About Jane Addams
Jane Addams (September 6, 1860 – May 21, 1935) was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In a long, complex career, she was a pioneer settlement worker, founder of Hull House in Chicago, public philosopher (the first American woman in that role), sociologist, author, and leader in woman suffrage and world peace. With presidents 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 emphasized that women have a special responsibility to clean up their communities and make them better places to live, arguing they needed the vote to be effective. Addams became a role model for middle-class women who volunteered to uplift their communities. She is increasingly being recognized as a member of the American pragmatist school of philosophy.
Jane Addams was called the "beloved lady" of American reform. She was a social worker, reformer, and pacifist. One of her most important accomplishments was to create a settlement house, a center that provides services to members of a poor community. Addams founded the most famous settlement house in American history, Hull House, in Chicago, Illinois.
Family and education
Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois, on September 6, 1860. She was the eighth child of John Huy Addams, a successful miller, banker, and landowner. She did not remember her mother, who died when she was three years old. She was devoted to and deeply influenced by her father. He was an idealist and philanthropist who served as state senator of Illinois from 1854 to 1870.
Although Addams became an activist for the poor, she herself came from a prosperous family. As a young woman she attended Rockford Female Seminary in northern Illinois. There she was not only a fine student but also the class president for four years and the editor of the school magazine. Addams also developed an interest in the sciences, even though such studies were not stressed at the school. After her graduation in 1881 she entered the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, after six months she was forced to end her studies to have a spinal operation. Addams was never quite free of illness throughout her life.
Finding a career
It took Addams a long time to recover from her operation. During this time she fell into a deep depression. This was partly because of her illness and partly because of her sensitivity to the way women of her status were expected to live in nineteenth-century America. Intelligent middle-class women like Addams were frequently well educated. However, they were expected to live simply as wives and mothers within homes dominated by men. Society discouraged women from putting their talents to use outside the home. Addams traveled in Europe between 1883 and 1885 and spent winters in Baltimore in 1886 and 1887. During this time she searched for comfort in religion. However, she did not find a satisfactory outlet for her abilities until she made a second trip to Europe in 1887. At this time she visited Toynbee Hall, the famous settlement house in London, England.
Toynbee Hall was a social and cultural center in the slums of the East End neighborhood in London. It was designed to introduce young men who wanted to join the ministry to the world of England's urban poor. Addams thought it would be a good idea to provide a similar opportunity for young middle-class American women. She decided "that it would be a good thing to rent a house in a part of the city where many … needs are found." She especially wanted to provide opportunities for well-educated young women to "learn of life from life itself."
Creation of Hull House
Hull House was located in one of Chicago's poorest immigrant slums. Addams originally thought Hull House would provide a service to young women who wanted more than a homemaker's life, but it soon developed into a great center for the poor of the neighborhood. Hull House provided a home for working girls, a theater, a boys' club, a day nursery, and numerous other services.
Thousands of people visited Hull House each year. It became the source of inspiration for dozens of similar settlement houses in other cities. Its success also made Addams famous throughout the United States. She became involved in an attempt to reform Chicago's corrupt politics. She served on a commission to help resolve the Pullman railroad strike of 1894. Addams supported workers' rights to organize and spoke and wrote about nearly every reform issue of the day. Her topics ranged from the need for peace to women's right to vote. Voice for reform
Addams served as an officer for countless reform groups. These groups included the Progressive political party and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She served as this group's president in 1915 and attended international peace congresses in a dozen European cities. Addams gained a reputation as a pacifist (a person who is against conflict and war). She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Addams also wrote books on a wide range of subjects. Her achievements gained her honorary degrees from several universities and made her an informal adviser to several American presidents. She died on May 21, 1935, in Chicago, Illinois.
Addams Friendship with Ellen Starr:
After returning from Europe, Jane resumed friendship with Ellen Starr, now a teacher. A female love of Starr's had moved away and she was heartbroken. She wrote to Jane, "The first real experience I ever had in my life of any real pain in parting, came with separating from her. I don't speak of it because people don't understand it. People would understand if it were a man." Soon Addams would become the object of Starr's affection. It is not clear whether Jane returned the affection.
The Love of Jane's Life: Mary Rozet Smith:
The term lesbian was coined in 1890, one year after Addams founded Hull House. Although she would not have used the term to define herself, by today's standards, Jane Addams would be a lesbian. Mary Rozet Smith arrived at Hull House one day in 1890, the daughter of a wealthy paper manufacturer. Over the years she became Jane's devoted companion, virtually playing the role of a traditional wife: tending to her when she was ill, handling her social correspondence, making travel arrangements.
Jane and Mary's Relationship:
Unfortunately, we will never know the full extent of Jane's relationship with Mary Smith. Toward the end of her life, Jane destroyed most of Mary's letters to her. Perhaps she was trying to cover up a sexual component of their relationship. "I miss you dreadfully and am yours 'til death," Addams wrote to Smith. Smith wrote back, "You can never know what it is to me to have had you and to have you...I feel quite a rush of emotion when I think of you."
For More Information
Addams, Jane. Forty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Davis, Allen F. American Heroine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Polikoff, Barbara Garland. With One Bold Act. Chicago: Boswell, 1999.