A founder of Chicago’s Hull-House settlement and a peace activist, Jane Addams was one of the best-known reformers of the Progressive Era and one of the most widely admired women of her day. Born Laura Jane Addams in Cedarville, Illinois, in 1860, the future activist graduated from the Rockford (Illinois) Female Seminary in 1881. As one of the first generation of college-educated women in the United States, Addams struggled for a way to put her talents to use. Uninterested in careers traditionally open to women, such as teaching, Addams sought a way to better the world. In 1889, she joined with Ellen Gates Starr to found Hull-House in a run-down mansion built decades earlier by Charles Hull. Located in the largely immigrant Nineteenth Ward, it served as the initial settlement house in Chicago and the model for many others. As a place that allowed educated women to share their knowledge of art and literature with the working poor, Hull-House quickly evolved to offer such social services as English literacy classes for those seeking U.S. citizenship. It housed visiting nurses, legal services, a nursery and kindergarten for the children of working mothers, multiple reading groups, a music school, a theater, a museum of immigrant crafts, a butcher shop, a coffee shop, and a bakery.
The list of firsts accomplished through Hull-House is voluminous and includes the first social settlement in the United States with male and female residents; the establishment of the first public playground in Chicago; the creation of the first college-extension courses in Chicago; the formation of the first Boy Scout troop in Chicago; and, through resident Florence Kelley, the initiation of investigations leading to the enactment of the first factory regulations in Illinois. Hull-House would remain Addams’s home until her death, and its accomplishments made her a national figure. While Hull-House proved to be a resounding success, Addams soon realized that she could make little impact on societal ills through the settlement alone. She wanted to make government more responsive to the needs of the people and promoted municipal housekeeping as a natural extension of women’s responsibility for the welfare of children and the home. In Addams’s ward, corrupt politicians had allowed garbage to pile up several inches deep on the sidewalk, and the trash increased the spread of illness throughout the area.
In 1895, in her first foray into politics, Addams received an appointment as garbage inspector for the ward, and she quickly had the trash removed. During the 1890s and 1900s, Addams lobbied city, state, and national authorities for an eight-hour workday, employment regulations for women and children, unemployment insurance, improved sanitation, factory legislation, municipal playgrounds, public kindergartens, a juvenile court system, and the enforcement of antiprostitution and antidrug laws. She served on the Chicago School Board and as a vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and she helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Normally nonpartisan, Addams offered her support to Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, when he ran for president on the Progressive party ticket. One of the most respected public intellectuals, Addams wrote and spoke prolifically. Peace activism and suffrage were among her favorite topics, all of which centered on the obligation of citizens to redefine government to be more responsive to the needs of the people. Although she occasionally published in scholarly journals, most of her work went into mass circulation magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McClure’s. Addams authored six books during her lifetime, including the best-selling autobiographical Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910). A self-possessed woman, Addams did not fear to take the side of unpopular causes. Advocating a role for women in public life had cost her the goodwill of many conservatives and, in 1901, she had spoken out for the civil rights of anarchists arrested by the police in the wake of President William McKinley’s assassination. But she did not expect to be vilified for her pacifist beliefs during World War I. Addams viewed war as a twofold threat, because it halted progress toward civilized methods of conflict resolution, while diverting resources away from community projects and toward military spending. As a delegate to the International Congress of Women during the conflict and as a founder of the Woman’s Peace Party, she worked to stop the fighting. Politicians and the public attacked her activities as treasonous and foolish. Undeterred, Addams helped create the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom after the war in 1919. By the late 1920s, Addams had regained most of her reputation as one of the greatest Americans. The culmination of this recognition came when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Jane Addams died in Chicago on May 21, 1935.
See also: Child Labor Legislation; Eight-Hour Workday; Election of 1912; Juvenile Courts; Kelley, Florence; Municipal
Housekeeping; National American Woman Suffrage Association; National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People; Social Settlements; Starr, Ellen Gates; Wages and Hours Legislation; Woman Suffrage; Woman’s Peace Party.
Davis, Allen F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. The Jane Addams Reader. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Addams, Jane 1860–1935 Photo Gallery
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