Americana: Jane Addams



Jane Addams_01Jane Addams was a settlement house founder and peace activist and one of the most distinguished of the first generation college-educated women in America who rejected marriage and motherhood in favor of a lifetime commitment to the poor and to social reform. Inspired by English reformers who intentionally resided in lower-class slums, Jane Addams, along with a college friend, Ellen Starr, moved in 1889 into an old mansion in an immigrant neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. Hull-House, which remained Addams’ home for the rest of her life and became the center of an experiment in philanthropy, political action, and social science research, was a model for settlement work among the poor. Addams established a nursery, dispensary, kindergarten, playground, gymnasium, and cooperative housing for young working women. As an experiment in group living, Hull-House attracted male and female reformers dedicated to social service. Addams claimed that she learned as much from the neighborhood’s residents as she taught them.

Quickly she found that the city and state laws needed reformation in order to meet the needs of the neighborhood. Jane challenged both the boss rule in the immigrant neighborhood of Hull-House and indifference to the needs of the poor in the state legislature. She and other Hull-House residents sponsored legislation to abolish child labor, establish juvenile courts, limit the hours of working women, recognize labor unions, make school attendance compulsory, and ensure safe working conditions in factories. The Progressive Party adopted many of these reforms as part of its platform in 1912. At the political party’s national convention, Addams seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for president and campaigned actively on his behalf. She advocated woman’s suffrage because she believed that women’s votes would provide the margin necessary to pass social legislation she favored.

Jane Addams_02Jane Addams publicized Hull-House and the causes she believed in by lecturing and writing. In her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), she argued that society should both respect the values and traditions of immigrants and help the newcomers adjust to American institutions. Although Jane Addams was tolerant of other ideas and social philosophies, she believed in Christian morality and learning by doing. She was convinced that war discouraged reform, encouraged political repression, and benefited only the arms and munitions industry, so she opposed the involvement of the United States in World War I. She tried to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to call a conference to mediate a negotiation to end the war. During the war she spoke across the country in favor of increased food production to aid the starving people in Europe.

After the Armistice she helped found the Women’s International league for Peace and Freedom and served as president from 1919 until her death in 1935.

Despite her opposition to US involvement in World War I, she became a leading citizen of Chicago and a national heroine. For her efforts in attempting to end the first World War, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Bibliography: American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams by Allen F. Davis, 1973; Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition by Daniel Levine, 1973.