Overview of life
Jane Addams (September 6, 1860 – May 21, 1935) was a pioneer settlement worker, founder of Hull House in Chicago, public philosopher, sociologist, author, and leader in woman suffrage and world peace. Beside presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, she was the most prominent reformer of the Progressive Era and helped turn the nation to issues of concern to mothers, such as the needs of children, public health, and world peace. She said that if women were to be responsible for cleaning up their communities and making them better places to live, they needed the vote to be effective in doing so. Addams became a role model for middle-class women who volunteered to uplift their communities. She is increasingly recognized as a member of the American pragmatist school of philosophy. In 1931 she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Early Life & Education
Born in Cedarville, Illinois, Jane Addams was the youngest of nine children born into a prosperous northern Illinois family of English-American descent which went back to colonial New England; her father was politically prominent. Three of her siblings died in infancy, and another died at sixteen, leaving only four by the time Addams was age eight. Her mother, Sarah Addams (née Weber), died in childbirth when Jane was two years old.
Addams spent her childhood playing outdoors, reading indoors, and attending Sunday school. When she was four, she contracted tuberculosis of the spine, Potts’s disease, which caused a curvature in her back and lifelong health problems. As a child, she thought she was “ugly” and later remembered wanting not to embarrass her father, when he was dressed in his Sunday best, by walking down the street with him.
Addams adored her father when she was a child, as she made clear in the stories she told in her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910). John Huey Addams was an agricultural businessman with large timber, cattle, and agricultural holdings; flour and timber mills; and a woolen factory. He was the president of The Second National Bank of Freeport. He remarried in 1868, when Jane was eight years old. His second wife was Anna Hostetter Haldeman, the widow of a miller in Freeport.
John Addams was a founding member of the Illinois Republican Party, served as an Illinois State Senator (1855–70), and supported his friend Abraham Lincoln in his candidacies, for senator (1854) and the presidency (1860). John Addams kept a letter from Lincoln in his desk, and Jane Addams loved to look at it as a child.
In her teens, Addams had big dreams—to do something useful in the world. Long interested in the poor from her reading of Dickens and inspired by her mother’s kindness to the Cedarville poor, she decided to become a doctor so that she could live and work among the poor. It was a vague idea, nurtured by the delights of fiction. She was a voracious reader.
Addams’s father encouraged her to pursue higher education, but not too far from home. She was eager to attend the brand-new college for women, Smith College in Massachusetts; but her father required Addams to attend nearby Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford College), in Rockford, Illinois. After graduating from Rockford in 1881, with a collegiate certificate, she still hoped to attend Smith to earn a proper B.A. That summer, her father died unexpectedly from a sudden case of appendicitis. Each child inherited roughly $50,000 (equivalent to $1.2 million today).
That fall, Addams, her sister Alice, Alice’s husband Harry, and their stepmother, Anna Haldeman Addams, moved to Philadelphia so that the three young people could pursue medical educations. Harry was already trained in medicine and did further studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jane and Alice completed their first year of medical school at the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia, but Jane’s health problems, a spinal operation and a nervous breakdown, prevented her from completing the degree. She was filled with sadness at her failure. Stepmother Anna was also ill, so the entire family canceled their plans to stay two years and returned to Cedarville.
The following fall her brother-in-law/stepbrother Harry performed surgery on her back, to straighten it. He then advised that she not pursue studies but, instead, travel. In August 1883, she set off for a two-year tour of Europe with her stepmother, traveling some of the time with friends and family who joined them. Addams decided that she did not have to become a doctor to be able to help the poor.
Upon her return home, in June 1887, she lived with her stepmother in Cedarville, and spent the winters with her in Baltimore. Addams, still filled with vague ambition, sank into depression, unsure of her future and feeling useless leading the conventional life expected of a well-to-do young woman. She wrote long letters to her friend from Rockford Seminary, Ellen Gates Starr, mostly about Christianity and books but sometimes about her despair.
Deciding to begin a settlement house
Meanwhile, she was gathering clues about her future from what she read. Fascinated by the early Christians and Tolstoy’s book My Religion, she was baptized a Christian in the Cedarville Presbyterian Church, in the summer of 1886. Reading Giuseppe Mazzini’s Duties of Man, she began to be inspired by the idea of democracy as a social ideal. She still felt confused about her role as a woman, though. John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women made her question the social pressures on a woman to marry and devote her life to family.
Then, finally, she read about something she could actually do. In the summer of 1887, she read in a magazine about the new idea of a settlement house. She decided to visit the world’s first, in London, on a second trip to Europe. It was called Toynbee Hall. She and several friends, including Ellen Gates Starr, traveled in Europe from December 1887 through the summer of 1888. Addams told no one of her dream to start a settlement house at first; but, as she traveled, she felt increasingly guilty that she was just being a tourist and not acting.
Her feelings finally overwhelmed her after watching a bullfight in Madrid. While her friends soon left the arena, too horrified by the great bloody gore of the event to remain, Addams stayed, mesmerized by what she saw as an exotic cultural tradition. Afterward, she condemned her fascination with the bullfight and her inability to feel outraged at the suffering of the horses and bulls that had been killed. She blamed her love of culture for hardening her heart to suffering, for inhibiting her from acting. Believing that if she told someone her dream, she might finally do something, she told Ellen Gates Starr. Starr loved the idea of starting a settlement house and agreed to join Addams in pursuing her dream.
Addams and another friend traveled to London without Starr, who was tied up. Visiting Toynbee Hall, Addams was enchanted. She described it as “a community of University men who live there, have their recreation clubs and society all among the poor people, yet, in the same style in which they would live in their own circle. It is so free of ‘professional doing good,’ so unaffectedly sincere and so productive of good results in its classes and libraries that it seems perfectly ideal.” Addams’s dream of the classes mingling socially to mutual benefit, as they had in early Christian circles, seemed embodied in the new type of institution.
In 1889 she and her college friend and intimate partner, Ellen Gates Starr, co-founded Hull House in Chicago, Illinois, the first settlement house in the United States.
The run-down mansion had been built by Charles Hull in 1856 and needed repairs and upgrading. Addams at first paid for all of the capital expenses (repairing the roof of the porch, repainting the rooms, purchasing the furniture) and the bulk of the operating costs. But gifts from individuals supported the House from its first year and over time, Addams was able to reduce the proportion of her contributions, although the annual budget grew rapidly. A number of wealthy women became important long-term donors to the House, including Helen Culver, who managed her first cousin Charles Hull’s estate, and who eventually allowed them to use the house rent free, Louise deKoven Bowen, Mary Rozet Smith, Mary Wilmarth, and others.
Addams and Starr were the first two occupants of the house, which would later become the residence of about twenty-five women. At its height, Hull House was visited each week by around two thousand people. Its facilities included a night school for adults, kindergarten classes, clubs for older children, a public kitchen, an art gallery, a coffeehouse, a gym, a girls’ club, a bathhouse, a book bindery, a music school, a drama group, and a library, as well as labor-related divisions. Her adult night school was a forerunner of the continuing education classes offered by many universities today. In addition to making available social services and cultural events for the largely immigrant population of the neighborhood, Hull House afforded an opportunity for young social workers to acquire training. Eventually, Hull House became a thirteen-building settlement complex, which included a playground and a summer camp (known as Bowen Country Club).
The Hull House neighborhood was a mix of various European ethnic groups that had immigrated to Chicago around the start of the twentieth century. The Bethlehem-Howard Neighborhood Center Records that mix of immigrants which comprised the social laboratory upon which the social and philanthropic elitists comprising Hull House’s inner sanctum tested their theories and based their challenges to the establishment. “Germans and Jews resided south of that inner core (south of Twelfth Street) The Greek delta formed by Harrison, Halsted, and Blue Island Streets served as a buffer to the Irish residing to the north and the Canadian–French to the northwest.” Italians resided within the inner core of the Hull House Neighborhood from the river on the east end, on out to the western ends of what came to be known as Little Italy. Greeks and Jews, along with the remnants of other immigrant groups, began their exodus from the neighborhood during the early part of the twentieth century. The Italians were the only ethnic group to continue as an intact and thriving community through the Great Depression, World War II, and well beyond the ultimate demise of Hull House proper in 1963.
Hull House, as Addams named it, became America’s best known settlement house. She used Hull House to generate system-directed change, on the principle that to keep families safe, community and societal conditions had to be improved. The neighborhood was controlled by local political bosses. At one point Addams ran for alderman against the local boss, Johnnie Powers, and lost!
Starr and Addams developed three “ethical principles” for social settlements: “to teach by example, to practice cooperation, and to practice social democracy, that is, egalitarian, or democratic, social relations across class lines.” Hull House therefore offered a comprehensive program of civic, cultural, recreational, and educational activities and attracted admiring visitors from all over the world, in including William Lyon MacKenzie King, a graduate student from Harvard who later became prime minister of Canada. In the 1890s Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley, and other residents of the house made it a world center of social reform activity. Hull House used the latest methodology (pioneering in statistical mapping) to study overcrowding, truancy, typhoid fever, cocaine, children’s reading, newsboys, infant mortality, and midwifery. Starting with efforts to improve the immediate neighborhood, the Hull House group became involved in city- and state-wide campaigns for better housing, improvements in public welfare, stricter child-labor laws, and protection of working women. Addams brought in prominent visitors from around the world, and had close links with leading Chicago intellectuals and philanthropists. In 1912 she helped start the new Progressive Party and supported the presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Addams’ philosophy combined feminist sensibilities with an unwavering commitment to social improvement through cooperative efforts. Although she sympathized with feminists, socialists, and pacifists, Addams refused to be labeled. This refusal was pragmatic rather than ideological.”
Emphasis on children
Addams at Hull House stressed the role of children in the Americanization process of new immigrants, and fostered the play movement and the research and service fields of leisure, youth, and human services. Addams argued in The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909) that play and recreation programs are needed because cities are destroying the spirit of youth. Hull-House featured multiple programs in art and drama, kindergarten classes, boys’ and girls’ clubs, language classes, reading groups, college extension courses, along with public baths, a free-speech atmosphere, a gymnasium, a labor museum and playground. They were all designed to foster democratic cooperation and collective action and downplay individualism. She helped pass the first model tenement code and the first factory laws.
Documenting social illnesses
Addams and her colleagues documented the geography of typhoid fever and reported that poor workers bore the brunt of illness. She identified the political corruption and business avarice that caused the city bureaucracy to ignore health, sanitation, and building codes. Linking environmental justice and municipal reform, she eventually defeated the bosses and fostered a more equitable distribution of city services and modernized inspection practices. Addams spoke of the “undoubted powers of public recreation to bring together the classes of a community in the modern city unhappily so full of devices for keeping them apart.” Addams worked with the Chicago Board of Health and served as the first vice-president of the Playground Association of America.
Addams and her colleagues originally intended Hull House as a transmission device to bring the values of the college-educated high culture to the masses, including the Efficiency Movement. However, over time the focus of Hull House changed from bringing art and culture to the neighborhood (as evidenced in the construction of the Butler Building) to responding to the needs of the community by providing childcare, educational opportunities, and large meeting spaces. Hull-House became more than simply a proving ground for the new generation of college-educated, professional women – it also became part of the community in which it was founded, and its development reveals a shared history.
Addams called on women—especially middle class women with leisure and energy, as well as rich philanthropists—to exercise their civic duty to become involved in municipal affairs as a matter of “civic housekeeping.” Addams thereby enlarged the concept of civic duty as part of republicanism to include roles for women beyond republican motherhood (which involved child rearing). Women’s lives revolved around “responsibility, care, and obligation,” and this area represented the source of women’s power. This notion provided the foundation for the municipal or civil housekeeping role that Addams defined, and gave added weight to the woman suffrage movement that Addams supported. Addams argued that women, as opposed to men, are trained in the delicate matters of human welfare and need to build upon their traditional roles of housekeeping to be civic housekeepers. Enlarged housekeeping duties involved reform efforts regarding poisonous sewage, impure milk (which often carried tuberculosis), smoke-laden air, and unsafe factory conditions. Addams led the “garbage wars”; in 1894 she became the first woman appointed as sanitary inspector of the Chicago 19th ward. With the help of the Hull-House Women’s Club, within a year over 1000 health department violations were reported to city counsel and garbage collection reduced death and disease.
Addams had long discussions with philosopher John Dewey in which they redefined democracy in terms of pragmatism and civic activism, with an emphasis more on duty and less on rights. The two leading perspectives that distinguished Addams and her coalition from the modernizers more concerned with efficiency were the need to extend to social and economic life the democratic structures and practices that had been limited to the political sphere, as in Addams’ programmatic support of trade unions; and second, their call for a new social ethic to supplant the individualist outlook as being no longer adequate in modern society.
Addams’ construction of womanhood involved daughterhood, sexuality, wifehood, and motherhood. In both of her autobiographical volumes, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) and The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930), Addams’s gender constructions parallel the Progressive-Era ideology she championed. In A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912) she dissected the social pathology of sex slavery, prostitution and other sexual behaviors, among working class women in American industrial centers during 1890-1910. Addams’s autobiographical persona manifests her ideology and supports her popularized public activist persona as the “Mother of Social Work,” in the sense that she represents herself as a celibate matron, who served the suffering immigrant masses through Hull-House, as if they were her own children. Although not a mother herself, Addams became the “mother to the nation,” identified with motherhood in the sense of protective care of her people.
Addams kept up I heavy schedule of public lectures around the country, especially at college campuses. In addition, she offered college courses through the Extension Division of the University of Chicago. She declined offers from the university to become directly affiliated with it, including an offer from Albion Small, chair of the Department of Sociology, of a graduate faculty position. She declined in order to maintain her independent role outside of academia. Her goal was to teach adults not enrolled in formal academic institutions, because of their poverty and/or lack of credentials. Furthermore, she wanted no university controls over her political activism.
Addams was a charter member of the American Sociological Society, founded in 1905. She gave papers to it in 1912, 1915, and 1919. She was the most prominent woman member during Her lifetime.
Throughout her life Addams was close to many women and was very good at eliciting the involvement of women from different classes in Hull House’s programs. Her closest adult companion and friend was Mary Rozet Smith, who supported Addams’s work at Hull House, and with whom she shared a romantic friendship. Together they owned a summer house in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Religion and religious motives
In fact, the co-founders of Toynbee Hall, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, shared Addams’s desire to bring Christianity back to its roots. Part of what was called the “social Christian” movement, the Barnetts had no interest in converting anyone to Christianity, but they did feel that Christians should be more engaged with the world, and, in the words of one of the leaders of the movement in England, W.H. Fremantle, “imbue all human relations with the spirit of Christ’s self-renouncing love.” Addams learned about social Christianity from them, soon considered herself one, and soon made friends among the leaders of the “social Christian” movement in the United States.
Jane Addams’s religious faith was thus a central motive in co-founding Hull House with Starr, but the settlement was never religious. It did not seek to convert others to Christianity. A brief experiment in weekly prayer among the residents of the settlement house, requested by some of them, was so ecumenical in its approach that it soon fizzled. (However, other settlements in both Great Britain and the United States would be religious and seek conversions).
Addams’s own religious beliefs were shaped by her wide reading and life experience. By the time she had graduated from Rockford Seminary, she knew the Bible and especially the New Testament, thoroughly, having studied it throughout her young life, including in college courses. She had also been required to memorize a verse from the Bible every day at Rockford, and listen to a short sermon on the daily verse by the school’s principal. Evidence of this deep familiarity with Scripture can be found throughout her later writings.
While she remained a member of a Presbyterian Church, Addams regularly attended a Unitarian Church and Ethical Society in Chicago. At one point, she was appointed “interim lecturer” at the Ethical Society. Addams also established a close relationship with members of the established Jewish community, notably with the rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, Emil G. Hirsch, and several so Sinai’s congregants, among them Judge Julian Mack and Julius Rosenwald.
Addams spoke and campaigned extensively for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Presidential campaign on the ‘Progressive’ Party. she signed up on the party platform, even though it called for building more battleships.
In 1915, she became involved in the Woman’s Peace Party and was elected national chairman. Addams was elected president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1915, a position that entailed frequent travel to Europe (during and after World War I) and Asia. With this she also attended the International Woman’s Conference in The Hague and was chosen to head the commission to find an end to the war. This included meeting ten leaders in neutral countries as well as those at war to discuss mediation. This was the first significant international effort against the war. Addams along with co-delegates Emily Balch and Alice Hamilton documented their experiences of this period and was published as a book Women at The Hague (University of Illinois).
In her journal, Balch recorded her impression of Jane Addams (April 1915):
“Miss Addams shines, so respectful of everyone’s views, so eager to understand and sympathize, so patient of anarchy and even ego, yet always there, strong, wise and in the lead. No ‘managing’, no keeping dark and bringing things subtly to pass, just a radiating wisdom and power of judgement.”
In 1917, she became also member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA (American branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation founded in 1919) and was a member of the Fellowship Council until 1933. When the US joined the war, in 1917, Addams started to be strongly criticized. She faced increasingly harsh rebukes and criticism as a pacifist. Her 1915 speech on pacifism at Carnegie Hall received negative coverage by newspapers such as the New York Times, which branded her as unpatriotic. Later, during her travels, she would spend time meeting with a wide variety of diplomats and civic leaders and reiterating her Victorian belief in women’s special mission to preserve peace. Recognition of these efforts came with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Addams in 1931. As the first U.S. woman to win the prize, Addams was applauded for her “expression of an essentially American democracy.” She donated her share of the prize money to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Addams was a major synthesizing figure in the domestic and international peace movements, serving as both a figurehead and leading theoretician; she was influenced especially by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and by the pragmatism of philosophers John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. She envisioned democracy, social justice and peace as mutually reinforcing; they all had to advance together to achieve any one. Addams became an anti-war activist from 1899, as part of the anti-imperialist movement that followed the Spanish-American War. Her book Newer Ideals of Peace (1907) reshaped the peace movement worldwide to include ideals of social justice. She recruited social justice reformers like Alice Hamilton, Lillian Wald, Florence Kelley, and Emily Balch to join her in the new international women’s peace movement after 1914. Addams’s work came to fruition after World War I, when major institutional bodies began to link peace with social justice and probe the underlying causes of war and conflict. After 1915 Addams, who never married, centered her interests in the peace movement. She was a leader at the International Congress of Women at The Hague, Holland, in 1915 and presided at the first meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1919, which she served as president.
Addams damned war as a cataclysm that undermined human kindness, solidarity, civic friendship, and caused families across the world to struggle. In turn her views were denounced by patriotic groups during World War I (1917–18). In one major speech she suggested that armies gave liquor to soldiers just before attacking, which brought a wave of ridicule on her. Even after the war the WILPF’s program of peace and disarmament was characterized by opponents as radical, Communist-influenced, unpatriotic, and unfeminine. Young veterans in the American Legion, supported by some members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the League of Women Voters, were ill prepared to confront the older, better-educated, more financially secure and nationally famous women of the WILPF. The Legion’s efforts to portray the WILPF members as dangerously naive females resonated with working class audiences, but President Calvin Coolidge and the middle classes supported Addams and her WILPF efforts in the 1920s to prohibit poison gas and outlaw war. After 1920, however, she was widely regarded as the greatest woman of the Progressive Era. In 1931 the award of the Nobel Peace prize earned her near-unanimous acclaim.
Legacy & Memorials
Hull House and the Peace Movement are widely recognized as the key tangible pillars of Addams’ legacy. While her life focused on the development of individuals, her ideas continue to influence social, political and economic reform in the United States as well as internationally.
Willard Motley, a resident artist of Hull House, extracting from Addams’ central theory on symbolic interactionism, used the neighborhood and its people to write his 1948 best seller, Knock on Any Door.
Addams’ role as reformer enabled her to petition the establishment at and alter the social and physical geography of her Chicago neighborhood. Although contemporary academic sociologists defined her engagement as “social work,” Addams’ efforts differed significantly from activities typically labeled as “social work” during that time period. Before Addams’ powerful influence on the profession, social work was largely informed by a “friendly visitor” model in which typically wealthy women of high public stature visited impoverished individuals and, through systematic assessment and intervention, aimed to improve the lives of the poor. Addams rejected the friendly visitor model in favor of a model of social reform/social theory-building, thereby introducing the now-central tenets of social justice and reform to the field of social work.
Hull House enabled Addams to befriend and become a colleague to early members of the Chicago School of Sociology. Her influence, through her work in applied sociology, impacted their thoughts and their direction. In 1893, she co-authored the Hull-House Maps and Papers that came to define the interests and methodologies of the School. She worked with George H. Mead on social reform issues including promoting women’s rights, ending child labor, and mediating during the 1910 Garment Workers’ Strike.
Addams worked with labor as well as other reform groups toward goals including the first juvenile-court law, tenement-house regulation, an eight-hour working day for women, factory inspection, and workers’ compensation. She advocated research aimed at determining the causes of poverty and crime, and supported women’s suffrage. She was a strong advocate of justice for immigrants and blacks, becoming a chartered member of the NAACP. Among the projects that the members of the Hull House opened were the Immigrants’ Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, the first juvenile court in the United States, and a Juvenile Psychopathic Clinic.
Addams’ writings and speeches, on behalf of the formation of the League of Nations and as peace advocate, are well documented; influencing the later shape of the United Nations.
In 2007, the state of Illinois renamed the Northwest Tollway as the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway.
Jane Addams House is a residence hall built in 1969, at Connecticut College.
Hull House had to be demolished for the establishment of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, in 1963, and relocated. The Hull residence itself was preserved as a museum and monument to Jane Addams.
Jane Addams Business Careers Center is a high school in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jane Addams High School For Academic Careers is a high school in The Bronx, NY.