Jane Addams: Woman For Her Time

It’s so easy to think of history as something stuffy and irrelevant.  This is nowhere more true than when we’re reading about people who lived and died before our lifetimes. But if these same people were somehow transported into today’s reality, we would see more clearly how much influence they had in their own time.

Jane Addams is one of those people. She was born in 1860 and died in 1935. If she had been born a hundred years later she would be considered a Third Wave feminist. But she was much more than that. She started the settlement house movement* here in America.  Besides her charitable work, she became a mover and shaker in politics. She was the first vice president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association,  a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She organized the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

With her accomplishments, if she were alive today, she would be more influential than all the present-day Third Wave feminists put together. She would be known internationally. And she would only be 50 years old. Her first book, Twenty Years at Hull House, was published exactly one hundred years ago this year and became a bestseller.

We still have the problems she worked so hard to combat: unemployment, lack of medical care and education for the poor, unfair and unsafe labor practices, discrimination against women, African-Americans and immigrants, and last but not least, war. But, unlike most of us, she would be doing something about them. About all of them.

I think what was the most astonishing about Addams was that she was active on so many fronts. Certainly there are women today who are “doing something.” They just aren’t putting themselves on the line the way Addams did. Her International Council of Women traveled to the Hague to try to diplomatically end World War I before the U.S. entered it. She lobbied the state of Illinois to examine laws governing child labor, the factory inspection system, and the juvenile justice system.  She raised money for Hull House by lecturing and writing.

She was a mixture of Mother Jones and Mother Teresa (except not as irascible or saintly). In fact, she was not universally loved. There were those who called her a socialist, an anarchist, a communist and unpatriotic. (Sound familiar?)  But she didn’t let that stop her. And she led many young people into social work along with her. She believed strongly in the necessity of action, not just for the sake of social justice, but for the sake of the young people themselves. In Twenty Years at Hull House she wrote:

We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily…Many of them dissipate their energies in so-called enjoyment. Others not content with that, go on studying and go back to college for their second degrees; not that they are especially fond of study, but because they want something definite to do, and their powers have been trained in the direction of mental accumulation. Many are buried beneath this mental accumulation with lowered vitality and discontent. (pp. 120-121)

When the depression of the 1930’s struck, she saw many of the things she had fought for become policies under President Franklin Roosevelt. She received numerous awards during this time including, in 1931, the Nobel Peace Prize. She died four years later, at the age of 75.

*The settlement house (or community center) that she and one other woman, Ellen Gates Starr, founded in Chicago when she was only 29 (1889) was known as Hull House. It offered medical care, child care and legal aid. It also provided classes for immigrants to learn English, vocational skills, music, art and drama. In 1893, when a severe depression rocked the country. Hull House was serving over two thousand people a week. It still operates to this day.