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  • Foundations of Influence: YWCA of Honolulu Structures and the Assertion of Moral Authority, 1900–1927
  • Bruce P. Bottorff (bio)

The YWCA of Honolulu traces its origin to a letter from an anonymous “working woman” to the editor of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser in the spring of 1900. What was needed in Honolulu, the writer maintained, with an elegance of expression suggestive of Victorian cultivation, was

a respectable house where strangers who come here for work may . . . be protected from the many temptations which under the strain of pecuniary need constantly beset the path of attractive laboring women.1

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, similar letters had appeared in city newspapers across the United States. Among the social effects of industrialization was an increase in the number of single women looking for work in the factories and offices of American cities. Left unsupervised, “women adrift,” as they came to be known in newspapers and popular fiction of the period, were vulnerable to the predations of the unforgiving city. Concern for the physical and moral [End Page 117] welfare of young working women prompted churchwomen to form associations offering affordable lodging and other protective services.

The geographic remoteness of the Islands helped insulate Honolulu from the challenge until well after the turn of the century. Newspaper reports suggest that the “aimless invasion” of unattached women and men looking for work did not raise serious economic and social concerns among city officials until the mid-1910s.2 Still, the anonymous boardinghouse letter struck a chord with women who believed that Christian morality would come under siege from migrant workers untethered to the protective influences of family and church. A week after the letter was published, fifty-nine women gathered about a mile outside Waikīkī at Woodlawn, the Makiki home of Emma Dillingham, where the idea for establishing the YWCA of Honolulu was conceived.

Historians of the men’s and women’s Christian movements in urban America have noted the importance of built facilities as “expressions of civic virtue and moral outreach.”3 Mary S. Sims, longtime YWCA historian and staff member, described the construction of association buildings as a main factor in solidifying the standing of the YWCA in local communities.4 Honolulu was a vivid example of this trend, as the local association went from an unassuming presence in the first decade of the twentieth century to a familiar urban fixture in the next.

This essay outlines critical aspects of the YWCA of Honolulu’s physical development and expanding social influence from 1900 to 1927, when its founders established boardinghouses and recreational facilities as a bulwark against changes they believed would threaten social cohesion and undermine traditional values. During those years, the YWCA was a self-consciously evangelical, maternalistic, and, at times, repressive organization that created safe spaces for religiously grounded instruction and wholesome entertainment for a predominantly white, middle-class membership. Its education programs modeled virtuous moral behavior and promoted a bourgeois image of American womanhood. The emphasis on creating structures of influence was most deliberate in the two and a half decades leading up to 1927, when the iconic Laniākea was dedicated on Richards Street in downtown Honolulu. Prior to that milestone development, 1916 was the most significant year in the association’s history, as out-reach services began to be extended to the Territory’s ethnically and culturally diverse population of women and girls—a process that was [End Page 118] accelerated due to mounting social morality concerns associated with America’s involvement in World War I.

Into the Howling Wilderness

On May 17, 1900, a slightly larger group of women than had met the month before convened in the downtown offices of the Young Men’s Christian Association on Hotel Street to adopt a constitution. Voluntary associations were nothing new to those assembled. In the second half of the previous century, women of privilege frequently coordinated religiously inspired charitable, benevolent, missionary, educational, and reform activities in this way. Honolulu’s upper- and middle-class haole women were guided by ameliorative impulses comparable to their privileged counterparts on the mainland. Their husbands dominated Hawai‘i’s political, religious, and...


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pp. 117-142
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