oldest and largest non-government organisations in the world. Since 1855, it has been changing lives, attitudes and communities.

Slums, sweatshops and battlefields

The YWCA formed in 1855 during the industrial revolution in Great Britain.

Many young women, in search of jobs and opportunities, were leaving rural areas and moving to London. Once there, many faced terrible working and living conditions in the city's slums and sweatshops.

At the same time, Florence Nightingale's young nurses were passing through London on their way to and from the battlefields of the Crimean war.

Many of these women had nowhere safe to stay.  The YWCA was created in response to violence against them in the streets of London.

Two women - pioneer social reformers - Miss Emma Roberts and Mrs Arthur Kinnard, each responded in their own way to the plight of these young women. Miss Roberts started a prayer group to pray for all women in need. Mrs Kinnard set up safe housing in London for young women.

Miss Roberts and Mrs Kinnard met over a cup of tea and decided to join their groups to create the YWCA.  As well as safe shelter, the YWCA also provided help with learning new skills, job placement and a support network of women. The YWCA also had an early emphasis on women's health programs to help women physically cope with their difficult living and working conditions.

The YWCA also campaigned for the rights of these women, including fighting for fairer working conditions in workplaces like factories and bars, and educating women about employment rights.

YWCAs in Australia

The first YWCA in Australia was set up in Geelong around 1872. 

The first permanent YWCA in Australia was set up in Sydney in 1880 and the YWCA soon spread to other Australian places.

The YWCA's early work in Australia included helping migrant women - "the shop girls, factory hands and domestic servants" -  who were extremely vulnerable to exploitation, working long hours under terrible conditions for little pay.

YWCA Australia was formed in 1907 as the national association for YWCAs in Australia.

YWCA Australia then became a member of the World YWCA, which had been formed in 1894.

Ahead of its time

The YWCA has always been involved in social reform, advocating for social justice and raising the status of women since its early days.

From debating equal pay for women in 1911 to running sex education classes in the 1920s and assisting working women and single mothers in the 1960s and 70s, the YWCA was the creator of many programs we now take for granted.

When the United Nations (UN) was formed in 1945, the YWCA was there in the corridors lobbying for the rights of women. The YWCA also lobbied for the creation of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the highest policy making body on women at the UN, which was created in 1946.

The YWCA also pushed for the creation of CEDAW - the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Created in 1979, CEDAW is an international agreement addressing the human rights of women.


Today YWCA Australia is part of an international network of women working for social and economic change for women and girls, their families and communities. The YWCA has a global outreach of more than 25 million people through work in 22,000 communities.

Further information

This information has been drawn from two invaluable resources, which are also a great read:

  • The Dauntless Bunch by Margaret Dunn
  • A History of the World’s Young Women’s Christian Association by Anna Rice