A letter from the Executive Director


It was recently suggested to me that having a swimming pool at the YWCA had nothing to do with our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. Though I was able to give some examples of how having a pool related to our mission, I decided to do a bit of research to help me the next time I am confronted with such a statement. This is what I learned.

Swimming and Civil Rights:

In the early 1900’s, swimming was not the social summer pastime that it is today. It wasn’t until after WWII, and the advent of city-built pools, that swimming became popular. While the early city-built pools were integrated, the intimacy of swimming in water between whites and blacks exposed the belief by many whites that blacks were unclean. When a city pool first opened in Pittsburgh, city health officials pulled all of the blacks out of the pool, requesting them to show proof of health certificates. Since they did not have health certificates with them, they were prohibited from reentering the pool. One of the most egregious acts of racism occurred when acid was poured into a swimming pool by the owner of a Florida hotel where whites and blacks were swimming together to protest the whites-only pool policy of the hotel. The case made national news and helped convince Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Even in the 1960’s and 70’s, when most pools became integrated, segregation persisted as whites stopped using city-owned pools. Instead, they opted to swim in whites-only private country club pools and pools built in predominantly white neighborhoods, which exacerbated racial stratification and inequality.

Sadly, the legacy of swimming being a white dominated skill remains today. Black Americans are half as likely to know how to swim as white Americans. In addition, black children are three times more likely than white children to die of drowning.

 Swimming and the Women’s Movement:

Most women in the early 1900s did not swim primarily because they would be cited for indecent exposure should they be caught wearing an outfit that did not cover them from head to toe. The bulky clothing required of women made learning to swim virtually impossible, and swimming together with men was prohibited. In 1904, when a large excursion boat caught fire on the East River in New York just 50 yards from shore, close to 1,000 passengers drowned; all women and children. In 1911, as a result of this incident, the Women’s National Life Saving League formed to encourage women and children to learn to swim. Later, the League founded the Women’s Swimming Association, which served as the first all-woman sporting club. Swimming was the first sport recognized for women by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and swimmers and divers were the only female athletes allowed to compete in the 1920 Olympics.

After the 1920 Olympics, swimming became more popular with women, but pools were still segregated by gender. As a result, YWCAs across the country began building swimming pools. In the 1960’s, Olympian swimmer Donna DeVarona broke 18 world records in two Olympic Games. However, colleges did not grant her athletic scholarships that were offered to her male counterparts because colleges did not have women’s sports teams. As a result of her efforts for gender equality and her testimony before Congress in 1972, the passage of Title IX became effective opening the doors for athletic and educational opportunities for millions of American women.

It is interesting to note that the same year in which Title IX passed, the YWCA of Central Maine built the area’s first regulation sized swimming pool giving local school girls and boys swim teams a place to practice and compete. Our pool has been a mainstay in the Lewiston/Auburn area for over 40 years providing equal opportunity for people of all genders, races, ethnicities, and ages a place to learn to swim and recreate. We’re proud of our history!





 News / Updates:



Stand Against Racism Event 2015




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