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Jane Addams, Mother of Social Work
Her Life of Activism from Cedarville to Hull House

By: John Shepler

In 1915, a former garbage inspector for the Near West Side of Chicago was getting a lot of people in America riled up. Issuing a publication lambasting the intolerably unsanitary conditions of the housing available to the city's burgeoning immigrant population was bad enough. Suggesting that the city officials hadn't a clue about how to solve the problem and needed to be reeducated by a whole new class of voter was worse. But joining an International Congress in the Netherlands to put a stop to World War I and pull the teeth from the military in all countries was the limit. Could this be the same person who seconded the presidential nomination of Theodore Roosevelt at the Progressive Party convention in 1912? Could this be Jane Addams?

Oh yes, it was Jane Addams alright, and those who neglected the poor, took advantage of minorities and believed in an all-male ruling class had reason to fear. Jane was on a roll. Her pamphlet entitled "Why Women Should Vote" made too much sense. She opened with the premise that a woman's simplest duty was just what men had been promoting all along. She was to "keep the house clean and wholesome and feed her children properly." Then the charmingly feminine Jane Addams turned ardent feminist. After all, she pointed out, how could these dutiful women possibly provide what was asked of them when the City Administration failed to ensure that their basements were dry, the stairwells fireproof, enough windows were provided for light and air, the garbage was properly collected and destroyed, and the tenement buildings were equipped with sanitary plumbing?

Jane AddamsShe went on to point out that children were dying every autumn as they "have begun to wear the overcoats and cloaks which have been sent from infected city sweatshops." In other countries, notably Scandinavia, England, Canada and Australia, this was unheard of. Italian women wanted a wash house where they could gather as a group to wash their clothes as they did in the streams of Italy, instead of being stuck alone in tiny kitchens. Jewish women expected the covered markets they enjoyed in Russia and Poland. The soot and dust that covered the vegetables in the open markets of Chicago was unacceptably indecent. No, the men who ran the city just didn't understand even such rudimentary needs that women would provide each other without hesitation. The compelling need was to give women the vote so they could fix the problems and get back to concentrating on providing their men with the clean, healthy and tidy households they insisted upon. Now how could you possibly argue with THAT?

What was it that Jane Addams had that enabled her to see so clearly what was needed and then just up and initiate the required changes? Her influence on twentieth century America was incredible. She wrote 11 books. She helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, institutions that influence our culture today. In 1931, she was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Was it a gift?

Perhaps it was. Growing up as the eighth of nine children in rural 1860's Cedarville, IL, she described herself as "an ugly, pigeon-toed little girl" with a crooked back. Surgery eventually corrected her congenital spinal defect, but not before Jane identified herself with the misfits and victims of society. The "horrid little houses" in the slums nearby Freeport shocked her and got her wondering about what could be done to improve them. She was six years old at the time.

Jane was blessed with a father whom she adored and who impressed her with the virtues of tolerance, philanthropy and a strong work ethic. He was a man of influence himself, an owner of grain mills, Officer in the Civil War, State Senator for 16 years, and personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln, also from Illinois. John Addams encouraged his daughter to pursue an education. She did, becoming valedictorian of her class at Rockford College for Women, then the Rockford Seminary. Her schooling emphasized social responsibility and a passion for culture and good works. For awhile, she set her sights on becoming a doctor and stayed at the school for another six years. But the spark that ignited her real calling came during a trip abroad.

Jane and a friend from college, Ellen Starr were touring Europe and Britain when she visited London's East End and Toynbee Hall. Toynbee Hall was a "settlement house," ministering to the needs of London's poor. They decided to bring the concept to America, and found a decayed mansion on Chicago's Halsted Street originally built by a merchant named Charles Hull. Hull House opened its doors for all those who cared to enter on September 18, 1889. So great was the need for basic human social services that 2,000 people a day asked for and received help. The old mansion grew to include many firsts for Chicago, including a playground, gymnasium, little theater, citizenship preparation classes, public baths and a swimming pool. It led to the enactment of the first factory laws in Illinois, the first tenement code and was the birthplace of four labor unions. Hull House became a national historic landmark in June of 1967.

Jane Addams made her childhood dream of improving living conditions for the poor come true. She didn't make it to Oslo for the Nobel Prize, though, as her health had begun to fail by 1931. When she passed away on May 21, 1935, a train carried her from the funeral services at Hull House to rest in Cedarville, the place where she grew up and began her life's passion of service. So great has been the lasting effect of her works that Jane Addams has been described as one of our "founding foremothers."

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Books of Interest:

Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams. Originally published in 1910, this recounting by Jane Addams of her first twenty years (1899-1909) running the settlement house that served the poor and became a center for social reform has been called one of the most important book written. This annotated edition was issued on the centennial of Hull House.

A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams by Gioia Diliberto. With unprecedented access to a collection of Jane Addams' private papers, Ms. Diliberto provides a new and in-depth view of the sickly little girl who would grow up to defy social convention and dedicate her life to improving conditions for the poor and downtrodden.

Jane Addams, Pioneer Social Worker by Charnan Simon. Presents the life of the woman whose devotion to social work led to her establishing Hull House in Chicago and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices. Who is Books-A-Million?

Also visit these related sites:

Jane Addams' Hull House Museum - The University of Illinois at Chicago operates this museum in two historic Hull House buildings. Has links to a biography of Jane Addams and more.

Jane Addams - Her biography from the Nobel Foundation.

Jane Addams - Another biography from Women in History.

Our 19th Century Educations - Why our educational system falls short for the world of today and tomorrow, and what you need to do about it.

 

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Copyright 1999 - 2014 by John E. Shepler. Linking to this article is welcome, but no online republication is permitted. Print media republication rights are available at reasonable rates. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com

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First Published: September 26, 1999 as part of A Positive Light

Last Updated: March 6, 2014

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