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Addams, Jane (1860–1935)

Addams, Jane (1860–1935)

American founder of Hull House, a Chicago settlement house, who advocated progressive reforms, pacifism, and cultural diversity. Born on September 6, 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois; died in Chicago on May 21, 1935; daughter of John (an Illinois entrepreneur and legislator) and Sarah (Weber) Addams (who died when Jane Addams was two); graduated valedictorian Rockford Female Seminary, 1881 (granted a degree when it became Rockford College, 1882); attended Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania for one year; never married; no children.

Enrolled at Rockford Seminary (1877); made first visit to Europe (1883) and second visit with Ellen

Gates Starr (1887); founded Hull House with Starr (1889); elected chair of Women's Peace Party and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (1916); awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1931).

Selected writings:

Democracy and Social Ethics (1902); Newer Ideals of Peace (1907); Twenty Years at Hull House (1910); The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1912); Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922); The Second Twenty Years at Hull House (1930); The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932); My Friend, Julia Lathrop (1935).

Jane Addams is one of the heroes and legends of American liberalism. In an age dominated by laissez-faire conservatism, she worked to restore a fractured sense of American community and to bring the full benefits of national life to the poorest and most recent immigrants. Hull House, her slum settlement in Chicago, became the influential center of a national movement aimed at bringing education, sanitation, recreation, and political representation to the most disadvantaged citizens of the new urban civilization. Disliked by some contemporaries (and subsequent historians) for her middle-class Puritan pieties and her unshakable self-assurance, she was also widely loved and admired, both for her settlement work and for her leadership in the women's peace movement.

Jane Addams' father John was revered for his business acumen and political probity in downstate Illinois and had a large influence on his daughter's moral education. Jane was one of four among his children to survive into adulthood, and she grew up in frail health, suffering from curvature of the spine. Serious, bookish, and delicate, she did not enter easily into her stepmother's outgoing social plans. When she was 17, Jane attended Rockford Female Seminary, a college of which her father was a trustee, though she had hoped to go to Smith College (which, unlike the seminary, already granted degrees). At Rockford, she met Ellen Gates Starr , who was to be her lifelong friend and collaborator. During vacations, they wrote long earnest letters to one another expressing their half-formed religious longings and doubts, Jane writing that although she could appreciate Jesus as a great man she could not find in him a link with God. Reacting to pressure from her teachers, she categorically refused to devote her life to overseas missionary work.

Graduating at the top of her class in 1881, Addams then moved to Philadelphia to begin studying at the Woman's Medical College, at a time when few women were doctors and when they faced severe opposition from the male medical professionals. After six months, suffering from health problems, depression, and the shock of her father's sudden death earlier that year, she was forced to give up. In 1883, her stepmother took Jane on a European grand tour in the hope that it would speed her recovery. This was the era when many American heiresses were courting the impoverished aristocracy of Europe, exchanging money for titles in a mutually gratifying marriage trade. Meanwhile, the American women used Europe as a cultural finishing-ground, visiting its art galleries, cathedrals, museums, and concerts to gain a little of the social polish that was still unavailable in middle America. Jane Addams found herself unable to focus exclusively on the artistic heritage of Europe. Instead, she was acutely conscious of the suffering of the poor in London and other cities and believed that the job of alleviating their afflictions was more important than that of finding a husband.

Back in America but still unwell and depressed at the apparent lack of direction in her life, Addams submitted to a medical operation performed by her brother Harry, a doctor, in the hope of curing the curvature of her spine. According to Addams' family lore, the operation revealed that she was incapable of bearing children. Believing herself physically unable to follow the normal course of middle-class women, even had she wanted to, Addams felt more than ever cut off from the mainstream of life. Like many of the educated of her generation, she had absorbed the powerfully persuasive idea of evolution, which intellectuals applied to many fields beyond its original biological provenance. She became convinced that the human race as a whole was evolving but that she, and middle-class women like her, had been shunted aside into an evolutionary backwater, where they were denied all chance to compete and strive. In her impatience with inactivity or pointless work, she felt that the "race life" was passing her by, and her decision in 1889 to begin a settlement house was her way of trying to re-enter the invigorating stream. It certainly had a positive effect on her health. After years of suffering, she suddenly found herself endowed with boundless energy and the ability to work hard and creatively for the next 40 or more years.

The original decision to create a settlement came during her second visit to Europe, in 1887, this time with Ellen Starr. They visited Toynbee House in the East End of London, a settlement where privileged Oxford undergraduates went to study and ameliorate the lives of the working

poor. Back in Chicago, they chose a house in the worst of the slums, at 335 South Halsted Street, to set up a similar settlement and spent some of their savings (both had plentiful private incomes) in preparing to move in. Unsure of what to expect, they were soon the center of attention from their curious neighbors and were rapidly drawn into the teeming life of the district. Twenty years later, Addams published Twenty Years at Hull House, a memoir of the settlement's first years of work. It became a minor classic, and the Bible of a generation of social settlement workers.

Addams was convinced that many of her era's social problems sprang from the fact that the huge new cities had broken up the older American tradition of community in which every citizen knew all the others on a face-to-face basis. The problem of scale and the growing ethnic and linguistic diversity made the old ways impractical, but she reasoned that bringing the social classes and different ethnic groups into each others' actual physical presence was the best way to respond—hence the importance of actually living in Halsted Street. One of the obstacles she and Starr worked on from the outset was in overcoming the difficulty that peasant immigrants had adjusting to city life. The women tried to teach basic sanitation to farm families, which were now living cheek-by-jowl in crowded tenements, tried to discourage the mothers from feeding infants on bread soaked in wine, and offered to provide day-care for children whose mothers had to work in factories or in domestic service. They soon found that many of the women worked long hours in nearby sweatshops or on gruelling home-based piece work, and so became advocates for the working women against predatory employers and landlords. Hull House offered meeting rooms to the growing trade unions and stood by many Chicago workers during recurrent bitter strikes. Addams early befriended Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor.

The size of the Hull House community fluctuated as new volunteers came and went, but the size of the settlement and the scope of its work increased steadily. Addams was a talented fundraiser and asked the wealthy of Chicago to at least contribute if they were not willing to live at Hull House. Many paid up more or less willingly. In the early 1890s, one volunteer and donor, Mary Rozet Smith , began to live there and became Addams' closest lifelong friend, confidante, and admirer. As educated, articulate middle-class women, the Hull House staff tackled Chicago's civic leaders, persuading them to install street lights, to arrange regular garbage collection (Addams became the area's garbage commissioner), to provide police patrols for the sake of local safety, and to offer fair legal representation when local people were in trouble with the law. Addams believed strongly in negotiation and discussion and was always willing to think the best of employers and city politicians—that if only they knew what was happening, they would be sure to act reasonably.

Experience soon made her politically astute, however, and she learned how to blend persuasion with gently coercive threats. Moreover, she decided not to accept voluntary contributions to her work if they came from tainted sources, such as the profits of businessmen who had a reputation for underpaying their workers. Her outlook remained for the most part optimistic: she was convinced that villains were more the exception than the rule. Strongly influenced by Christianity without being in any way orthodox, she was a sort of Christian socialist who believed that moral reform, education, and social improvements would eventually usher in a just and harmonious society. One reform she favored strongly, and for which she spoke frequently, was women's suffrage, not least because it would facilitate the re-entry of more American women into the social mainstream and out of the limbo she felt she had inhabited through her 20s.

Some reformers of her era believed that immigrants living in areas like the Hull House district should be "assimilated" as quickly as possible, that they should learn English, adapt to American habits and customs, and surrender the cultural baggage of their earlier lives. Addams saw that the psychic cost of Americanization on these terms was painfully high to many of the immigrants, especially the older ones; she tried to preserve and honor aspects of Old World life that she found among her neighbors rather than hurry them to oblivion. She set up a museum of ethnic labor, arts, and crafts at Hull House, encouraged story tellers and musicians to preserve their folk ways, and made sure that residents who had not yet mastered English were put in touch with city officials or local professors who spoke their own tongues.

Addams also had a more sympathetic view of "troublesome" children than many of her contemporary reformers. In one of her ten published books, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), she argued that slum neighborhoods such as hers offered children few outlets for the kind of exciting and healthy play they would have been able to enjoy in the countryside or if (again invoking evolution) they lived as primitive hunters and gatherers. She explained juvenile delinquency and prostitution (which she also treated with more lenity and understanding than was then common) as problems created by the stultifying physical and economic environment, and aimed to provide settings at the Hull House complex in which young peoples' energies could be directed along more profitable lines. Women who had turned to prostitution from economic necessity were usually shunned by the neighborhood's married women, and on one occasion Addams and her friend Julia Lathrop went to the rescue of a young "fallen woman" who was going through a difficult birth unassisted, though neither of them had any training as midwives. (Lathrop went on from Hull House to run the Illinois State Board of Charities and in 1912 became the first head of the U.S. Children's Bureau.)

Hull House soon attracted favorable notice from the press and from other idealistic men and women, many of whom came along to volunteer for occasional or full-time work. As thousands of Chicagoans began visiting the house, it built annexes nearby for a boys' club and a public kitchen (the "Coffee House"). Later a coal-buying cooperative enabled the area's residents to get vital winter fuel at reduced cost, while a residential coop enabled a growing number of families to have a good and philanthropic landlord taking care of their interests. Florence Kelley (later National Consumers' League president) and Frances Perkins (later U.S. secretary of labor) were among the better known volunteers from the early years at Hull House who helped with these enlarged projects and gained vital first-hand experience from their years with Jane Addams. Another assistant, Mary Eliza McDowell , became first director of the University of Chicago Settlement House founded a decade after Hull House. Addams also encouraged visiting literary, academic, and political dignitaries to speak at the settlement, and a great range of European liberals, socialists, and anarchists passed through, each spreading his or her special brand of social transformation, among them the Russian anarchist Prince Kropotkin, the celebrated philosopher John Dewey, and the British Labour Party founder Keir Hardie.

Most reformers of that era favored the prohibition of alcohol. They could see that slum-district saloons, superficially appealing because of their jovial atmosphere and warmth, were really deadly temptations to low-paid workers, leading them to spend badly needed money on beer and spirits instead of on good nutrition and warm clothes for themselves and their families. Addams was no friend of the saloons but neither did she believe in Prohibition. She wanted to avoid condescending to her neighbors (she never called them "cases" or "clients") and honored their widespread acceptance of the saloon. During the prohibition era of the 1920s, she witnessed the hopeless failure of this high-minded reform, and lived long enough to see it abandoned in the early years of the New Deal. On occasion, she would help alcoholics. In the early years of Hull House, a Mrs. Dennis said she was addicted but agreed to take the following pledge: "I hereby solemnly pledge in the presence of Jane Addams that from this day forth, hence forevermore, that I will abstain from all intoxicating liquor. I also promise that in the case of overwhelming temptation I will come and see Jane Addams."

In 1911, Addams helped found the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, and became the organization's first president. She witnessed the continued growth of the movement over the next two decades, so that by her death in 1935 there were settlement houses in every large American city.

Addams was an active member of the pre-First World War peace movement, and her book Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), based on a course of lectures given in Wisconsin the previous year, showed evidence of her extensive thinking on the issue. Like most of her published work, it too was cast in evolutionary terms, making the argument that in the early days of mankind fighting had been the only way to resolve disputes, but that now humanity had evolved to a higher point, enabling it to replace physical force with moral suasion. As she said, any community unable to settle its domestic differences without resort to arms ought to regard itself with shame. The same was all the more true with international communities. She regarded the multiethnic community around Hull House as a microcosm of the world, a miniature form of "united nations" which, she argued, lived at peace by the exercise of reason and good will. Her voice of sane reasonableness saturated the book. She spoke the same theme on a hundred public platforms and often quoted Leo Tolstoy's My Religion, treating it as an inspirational text for her Hull House work as well as her pacifism.

Despite its confident rhetoric and influential patrons, the peace movement was powerless to prevent the European descent into war in 1914, and Addams found, three years later, that it was equally ineffective in trying to keep America out of the conflict. By then, she had accepted the post of chair for the Women's Peace Party and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and on their behalf had voyaged to a conference in the Netherlands and to visit the British and German prime ministers, begging them unsuccessfully to submit the war to arbitration. Though, to her, the ghastly massacres of the war in France seemed shocking evidence of an evolutionary malfunction, she stayed active in the International League throughout the 1920s (the basis for her 1931 Nobel Peace Prize). In the Red Scare that followed the First World War, some superpatriots denounced Addams for her reluctance to oppose national enemies by force and dismissed all her reform plans as evidence of "Bolshevism." She faced up to these attacks and even intensified them by protesting against breaches of due process when the attorney general A. Michell Palmer ordered the arbitrary arrest and deportation of many suspected radicals.

In newspaper features year after year [Jane Addams] was voted the greatest woman in the United States, the greatest in the world, and, on one occasion, the greatest in history.

—Daniel Levine

By the 1920s, Hull House had become a vast complex of buildings, second in size only to the University of Chicago, involved in a wide variety of reform projects but still with children's welfare near the center of them all. Addams, a national and international celebrity, traveled widely, usually with her best friend Mary Smith, to give talks about her work throughout America and Europe, sometimes facing hostile crowds because of her peace work, but gradually gaining a more benevolent reception as the postwar mood dissipated. In 1923 with Alice Hamilton , another longtime friend and volunteer, Addams and Smith traveled around the world, giving speeches everywhere and advocating international cooperation. Addams had been dismayed by the American decision not to join the League of Nations: in her view, foreign entanglement was now the best way to prevent wars, whatever wisdom to the contrary George Washington had suggested in his Farewell Address.

Addams suffered from a heart condition in the latter part of her life but remained an active writer, working on the biography of her old friend Julia Lathrop. She stayed loyal to the Republican Party of her youth and voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928 and 1932, but still took great pleasure in finding that her former protégé Frances Perkins was appointed secretary of labor by President Franklin Roosevelt at the beginning of the New Deal. Jane Addams died of cancer on May 21, 1935, and was laid to rest at a ceremonious Chicago funeral. Summing up her influence, historian Daniel Levine argued: "Jane Addams was not an original thinker of major importance. One can find predecessors for almost every one of her ideas in the writings of the English Fabians, German political economists, American pragmatists. Her importance was not as a manufacturer of ideas, but as their retailer…. In no one area did she possess enormous expertise; yet probably no reformer was so deeply involved in so many facets of reform."


Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House. NY: Macmillan, 1910.

——. Newer Ideals of Peace. NY: Macmillan, 1907.

——. The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets. NY: Macmillan, 1912.

Davis, Allen Freeman. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. NY: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Farrell, John C. Beloved Lady. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.

Lasch, Christopher. The New Radicalism in America: The Intellectual as a Social Type. NY: Knopf, 1965.

Levine, Daniel. Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971.

Patrick Allitt , Assistant Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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