Through the month of March, NewsChannel 34 is highlighting the contributions and hidden histories of women across the country.
Tonight, we begin our Celebrating Women series here at home with a look at a pioneering doctor who used her status to improve the lives of less fortunate women at a time when Binghamton was booming…
During the industrial revolution of the late 1800’s, many young single women living in the rural areas of Broome County looked upon the burgeoning factories of Binghamton as offering a prospect for a better life than toiling away in the fields. But once they arrived, while they were able to find jobs, housing was another matter. Many were left rooming in the local brothels. Some prominent local women of the time, including Doctor Alice Mills, were concerned for their welfare.
Executive Director Carole Coppens says, “She took it upon herself to be sure that these young women were getting the care that they needed because she could see that they didn’t have any. But she was also very concerned about the conditions under which they were living.”
So, a number of women and men in the community held a series of meetings and agreed to open a local branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association which had been founded in England in 1855 and had spread to major cities in the U-S. In 1892, the YWCA of Binghamton was born and by 1902 it had several boarding rooms in the Herald Building at the corner of State and Henry Streets
Coppens says, “First and foremost, these young women were safe and well cared for. But, then on top of that, did something unprecedented at the time, was to provide skills, training, resources for these young women to continue to improve their lives.”
Doctor Alice Mills served as the first president of the YW’s board of directors. She was already a pioneer in her own right, as a homeopathic physician serving a female clientele. Her husband was also a physician and they saw patients in their home. Her personal interest in health lead her to be a big proponent of physical fitness in women.
Coppens says, “At the time, that’s not something that women should do. And she believed otherwise. She understood the importance of exercise and fitness in one’s overall sense of wellness and well-being.”
Years after Doctor Mills completed her term as the board’s first president, the YWCA would move into the former Fowler Hotel on Hawley Street, which was later added onto and continues to be its headquarters today. Coppens says her legacy is honored through the YW’s awarding of the annual Doctor Alice Mills award recognizing those who have performed outstanding community service in the area of violence prevention.
Coppens says, “Instill this idea in them that they were of value, they had the right to speak, they had minds that should be cultivated and taught.”
Coppens says a straight line can be drawn from that initial philosophy through to the mission and practice of the YWCA today.
I would like to acknowledge the research conducted by local historian Suzanne Meredith and her book “In The Cause Of Women” which chronicles the history of the YWCA in Binghamton.
Also, thanks to the Binghamton University Libraries’ Special Collections for granting us access to the YWCA Binghamton archives.
NewsChannel 34 will air a half hour Celebrating Women special including other stories from across the country.
Showtimes are March 23rd at 1:30 and 7:30 PM on WBGH NBC 5 and then again on March 30th at 5 PM on WIVT NewsChannel 34.
You can also catch other individual stories on our ‘Celebrating Women’ page.