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?
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."
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 these related
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.