From roughly November 1894 to January 1897, 108 Charles Street was home to The Women’s Era, the first newspaper in the United States produced and funded by Black women. The newspaper played a key role in the holding of the first National Conference of Colored Women (which took place in Boston in 1895) and in the establishment of the National Association of Colored Women.
The newspaper grew out of the Women’s Era Club, an advocacy group for Boston-area Black women founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and her daughter Florida Ridley Ruffin, members of a small, but significant Black, upper-class community on the north side of Beacon Hill. The club, which allowed white women to join, had a wide array of interests, but primary were issues affecting the well-being of the Black community and racial equality.
The publication’s first issue came out on March 24, 1894. Soon the newspaper went national and became the leading publication for Black clubwomen across the country.
Like the Women’s Era Club, the newspaper championed women’s suffrage, while also focusing on a broader set of issues. They ranged from the activities of local clubs and matters of health and literature to poverty and education. The publication was, according to historian Teresa Blue Holden, one that “broadcast the perspectives of black women nationally and linked their interests with those of white American women who were also contributors to the paper.” Animated by a spirit that rejected divisions of class, race, and religion, the paper advocated for the well-being of all women.
The first few issues of the newspaper listed St. Augustine’s Trade School, an Episcopal Church-related institution at 185 Charles Street, as the home of The Women’s Era. By November 1894, however, presumably because it now had its own office, the building at 108 Charles Street was listed as the publication’s address. This address endured until the paper’s last issue, which was published in January 1897. A combination of declining financial resources and differences with the national club movement (many within perceived the newspaper as too radical) led to the publication’s demise.
The four-story building (106-108 Charles Street) in which The Women’s Era’s offices were located today houses commercial space on the ground floor and private residences above.
Red Lines to Charles/MGH Station. 0.1-mile (3-minute) walk.
The home of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and the meeting place of the Women’s Era Club (founded in 1893, it existed until some point in the first decade of the 1900s), 103 Charles Street; it is diagonally across the street from the former offices of The Women’s Era.
To learn more:
Teresa Blue Holden, “Earnest women can do anything”: The public career of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, 1842–1904, Ph.D. dissertation, Saint Louis University, 2005.
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.