collage of photos of women

Historical Women in the Y Movement

When the YMCA was founded by George Williams in 1844, it was a societal group open only to men. Over time, the YMCA has grown to become an international movement that welcomes all people.

Throughout the Y’s 177-year history, some incredible women have helped expand the work of the Y and strengthened the Y’s ability to serve communities around the world. We are proud to honor these women today as a part of the Y’s celebration of Women’s History Month.

Addie Hunton
Addie Hunton via Kautz Family YMCA Archives

Addie Hunton: As part of the YMCA's massive World War I support effort, Addie Hunton was one of only three African American women assigned to serve over 200,000 segregated black troops stationed in France. After returning home in 1919, Hunton and her colleague Kathryn Johnson co-wrote an influential account of their experience, Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces, including reports of the discrimination they encountered.

Violet P. Henry: Born in Alberta, Canada, Violet Henry was the first African-American woman to be admitted to the practice of law in Canada. In 1963, she became executive director of the Community Branch of the Newark (N.J.) YMCA. Seven years later, she was appointed the director of planning for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago (Ill.), and later became the director of manpower, planning, and staff development. In 1976, Henry became the first woman to be named to a top management position on the national staff as executive director of the Organizational Development Group. She was responsible for personnel management, corporate planning, and development projects. Henry served as president of the YMCA Association of Professional Directors (APD) and vice president of the World Association of Secretaries. She provided leadership for numerous national and international commissions and committees that worked effectively for the rights of women and minorities.

Winifred Colton
Winifred Colton via Kautz Family YMCA Archives

Winifred Colton: Fighting to improve the status of women in the YMCA, Winifred Colton began her extensive YMCA career as women’s and girl’s work secretary in three YMCA of Metro Chicago branches over the course of twelve years. In 1957, the YMCA's National Council’s statement of purpose no longer applied to “males only,” and Colton became the first woman professional on the national staff. She served over a million constituents enrolled in organized groups and activities as secretary for women’s and girl’s work.

Willie Aveling: Following her involvement as the physical director at the Atlantic City YWCA, Wilhelmina “Willie” Aveling was the first woman on the metropolitan staff at the YMCA of Chicago, tasked to study work with women and girls and institute a Women’s Program. Over the course of almost three decades, Aveling improved programs for women and girls, such as introducing Danish gymnastics and summer day camps, and implementing proper standards for women’s and girl’s programs, which were to be led by women and under the jurisdiction of a women’s committee. She also created manuals on leadership and management and personally evaluated every Chicago YMCA girls’ resident camp. Aveling was the first chairman of the Association of Secretaries Women and Girls Section and, likely, the first Women and Girls Secretary. On June 5, 1987, shortly after her death, Aveling was the first woman inducted into the YMCA National Hall of Fame.

International Women’s Day - March 8, 2021

Created in 1911, International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity around the world.

The YMCA is a global organization with Y’s in over 120 countries. We are excited to honor just a few of the women from around the world that have been indispensable to the work and growth of the YMCA.

Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Hostein: Princess Helena of England helped to open the YMCA to women by creating the first YMCA Women’s Auxiliary following the beginning on World War I. As a member of the royal family, Princess Helena was a notable female member of the YMCA and served as chairman of the organizing committee for the YMCA Women’s Auxiliary.

Xinia headshot
Xinia Brenes Jenkins via YMCA Archives

Xinia Brenes Jenkins: One of the founding members of the San Jose YMCA, Xinia Brenes Jenkins was deeply involved in the Costa Rican Catholic youth movement. The Latin American Confederation of YMCAs reached out to Jenkins for her assistance in instituting a national Costa Rican YMCA. Following its implementation in 1975, she became director of leadership development at the San Jose YMCA in 1977. In 1983, she became national general secretary, and, in 1990, executive for refugees, development, and extension for the Latin American Confederation of YMCAs. Jenkins's work for the Costa Rican YMCA focused on providing programs for refugees, relief for those affected by housing shortages, and offering vocational skills training for women and agricultural skills training for Costa Rican Indians.

Patricia Pelton
Patricia Pelton via

Patricia Pelton: In 2018 Patricia Pelton from Canada was elected as President of the World YMCA, the first female in the YMCAs history. When elected, she stated, “the women leaders in our movement, past and present, have worked so hard to pave the way and see this day. Inclusion in leadership benefits us all. This. Change. Is. Momentous.” In her leadership role, Pelton focuses on ensuring that YMCA strategic directions and organizational resources foster long-term sustainability so that communities everywhere can continue to depend on the YMCA as a place of opportunity and civic engagement. Across Canada and now around the world, Patricia Pelton is recognized for her belief in the power of the YMCA to make a difference and her dedication to using this power wisely and well. She exemplifies the spirit of sustained volunteer service that lifts up communities.

Women making history in Middle Tennessee

We also want to recognize and honor women currently making history through their service in our community. As women continue to break barriers and step into leadership roles in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, our community benefits from the inclusion of their voices. The Middle Tennessee community is a stronger, more equitable place thanks to the service of these incredible women.

Judge Escobar
Judge Ana L. Escobar via

Judge Ana L. Escobar: Judge Escobar became the first Latina judge in Nashville’s history after she won election to the Davidson County General Sessions Court – Division III seat in August 2018. Before becoming a judge, she served as an assistant public defender, an assistant district attorney, Metro Clerk, and deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. While in the Office of the District Attorney General, much of Judge Escobar’s work focused on the problem of domestic violence. As the team leader of the Office’s Domestic Violence Unit, Judge Escobar prosecuted over 500 cases. She would go on to receive the 2016 Nashville Coalition Against Domestic Violence Outstanding Local Official Award. In addition to her professional work, Judge Escobar has served on 20 non-profit boards, government boards, and commissions, including the Nashville Prevention Partnership, the Junior League of Nashville, and Conexion Americas. In 2012, Judge Escobar co-founded MyCity Academy, a leadership program that educates New Americans and neighborhood leaders about local government.

Tequila Johnson: Tequila Johnson is an award-winning community organizer and strategist whose work focuses on creating equality and increasing civic engagement among Black Americans and other communities of color. Johnson is the co-founder and vice president of The Equity Alliance, a Tennessee-based nonprofit that equips black and brown citizens with tools and strategies to strengthen their communities and make government work better. In 2018, Johnson served as the statewide manager for the Tennessee Black Voter Project, a statewide coalition of nearly two dozen local nonprofits working together toward the goal of registering 50,000 Black Tennesseans to vote. The group, under Johnson’s leadership, submitted 91,000 voter registration forms. Her work in and for the community has earned widespread praise and recognition. Her awards include: The Nashville Business Journal’s Women of Influence Award 2019; Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Superstar 2019; the NAACP Ella Baker Power Award 2019; the Women’s Political Collaborative of Tennessee’s Movers and Shakers Award 2018; Nashville Business’ 100 Leading African Americans 2018; Nashville Black 40 Under 40 2018; and Nashville Voice’s 2018 Nashvillian of the Year.

Charlane Oliver: Charlane Oliver has more than 12 years of experience in nonprofit management, civil service, public relations and communications. She is the Founder and Board President of The Equity Alliance—a nonprofit organization focused on civic engagement in communities of color—and serves on the board of the Metro Nashville Emergency 911 Communications District Board, Purpose Preparatory Academy and the Urban Enterprise Group. In March 2018, Oliver was presented with the Dr. Evelyn Fancher Unsung Hero Award for her community activism work by Les Gemmes, Inc. She has recently been recognized as an “Unsung Hero” by the East Nashville Chamber of Commerce Council and as one of Nashville Business Next’s 100 Leading African Americans in 2018. Oliver is a 2017 Nashville Emerging Leader Awards Finalist, a 2016 Nashville Black 40 Under 40 award recipient, and alumni of Young Leaders Council.

Senator Thelma Harper
Senator Thelma Harper via

Thelma Harper: Thelma Harper was the first African-American woman state senator in Tennessee. First elected in 1991, Thelma is the longest-serving female State Senator in Tennessee history. She continued to break the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to preside over the Senate. She was also the first African-American woman to serve as the Chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee; she held that position during the 102nd, 103rd, 104th, and 105th General Assemblies, and she also served as Vice Chair of the Senate State and Local Government Committee during the 97th and 101st General Assemblies and the first Senator to serve as Chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus.

Brenda Gilmore: Brenda Gilmore has been serving the Nashville community for more than two decades. Gilmore served on the Metro Council and in the Tennessee General Assembly State House before being elected as a Tennessee State Senator in 2018. She is proud to represent the State Senate District 19. Brenda is a graduate of the Tennessee Government Executive Institute, the Vanderbilt Leadership Development Forum, and Leadership Nashville. She has previously worked in public service at the Tennessee Department of General Service and has been director of State Postal Services. The YMCA of Middle Tennessee is grateful to have had Gilmore as board member of the Northwest Family YMCA and capital campaign co-chair that supported a major renovation and expansion. In 2010, she received the YMCA of Middle Tennessee's highest volunteer honor – The Order of the Red Triangle.

YMCA of Middle Tennessee Women

Here are just a handful of the incredible women leaders that have positively impacted the YMCA of Middle Tennessee. Our Y is dedicated to serving our community, and these women exemplify the Y’s mission and values. In addition to recognizing these women, the YMCA of Middle Tennessee honors and thanks the thousands of women who serve on our staff or serve as volunteers – the work of the YMCA could not be done without these women.

Margaret Maddox
Margaret Maddox via

Margaret Maddox: Nashville native Margaret Huffman Maddox graduated from East Nashville High School and attended George Peabody School of Teachers; one of the nation's earliest recipients of the Certified Professional Secretary designation, and was Tennessee's Secretary of the Year in 1960. Maddox enjoyed an outstanding career in the finance industry, retiring as vice president of Associates Capital Corporation. Highly respected in community leadership circles, she served as chairman of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, receiving the organization's highest award, The Order of the Red Triangle, for her commendable service. She also served on the board of the Sarah Cannon Cancer Foundation and in 1997, Maddox was inducted into the YWCA Academy for Women of Achievement. Her legacy of service and community development lives on through the work of the Maddox Fund. The YMCA of Middle Tennessee is proud to honor the contributions of Margaret Maddox as our East Nashville branch bears her name.

Florence Davis

Florence Davis: Florence Davis joined the YMCA of Middle Tennessee's Board of Directors in 1972. She worked her way up in volunteer leadership and, in 1979, was installed as the very first female board chair in the YMCA of Middle Tennessee's then 104-year history. In the early 80s, Davis also had a key role in raising the funds necessary to bring a women's center to the Downtown YMCA which, up until then, only permitted male members. Davis' championing of Camp Widjiwagan is one of the most enduring parts of her legacy. Dormant since 1971, Widji was reaccredited in 2004, and Davis' generous giving and volunteer leadership were vital to reviving the beloved resident camp that now allows thousands of kids to experience the magic of summer camp every year. After nearly five decades of Y service, Davis continues to be one of the YMCA's greatest ambassadors, leading the effort to expand program activities for Camp Widjiwagan participants.

Sandra Fulton
Sandra Fulton

Sandra Fulton: Sandra Fulton, a former state commissioner of tourism, served as the YMCA of Middle Tennessee’s top volunteer leader in 1988 and 1989, becoming the second woman to act as board chair. Sandra Fulton and her late husband, former Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton, co-chaired the capital campaign to help make the dream of a YMCA teen center at the Margaret Maddox Family YMCA a reality. Their support of the Maddox Y played a pivotal role in making it a thriving hub, where everyone is welcome in the growing East Nashville community. In 2012, the YMCA Foundation of Middle Tennessee presented the highest honor, the H.G. Hill Jr. Philanthropic Award, to the Fultons as longtime advocates for the Y. Their support of our Y and many other local nonprofit organizations will have a lasting impact in our community for years to come.


Liz Allbritton
Liz Wilson Allbritton

Liz Wilson Allbritton: In 2020, Liz Wilson Allbritton became the chair of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee’s Board of Directors. In addition to her volunteer work with the Y, she currently serves as chair of the Foundation Committee at Franklin First United Methodist Church. A passionate advocate for the YMCA, Allbritton formerly served as chair of the Annual Giving Campaign and board chair for the Maryland Farms YMCA. In 2017, the YMCA recognized her with its highest volunteer award, The Order of the Red Triangle. Allbritton is a past president of the Nashville Triathlon Club. She has served on the board of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Tennessee and was honored as its Woman of the Year in 2006. She is a triathlete who has competed in dozens of triathlon events, including an Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. An accomplished Certified Financial Planner Practitioner and Chartered Mutual Fund Counselor, Allbritton is the managing and founding partner of The Monarch Group of Truist Investment Services, Inc.

Johari Matthews
Johari Matthews

Johari Matthews: In 2020, the Executive Director of the Northwest YMCA Branch, Johari Matthews, was named one of Nashville’s top 40 under 40 emerging leaders by Nashville Business Journal. She has spent 15 years with the YMCA of Middle Tennessee, including eight years with school-aged programming. She moved to her previous role as Senior Program Director at the Margaret Maddox Family YMCA in East Nashville. She has also served as the African American Resource Network Co-Chair for the YMCA of Middle Tennessee Employee Resource Group. Matthews is known for her exceptional leadership, willingness to serve, and infectious passion for her community. In addition to her work at the Y, she serves on various boards and committees including Corner to Corner as the Board Chair, The Community Foundation’s Women’s Fund, Women for Tennessee’s Future, Women of Color for Education Equity, and many more. She is a member of Junior League Nashville and volunteers at Nashville YoungLives, a local ministry for teen moms.

La’Vasia Burford
La’Vasia Burford

La’Vasia Burford: La’Vasia Burford has been a Regional Human Resources Director for the YMCA of Middle Tennessee for 10 years. Her dedication to the Y’s mission, members, and employees shines through her exemplary work. In addition to her role in HR, Burford developed and managed the Y of Middle Tennessee’s Employee Resource Group (ERG) initiative over four years. The Y’s four ERGs – the African American Resource Network, the Emerging Leader Resource Network, the LGBTQ Resource Network, and the Women’s Leadership Resource Network – now provide professional development and community support to over 200 Y employees. Burford is also a leader in the National YMCA movement, she has served on the National Women’s Leadership Resource Network Steering Committee and now serves as the National Chair of the WLRN.

Impacts of COVID on Women

Finally, it’s important to recognize the unique challenges that women around the world are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Women’s History Month has always been a time to observe and celebrate the vital role of women in American history. Throughout the pandemic, the role of women in society has been put under strain as women bear the brunt of the negative impacts of COVID-19. Celebrating Women’s History Month during a pandemic is a reminder that we must continue to strive towards gender equity in our own communities and around the world. Learn more about the impacts of COVID-19 on women from the Brookings Institute’s Gender Equality series.