YWCA Canberra is a feminist not-for-profit organisation that has provided community services and has represented women’s issues in Canberra since 1929.
In 2019 we celebrated ninety years of providing essential, quality services for women, girls and families in the ACT and surrounding regions.
Our history is bound to the history of Canberra shaping itself in response to changing local, and societal contexts.
“It is hard for most of us to imagine what Canberra would have been like in 1929. With a tiny population, no infrastructure and few housing options, the prospect of establishing an organisation seems a daunting and impossible task. To think that a group of women, with only a vision and commitment planted the seed that grew into the strong trees that is the organisation today seems in some ways fantastic. We trust that to date we have done them proud.”
Rebecca Vassarotti, YWCA Canberra Executive Director 2003-2013
[extract from A Work in Progress, A History of the YWCA of Canberra 1929-2009]
“Shall we accept the challenge to take the Blue Triangle to Canberra? The spirit and atmosphere of this capital where our laws are to be made will influence our nation’s destiny.“
Mrs Cowen, Miss Griffin and Miss Tapley Short
Report on Canberra, YWCA Australia, 24 October 1928
On 21 March 1929, Hilda Tapley Short, aka ‘Tapley’, alighted at Canberra Railway Station from Melbourne and set about establishing the YWCA in Canberra. National YWCA had been in negotiations with the Federal Capital Commission to establish services appropriate to young women in the new capital.
Other YWCAs in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart helped raise the 6000 pounds required to purchase rooms in a new building at the corner of Alinga and Mort streets (now East Row and City Walk).
The YWCA of Canberra, as we were then known, soon became known for its progressive attitudes and less restrictive membership requirements. Early supporters included women and men who were leading figures in the development of the city and had its community life at heart.
During the Great Depression, when public servants’ salaries were reduced, we opened an employment bureau, which focused on wages, conditions and training for household employment.
“Let our slogan be ‘construction work in progress, workers wanted.“
President’s Foreword, Annual Report, 1941
During the war years, members of the YWCA were very active in fundraising, organising war aid activities, joining groups like the Voluntary Aid Detachment, and initiating ‘open house’ entertainment for servicemen. The association also opened its first Canberra women’s hostel in 1942, beginning our long involvement in providing accommodation to women and girls.
In 1945, the YWCA of Canberra responded to calls nationally for a greater ‘youth’ voice in the movement by making several organisational changes, including moving its meeting times so that young working women could attend.
“After the War, the President, Mrs Bird, was keen to start a Young Marrieds Club for women who were more or less housebound with new babies. The women were very happy to come out at night, meet new women, have a chat and learn a craft. Many friendships developed.“
In the 1950s, we also ran an ‘Open House’ on Sundays for newly arrived migrants, providing friendship and services to newcomers to Canberra.
“We are more than an Association, we are a Movement, well fitted to overcome barriers. This year we have moved. The process is both exhilarating and exhausting but we have no intention of halting. The pace, in fact, is increasing.“
Bronwen Murdoch, General Secretary
Annual Report, 1962
Canberra went through enormous growth from 1958-1965, and the YWCA of Canberra kept pace, with a renewed focus on training and staff development bringing a new professionalism to the organisation. It was during this time that we began offering childminding alongside our ever-increasing range of classes and activities, a foreshadowing of the later expansion of early childhood education and care within YWCA Canberra’s work.
There was an increased focus on working with young people in the 1960s, with the YWCA of Canberra creating a youth department with its own committee and finances, as well as employing experienced and qualified youth workers.
It was during the 1960s that the organisation also embarked on an ambitious and complex plan to move to larger premises. The building was named the Una Porter Centre by Princess Anne in 1970 and opened by Una Porter herself in March 1971. The floors owned by the YWCA of Canberra in the new building provided a 61-bed hostel, a gymnasium, and rooms for meetings and craft.
In the 1970s, the changing social landscape challenged the foundations of the YWCA, both in Australia and at world level. The wider YWCA movement was advocating deeper awareness of social issues and the needs of particular social groups, which meant investigating ways of supporting groups such as the young unemployed, newly arrived migrants with young children, Aboriginal families, working mothers, and women escaping domestic violence.
With its continued focus on a social purpose, the YWCA of Canberra attracted government funds for low-cost early childhood education and care and work with unemployed people.
In 1974, we purchased a government house in Belconnen to provide a facility that would help develop a sense of community in one of Canberra’s newer suburbs. It was used extensively for craft activities, migrant English classes, women’s discussion groups and community meetings. But the greatest demand was for preschool activities and we became increasingly involved in the provision of low-cost childcare.
This quickly expanded to holiday programs, occasional care and family daycare.
“Some members are critical of the concentration of resources in the [child care] field, but this is to take a narrow view… The current arrangement frees women to pursue other activities to help them develop their full potential and that is what the YWCA aims to do.“
Margaret Geddes, Acting President
Annual Report, 1981
During this period, the YWCA of Canberra also made the decision to use its hostel to provide low-cost ‘welfare’ accommodation to meet the needs of the homeless. In the years following, the hostel provided permanent residence for young people leaving Canberra’s Youth Refuge, students and others in need, including a Polish refugee and her children.
Despite differences of opinion, traditional and newer approaches to responding to community needs continued alongside each other. The YWCA of Canberra’s ‘New Directions’ report in 1986 introduced a ‘service delivery’ approach to our activities with a focus on young women aged 12 to 20 years, children under five years, ‘housebound’ women and ageing women. It also marked the formation of a Young Women’s Action Committee and more streamlined approaches to management at Board and staff levels.
While feminism and a commitment to social justice gave a philosophical focus to much of our work in this period, we faced a continuing challenge to integrate this focus with our more traditional profile and our growth as a community service provider.
“Significant numbers of our current membership are older women who have faithfully supported the YWCA for years… We certainly need to look at our own future.“
Ethel McGuire, President
Annual Report, 1990
In 1990, the YWCA of Canberra developed a new corporate plan, with an operational mission statement committing the organisation to:
In the mid-’90s, we developed a clear delineation between Board and management responsibilities. The process of redefining these rules rejuvenated staff and Board members for the expansion that was underway. Raising our profile became a concerted effort.
For some considerable time the substitution of YMCA for YWCA when your newspaper prints items or job advertisements relating to the YWCA of Canberra has caused us a great deal of frustration. Each organisation has a different history and purpose and is separately incorporated. It is difficult for the YWCA of Canberra to maintain its own public identity when your newspaper appears to be working against us.“
Ann M Quadroy
Letter to the Canberra Times, 5 June 1996
Throughout that period, we continued to see early childhood education and care as an essential service to working women, and the feminist philosophy underpinning the service was articulated more strongly over time. By 1999, despite the struggles with financial viability caused by uncertain government funding, the YWCA of Canberra was running four early childhood education and care programs (Lyneham, St Thomas More’s, Campbell Cottage and Conder).
As a result of the organisation becoming more politically aware and change-oriented, we developed a number of women’s leadership and wellbeing courses during this period, including Women Influencing Leading and Deciding (WILD). We also spoke out on a range of political matters, initiating and participating in campaigns on abortion law, sexual assault and sexist advertising.
By 2000, as a large service provider, YWCA of Canberra had become a major player in the community sector increasingly taking responsibility for responding to disadvantage and social exclusion. We entered the new millennium with 20 programs and 19 projects in housing, youth services, childcare, women’s services, advocacy and training.
While the organisation had spoken out on issues of violence against women in previous periods, in this decade we developed a clearer sense of our role within the broader women’s services sector. The YWCA of Canberra worked with other women’s services to organise a forum during the 2001 Week Without Violence.
“The last 12 months have seen an unprecedented discussion by the community on the issues of sexual assault. A topic not usually discussed, we are now publicly debating issues such as what is consent, communication between men and women and how masculinity is defined in our society.“
YWCA of Canberra media release, October 2004
Our advocacy work on violence prevention culminated in May 2007 with the launch of the Relationship Things booklet. The booklet was designed to prevent violence by supporting young people to develop safe, respectful relationships.
“The booklet is designed to play a part in encouraging relationships where each person is safe and respected and has the right to choose YES or NO!“
YWCA of Canberra media release, 2007
During this time, we also refined our tendering process, to give us more control over our destiny. This resulted in the ability to self-fund work that we deemed important. This allowed resources to be put towards women’s leadership initiatives, advocacy, events and community campaigning on issues affecting women and girls. Since 2006, a Board-led process of long-term strategic and financial planning has enabled the organisation to fund work identifying and responding to changing community needs.
In the past decade, new projects and achievements include a growing portfolio of early childhood education and care programs and after school programs, the establishment of the Great Ydeas Small Grants Program in 2010, the launch of the She Leads Diploma of Management in 2013, the inaugural She Leads Conference in 2014, followed by a conference for High School and College girls, the grand opening of YWCA Canberra’s Computer Clubhouse in Tuggeranong in 2014, and the launch of the Next Door and Rentwell programs in 2019.
Today, driven by our vision of Girls and Women Thriving, we continue to provide innovative and leading services to women and the broader Canberra community. We work with thousands of Canberrans every year, delivering quality programs across around 20 locations throughout the Canberra region in the areas of children’s services, community development, housing, youth services, women’s leadership, advocacy and training.
In 2019 and again in 2021, we conducted surveys of over a thousand Canberra women and released the findings in Our lives: Women in the ACT.
These reports provide snapshots of the lived experiences of a diverse range of Canberrans, including their view and experiences on safety, financial security and community involvement.
We have used these publications to guide our advocacy agenda and campaign for better lives for women, girls, non-binary people and their families in Canberra.
In 2019, we launched Next Door, a specialist women’s service that empowers older women to access and maintain affordable, appropriate and safe homes in the ACT.
Within its first year, Next Door helped 78 older women who were homeless or at risk of homelessness.
This service is unique in that it is about much more than housing: it provides holistic support tailored to the woman’s individual situation. This could include helping them find their forever home or maintain their existing housing, helping organise essential household goods, or providing wrap-around support, case coordination and warm referrals to address financial, employment, legal and health concerns and make community connections.
Through Next Door, YWCA Canberra is continuing to work towards our goal to nurture and empower older women to overcome the challenges, trauma and inequality they have experienced in their lives and build their resilience, independence and wellbeing.
In recognition of YWCA Canberra’s outstanding contribution to the Canberra community throughout its 90 years of operation, we received a Chief Minister’s Canberra Gold Award in 2019. This award recognises and celebrates the unique contribution made by individuals and groups who have made Canberra their home for fifty years or more, and the role they have played in shaping our city and community.
YWCA Canberra has provided housing support to women and the broader Canberra community for nearly 80 years, commencing with the opening of Leave House in Mort St by Lady Gowrie in 1942.
Rentwell is our property management service that provides affordable rental properties owned by private investors to people who are struggling to secure and maintain tenancies in the mainstream market. The addition of Rentwell to our Housing Unit portfolio enables us to further contribute to the pool of affordable housing options in the ACT, building stronger communities and making Canberra a more inclusive and liveable city for everyone.
Hidden Women is a short documentary film highlighting the experiences of older women in housing and the confluence of gaps in policy and service delivery that have exacerbated the situation. Single older women comprise a rapidly growing cohort of those experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness in Canberra. Crucially, Hidden Women puts an everyday face on housing insecurity for older women and adds to the voices urging for change and support in this sector.
YWCA Canberra’s Great Ydeas Small Grants Program provides funds to local women, non-binary people and girls, to pursue a professional development opportunity, pilot a project, kick-start a business idea, or address a need in the community.
The program was launched in 2010 in celebration of YWCA Canberra’s 80th anniversary. Since then, more than 60 women have received grants, and the YWCA Canberra Board re-committed to the program in 2019 for another 10 years.
Awards are prioritised to projects that empower women in the local community and that have the potential to grow beyond the initial funding provided.
The Leading the Change: the Pathway to Gender Equality Report Card assesses the progress of the ACT Government against the ACT Women’s Plan 2016-2026, highlighting changes that would transform the ACT into the leading jurisdiction in Australia for gender equality.
We proudly opened the YWCA Canberra Computer Club House based in Tuggeranong in 2014. Open to all young people in the region who are aged between 10-18 this resource, the first computer clubhouse in the ACT, provides a creative and collaborative out-of-school learning environment with free access to cutting edge technology.
The Clubhouse facilitates creativity and collaboration, as highlighted by the recent What’s Your Reality project where ten Clubhouse members volunteered their time to be ‘topic experts’ in producing nature-based virtual reality (VR) content for the disability sector. The young people were part of a team with the Clubhouse and ACT Parks and Conservation Service (PCS) to plan, film and produce nature-based VR experiences, in a pilot program providing footage for the New Horizon’s Parallel Parks platform. The program was awarded an Innovation Award at the Volunteering and Contact ACT 2019 Volunteering Awards.
Today we provide education and care services for around 3000 children, and employ over 200 educators. We opened two new childcare services: Winyu Early Childcare Service in Gungahlin in 2015 and Fairley Early Childhood Service in Murrumbateman in 2017. We also took over management of the Spence Children’s Cottage in 2019, bringing our number of early childhood services to six.
Winyu received the 2017 NAPCAN ACT Play Your Part Award, marking the first time that a childcare provider has been recognised in this category.
We have been continuously recognised as Employer of Choice by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) since the certification was introduced in 2014.
The She Leads program is a leadership pathway for women and non-binary people who are looking to explore and develop their leadership potential. Through the She Leads program, the next generation of women leaders, from all sectors and industries, are being equipped with the skills and confidence they need to further their potential.
The She Leads program was introduced to Canberra in 2013 with the launch of the She Leads Diploma of Leadership & Management.
In addition to the Diploma the now thriving She Leads program includes an extensive range of professional development activities and events including programs such as the She Leads Conference, the She Leads In-Conversation Series, the She Leads College Conference (for girls in years 11 and 12), the She Leads High Conference (for girls in years 9 and 10), and She Leads Workshops.
It is estimated that the She Leads series of programs has reached, impacted and supported over 800 individuals from our community in the 2019-20 financial year alone.
The LGBTQIA+ Allies Prom is an opportunity for young people to experience a formal style event and express their identity in a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental environment. Since the inaugural formal, held in 2016, this event has welcomed over 700 young people from Canberra and surrounds coming together into a supportive, safe environment to celebrate this milestone.
YWCA Canberra is committed to working towards reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Our vision for reconciliation remains one where the ACT and surrounding region truly acknowledges, pays respect to, and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, contributions, knowledge and histories.
An integral part of this is delivering on our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). We have had RAPs since 2009 and our last three have been Stretch RAPs.
A stretch RAP indicates that YWCA Canberra has embedded the principles and practices of reconciliation in our everyday business. Through the stretch RAP, we are able to focus on increasing activities and setting more ambitious targets.
YWCA Canberra is committed to creating a world where women and their children are safe from violence, and where a culture of gender equality and fairness exists to protect the rights of all people. Research demonstrates that an integral part of reducing violence against women and children is primary prevention.
YWCA Canberra is proud to have provided training and resources through a suite of primary violence prevention resources captured under the umbrella of Respect Ed.
One of the community resources produced and launched by YWCA Canberra Relationship Things aims to prevent sexual assault and gender-based violence, by empowering young people to develop and maintain safe and respectful relationships.
In 2014, Relationship Things was the recipient of an ACT Office for Women Partners in Prevention Award, in the ‘Community’ category. In August 2015, YWCA Canberra further enhanced the program with the launch of Relationship Things Online, an online resource that captures some of the key information from the program for young people to access independently.
Lady Heydon House was officially opened on 20 February 2013 by our Patron, Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. Lady Heydon House is the result of the initial phase of our affordable housing program and provides safe affordable housing for five single women and was the realisation of aspiration for YWCA Canberra to become an affordable housing provider.
In 2021, YWCA Canberra hopes to build on this program by developing 10 units for older women and women and families who have experienced domestic violence on a property we own in Ainslie.
For a more comprehensive history of the first 80 years of YWCA Canberra, copies of the book A work in progress: A history of the YWCA of Canberra, 1929-2009 are available by calling 02 6185 2000.