- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

NEW YORK — Convinced that the mandatory policy of female-only leadership is no longer sound, some of the YWCA’s most vibrant affiliates are taking steps to admit men as members and directors — a challenge that could either transform or fracture the 145-year-old organization.

YWCAs in Tucson, Ariz., and Olympia, Wash., have already changed their bylaws in defiance of national rules. Tucson expects to have a man on its board of directors within a few months, even if the consequence is expulsion.

YWCAs in Madison, Wis., Albuquerque, N.M., and San Jose, Calif., are moving in the same direction. Leaders of several other YWCAs are suggesting that local affiliates be allowed to set their own policies on the issue without fear of sanction.

Some of the pro-change leaders believe that men who support the YWCA’s core missions — empowerment of women and elimination of racism — would be valuable allies. Others want to comply with nondiscrimination policies of local United Ways or other charitable funds.

“Our mission is to fight discrimination,” said Olympia YWCA Executive Director Joan Cathey. “How can we philosophically and ethically do that if we’re going to exclude men?”

The challenge has been spearheaded by the Tucson YWCA. Its executive director, Janet Marcotte, campaigned for several years to change national membership rules before her agency decided to proceed unilaterally.

“We’re really pushing this,” she said. “We’re not willing to just leave and not be YWCAs anymore.”

In response to the pressure from Miss Marcotte and her allies, the YWCA’s National Coordinating Board has formed a task force to study the pros and cons of admitting men.

Audrey Peeples, the board’s chairwoman, said she was unsure when the task force would draft recommendations, but she welcomed the review.

“It’s an issue we have on our plate, and we have to deal with it,” she said. “The people forcing us to decide this have tried to work through the process for a long time, and they feel we’ve moved too slowly.”

Some other YWCA leaders, however, object to the fact that Miss Marcotte and her allies were unwilling to accept the results of a vote at the last national convention in 2001 reaffirming the women-only policy.

“You don’t always get what you want, but you don’t just go outside the process,” said Marti Wilson-Taylor, executive director of the Boston YWCA. “It’s not the way to handle a very volatile issue.”

Founded in 1858 as the Young Women’s Christian Association, the YWCA developed its leadership policy as a way of demonstrating — during decades of male dominance — that women were capable administrators. Men are admitted as associate members and hired as staff, but cannot be voting members or directors.

The YMCA, which has no formal ties to the YWCA, has included women in its leadership since the 1930s. “It’s done nothing but enrich our work,” said YMCA Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Gladdish.

The YWCA has about 300 branches nationwide providing child care, educational programs, job training, and shelter for women and families.

Numerous YWCAs have struggled financially in recent years. Leadership problems have also surfaced. Patricia Ireland, a former president of the National Organization for Women, was fired in October after six months as national chief executive.

However, many local YWCAs are flourishing, including some under leaders who favor the inclusion of men.

“We’re a big-tent organization, and we want to invite in everyone who shares our mission,” said Rita Ryder, executive director of Seattle’s booming YWCA. “There are men who want to help improve the lives of women, and those are the men we want to include on our boards.”

One of the YWCA’s nine regional bodies, the Pacific Council, last month decided it would not expel any local affiliate for admitting men.

Well before the current showdown, the YWCA’s all-women policy contributed to the ouster or defection of some affiliates — including one in Boise, Idaho, and two in Utah. The difference now is that the affiliates seeking change don’t want to leave the YWCA — they want rules revised so they can stay.

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