140 Clarendon Street, Back Bay
A few months after the March 4, 1929, opening of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) building on Clarendon Street, Boston Business featured an article about the new facility. The 13-story structure, gushed the Boston Chamber of Commerce publication, has “practically everything conducive to the welfare—physical, mental and spiritual—of the girl living away from home in a large city.”
Founded in 1866, the Boston Young Women’s Christian Association was the first YWCA in the United States. Its establishment was a response to the growing presence in Boston of single women working outside the home. At its initial location in Downtown, in a Congregational building at 23 Chauncey Street (where Macy’s now stands), it sought to support “the temporal, moral and religious welfare” of such women, So, in addition to assisting women to finding appropriate boarding, the YWCA offered classes in singing and the Bible and a prayer meeting every Thursday.
Soon thereafter, in response to many more requests for assistance in securing room and board than it could accommodate, the YWCA purchased two houses at 25 and 27 Beach Street in what is now Chinatown. When the refurbished houses opened in 1868, they provided housing for 80 women. The typical resident was under 25 years of age, and a little more than half of them worked as seamstresses. Within six years, the YWCA had to move again when the City of Boston widened Beach Street. The newly constructed building, at 68 Warrenton Street, accommodated 200 residents; an adjoining house on Carver Street (now Charles Street) served as the YWCA’s employment bureau.
It would be more than 60 years later when the YWCA moved to the building on Clarendon Street. As detailed by Boston Business, the YWCA’s new home had myriad amenities: “A gym and swimming pool, facilities for social and recreational activities, educational classes, and even a meditation chapel tucked away from the gaiety and laughter in the remainder of the building, are but a few of the attractions that careful planning has provided.” The building also housed “a cafeteria, bowling alleys, which are open to men, a men’s dressing room, public showers, a vocational guidance department, and a tea room [sic]. The tea room, like the bowling alleys, is open to men. And men may smoke in both.”
Among the important functions of the YWCA is that it served as a space for women-led organizing. One manifestation took place in September 1973, when a group of women rented a small office in the building. There, they published a newsletter, one launched the previous year, called 9 to 5 for Boston’s women officer workers—there were over 200,000 of them in the city at the time; they ran an organization by the same name as well. The initial goal of 9 to 5 was to inform women clerical workers of their rights, to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, and to compel Boston’s major employers to end discriminatory practices.
On the evening of Monday, November 19, 1973, in the YWCA’s auditorium, 9 to 5 had its first public meeting. More than 200 women attended. “Boston women are some of the worst paid office workers in the country,” declared Karen Nussbaum, along with Ellen Cassedy, one of the organization’s founders. According to 9 to 5, of the fifteen largest U.S. cities at the time, only office workers in Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee were paid less.
9 to 5 would soon grow by leaps and bounds, in part by organizing chapters throughout the Northeast—in cities such as Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, and Worcester. It also joined forces with other organizations of women office workers—in Cleveland, Dayton, New York, and San Francisco—and, in 1978, created a national entity, one which became known as 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women; at its height, it had more than 12,000 members in at least 22 city-based chapters in addition to at-large members in all 50 U.S. states.
In addition, as a way of formalizing its power and engage in contract negotiations with employers, 9 to 5 organized a Boston-area labor union. Founded in 1978, Local 925 was affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). And in 1981, Local 925 went national, becoming District 925.
Over the years, 9 to 5 made substantial gains for women clerical workers. Through lobbying, demonstrations, lawsuits, media work, public hearings and other pressure tactics, 9 to 5 brought about back pay and raises, improved working conditions, and better hiring practices—among other advances.
Today, 9 to 5 lives on—not least in popular culture due to the 1980 movie 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton (who sang the accompanying hit song), and Lily Tomlin. While SEIU District 925 did not last long for a host of reasons, 9 to 5, the national advocacy organization, endures, albeit as a smaller entity, one now based in Milwaukee. With an agenda that goes far beyond women office workers, 9 to 5 focuses on matters ranging from paid sick leave and childcare to equal pay and an end to discrimination; it also helps renters facing eviction.
As for the building at 140 Clarendon Street, the YWCA sold it in 2019. Via a public-private partnership, the building is currently undergoing a process of renovation that will lead to 210 units of affordable housing, 111 of which will be supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals who will receive services from the Pine Street Inn. When completed, the historic building will continue to house current tenants, including the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the Snowden International School (a City of Boston school), and YW Boston, as the YWCA in the Back Bay is now known.
Orange Line to Back Bay Station or Green Line to Copley Station. The building is a 0.2-mile (3-minute) walk from Back Bay Station; it is a 0.3-mile (5-minute) walk from Copley.
To learn more:
Ellen Cassedy, Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, A Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2022.
“Hub Women Office Workers Unite for Higher Pay,” The Boston Globe, November 22, 1973: 75.
Tim Logan, “Work Launches on Re-do of Former YWCA into Affordable Housing,” The Boston Globe, December 9, 2021.
“New Y.W.C.A. Offers Many Facilities,” Boston Business, Vol. 20, No. 6, June 1929: 28+.
Daphne Spain, “Women’s Rights and Gendered Spaces in 1970s Boston,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2011: 152-178.
Elizabeth Wilson, Fifty Years of Association Work Among Young Women, 1866-1916: A History of the Young Women’s Christian Associations in the United States, New York: National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Associations of the United States of America, 1916.