Jane Addams: Chicago's Pacifist

Who is Jane Addams?

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Jane Addams, taken c. 1895

Courtsey of Ramapo College's Jane Addams Paper Project

Jane Addams (September 6, 1860 – May 21, 1935), was a pioneer American settlement activist, social justice worker, and leader in women's suffrage and world peace.

Laura Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois, on September 6, 1860, the youngest of eight children. Her father, John Huy Addams, was a staunch Union supporter and founding member of the Illinois Republican Party.  A wealthy man with several thriving businesses, he served as an Illinois State senator (1855–70) and supported the campaigns of his close friend Abraham Lincoln for the United States Senate (1854) and the Presidency (1860).  Jane Addams’ mother, Sarah Addams (née Weber), died when Jane was two years old. Her father remarried shortly afterwards, to Anna Hostetter Haldeman.

Jane Addams attended the nearby Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University) in Rockford, Illinois, graduating in 1881 with a collegiate certificate and membership in Phi Beta Kappa.  She had aspired to continue her studies and earn a bachelor’s degree from Smith College, in Massachusetts, but was disallowed from doing so by her father and step mother. Addams nevertheless hoped to one day pursue her dreams of becoming a medical doctor. 

That summer, John Addams died unexpectedly from appendicitis, leaving a fairly large inheritance for his children (as each child inherited the equivalent to $1.23 million today; the majority of this inheritance would be used later for the founding and maintenance of Hull House). 

In the fall of 1881, the Addams family moved to Philadelphia and Jane enrolled in the Woman’s Medical College there, completing a full year of medical training before falling ill; her numerous preexisting conditions, a spinal operation, and a nervous breakdown led her to withdraw from the school and return to Cedarville. 

In 1883, Jane Addams set out on a Grand Tour of Europe, a rite of passage that was common for wealthy and privileged women. Alongside her stepmother and several other friends, Addams traveled across the continent and spent several months living in Dresden, Berlin, and Paris. Addams was appalled by the poverty and squalor witnessed in her travels, including the East End slums in London.

Thereafter, Addams returned to Cedarville and lived with her stepmother, sinking into a deep depression fueled by unsure ambition and reluctance to accept the conventional lifestyle expected of a privileged young woman. She spent this time writing extensively to her friend, Ellen Gates Starr, who would later become a co-founder of Hull House, as well as reading many books by authors who would influence her greatly, including What to Do? and My Religion by Leo Tolstoy and The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill.

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Courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

Jane Addams is best remembered for founding Hull-House, what Erik Schneiderhan calls “the celebrated American ‘settlement house’ that served as the incubator for many ideas that would become the foundation of modern social work.” Schneiderman maintains that “how we help people in the United States today is in large part due to Addams’s efforts and thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” [1] 

Hull House was not a charitable organization.  Rather, continues Schneiderhan, “the settlement was a building, situated in a poor neighborhood, which served as a center for helping people.”  As Addams herself referred to it, Hull House seeks to “’develop whatever of social life its neighbors may afford, to focus and give form to that life, to bring to bear upon it the results of cultivation and training.’” [2] 

Jane Addams' social work at Hull House focused on education, employment, and empowerment for Chicago's diverse immigrant community.  Hull House provided numerous social services, including daycare facilities for the children of working mothers, English language and citizenship classes, and programs in the cultural and industrial arts, and athletics. 

A feminist, Addams also recognized the “connections between the plight of labor and the struggles of women to be free of the constraints of patriarchal society and find an independent voice' and actively supported the campaign for women's suffrage.” [3]

After founding Hull House, Addams emerged as a public figure and household name in the United States, publishing books and articles and crossing the country giving speeches to civic groups on a range of social issues.  Among her most celebrated works are Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) and Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910). American presidents sought her endorsement, and she had the ear of some of Chicago’s and America’s most influential businessmen.  Addams suffered the approbation of her fellow countrymen for her staunch opposition to both World War I and America’s entry into the war in 1917.  For her tireless efforts on behalf of the causes of peace and justice, in 1931 the Nobel Committee awarded her its Peace Prize – the first American women to be so honored.  In 1935, Addams died in Chicago at the age of 74.

[1]: Erik Schneiderhan. The Size of Others' Burdens: Barack Obama, Jane Addams, and the Politics of Helping Others (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 2-3.

[2]: Schneiderhan. The Size of Others' Burdens, 3.

[3]  Schneiderhan. The Size of Others' Burdens, 12-13.