YMCA Women's History:

Ellen Brown

When the YMCA was founded by George Williams in 1844, the organization was open only to men. Eventually, the YMCA welcomed women in unpaid roles such as volunteer teachers and fundraisers. However, in 1886 Ellen Brown became the first female YMCA employee as the "boy’s work secretary.”  

Brown started a night class at the YMCA that quickly expanded into a department. It was clear that it was only a matter of time before women were to be recognized and offered paying jobs.

Suzanne McCormick
Suzanne McCormick is the 15th person and first woman to lead YMCA of the USA (Y-USA), the national resource office for the Y — a leading nonprofit committed to strengthening community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Collectively, the nation’s YMCAs engage 13 million members — nearly 5 million of whom are under the age of 18 — annually. 

Suzanne became President and CEO of Y-USA in September 2021. A nonprofit executive with 30 years of leadership experience at the national and local levels, she previously served for three years as U.S. President for United Way Worldwide, responsible for helping the 1,100 United Ways across the U.S. build more resilient, inclusive and sustainable communities. She also was a member of the UWW global management team and executive sponsor of United Way’s Women United Global Leadership Council. 

Suzanne spent five years as President and CEO of United Way Suncoast in Tampa, Florida, where she led a strategic plan to break the cycle of generational poverty, drove fundraising growth and increased community impact. During her tenure, she was Chair of the United Ways of Florida, one of the largest United Way state associations. She also served as Chair of the United Way Network Partnership Group, which focused on developing and activating powerful philanthropy initiatives, and the National Professional Council, which advised the CEO of United Way Worldwide on strategic initiatives. 

Suzanne’s 13 years at United Way of Greater Portland in Maine included four as President and CEO. She also was CEO for both the American Red Cross of Southern Maine and the People’s Regional Opportunity Program in Maine. 

The NonProfit Times recognized Suzanne in the Power & Influence Top 50, its annual celebration of the nonprofit sector’s top executives and strategists, in 2021 and 2022. She serves on the boards of directors of Independent Sector and the National Fitness Foundation.

Indiana State Museum Honors Six Female History Makers with Hoosier Ties:

Catharine Coffin
Catharine Coffin – wife of Levi Coffin, who was considered “president of Underground Railroad” – was just as dedicated to helping freedom seekers on their journeys as her husband was.

In fact, the woman known to many as “Aunt Katie” provided food, formed a sewing society to produce clothing and helped to shelter the 1,000+ freedom seekers who sought safety in their home in Newport (now Fountain City).

Although not as much is known about Catharine as there is about her husband, Levi mentions in his autobiography, “It was never too cold or stormy, or the hour of night too late for my wife to rise from sleep, and provide food and comfortable lodging for the fugitives. Her sympathy for those is distress never tired, and her efforts in their behalf never abated.”

Learn more HERE!

Gene Stratton-Porter
Gene Stratton-Porter was a woman ahead of her time. She lived life exactly how she wanted to, even though societal norms deemed some things she did as scandalous – such as living apart from her husband, having her own money, wearing pants, and going into the Limberlost Swamp with men who helped her carry photography equipment.

Although she’s best known as Indiana’s most widely read female author, Gene was also a naturalist, illustrator and photographer who used the Limberlost Swamp as her laboratory and inspiration for her early nature articles and novels. Later, she helped to conserve the swamp and other wetlands throughout Indiana through conservation.

The best-selling author also was among the first women to own a movie production company: Gene Stratton-Porter Productions.

Learn more HERE!

Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker – born Sarah Breedlove to sharecroppers on a Louisiana cotton plantation – was one of the first American women ever to become a self-made millionaire after creating her own specialized hair-care products for African Americans.

Madam Walker traveled around the country promoting her products and giving demonstrations on what became known as the “Walker Method” before opening the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company – a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh – in 1908. She moved her business operations to Indianapolis in 1910, where she created her cosmetics and trained “Walker Agents” in her hair-care methods.

Madam Walker also was known for her philanthropic efforts and donated the largest amount of money by an African American toward the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA.

Learn more about Madam Walker here!

Blanche Culbertson
Blanche Culbertson – daughter of William Culbertson and his second wife, Cornelia – was raised in a family that stressed the virtues of benevolence, temperance, truthfulness and justice, as well as a spirit of activism.

Her father and his third wife, Rebecca, were involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Southern Indiana while Blanche was growing up. William Culbertson even founded Southern Indiana’s Primary Committee for Women’s Suffrage and invited Susan B. Anthony and her successors to New Albany for a suffrage meeting.

Due to her upbringing in a family supporting women’s equality, Blanche understood how far behind women’s rights were in the Victorian era. Between 1900 and 1910, Blanche became heavily involved with the suffrage movement in New York, participating in national marches for women’s rights. She was also a lifelong member of the North American Women’s Suffrage Association.

Discover more about Blanche here!

Selma Neubacher Steele
Selma Neubacher Steele – the second wife of Hoosier artist T.C. Steele – was an educator, but she also was artist in her own right.

After graduating from Indianapolis High School in 1887, Selma taught second and third grade in Indianapolis for nearly a decade. She later attended Pratt Institute in New York and earned an art degree in 1905.

Selma returned to Indianapolis and became the assistant supervisor of art for the public schools and taught Saturday art classes for educators at the John Herron Art Institute – now known as the Herron School of Art + Design at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

After marrying T.C. and moving to Brown County, Selma supported her husband’s work by transforming their property and creating gardens near their House of the Singing Winds that often inspired his plein air paintings. She also decorated their home with designs of her own, which can still be discovered during a tour of T.C. Steele State Historic Site near Nashville.

Judge Zilthia Mae Perkins Jimison
Judge Zilthia Mae Perkins Jimison became the first African American female judge on the Marion Superior Court after being appointed by Republican Gov. Robert D. Orr in 1988.

Jimison, a 1963 graduate from Shortridge High School, received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Indiana State University before earning her jurist doctorate degree from the College of Law at Ohio State University in 1977. She then returned to Indiana to begin her law career in private practice. She went on to serve as a public defender and later served on the City-County Council from 1992 to 1995.

Jimison continued to break through the glass ceiling by becoming the first African American to win a mayoral primary as a Democrat in Indianapolis. Although her 1995 mayoral bid was unsuccessful, she ran and was elected superior court judge in 1996.
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