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Jane Addams was an influential Progressive Era reformer, remembered best for founding Hull-House, a Chicago institution that sparked the spread of the settlement movement in the United States. Through Hull-House, Addams worked directly with Chicago’s immigrant communities and helped them advocate for their needs. She also formed a group of activists, mostly women, who worked together to fight to end to child labor, ensure workers rights  legislation, win the vote for women, and establish the beginnings of the profession of social work. Through her writings and activities, Addams became one of the world’s best known women, and in the second half of her life she used her fame to promote the peace movement. In 1931, Addam was honored for this work -- she was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

What made Jane Addams the person that she was? How did her personality, education, habits, and experiences shape her into one of her era’s best-known and best-loved women? Out of the many women reformers of the Progressive Era who came out of Hull-House, why do we remember her?

One of Addams’ early inspirations was her father, John Huy Addams. He was a wealthy Illinois businessman and a state senator. John Addams was a friend of Abraham Lincoln who served in the Civil War. He valued education and made sure that his children -- both his son and daughters --  attended great schools. This was rare for women of Jane Addams’ time, and at Rockford Seminary Addams excelled and met lifelong friends and colleagues there. Once of her closest friends was Ellen Gates Starr. In 1888 the two travelled to England and were there inspired by Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house in the world.

Inspired to open their own settlement house in Chicago, Gates and Addams founded Hull-House. They modified the Toynbee model, focusing on women settlement workers, though Hull-House was always staffed by both men and women. Addams used her own funds and organizational skills to ensure Hull-House’s success, while Gates built a strong community of support among Chicago women, from connections made while teaching there. What made Hull-House unique and a model for other activists was the strong community of women that Addams surrounded herself with. They inspired one another as they delved into work to help children, immigrants, women, and workers in Chicago navigate a city and an era that had little protections and no safety nets.>

The Progressive Era is known for its great reformers, and Addams was at the center of most of its reform efforts. Addams worked with men like Theodore Roosevelt, W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey, and with women like Ida B. Wells, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Emily Greene Balch. She built a reputation, through her deeds, and through her speeches, articles and books, that appealed to the public and inspired people to act. Ordinary Americans wrote to tell her how her example had spurred them to action in their own communities. Her writings, in which she articulated her ideas about how America needed to change in order to provide social justice and opportunity for all, made her a household name. In 1910 Addams wrote an autobiography, Twenty Years At Hull-House, in which she reflected on her life, and explained how she was inspired to dedicate her life to reform.

In a world that was reluctant to listen to women, Addams was one who was heard. Addams believed that democracy was more than a political system, it was a way of life. She saw poverty as undemocratic as well as immoral. For her, democracy meant that everyone moved forward, not just some groups of people. But her philosophy was pragmatic -- always focused on applying moral ideas to human experiences. One of her key beliefs was the idea that in order for society to progress, all lives had to be bettered, not just the lives of the elite few. She challenged traditional gender roles that put men in charge of public affairs and relegated women to the home, taking care of family. Addams did not dispute that women had a natural affinity for the home and family, but she insisted that in a modern society, political participation was the only way that women could protect their children. Addams was an ardent supporter of woman suffrage, but believed that reason and cooperation was a better means to secure the vote than confrontation and anger. She wrote extensively on the reasons why women needed equal voting rights, speaking to women’s groups, on college campuses, and at suffrage conventions.

Addams’ experiences with her Hull-House neighbors taught her that working with with people was far more successful than working for them. She learned what her neighbors lives were like by seeing them and talking with them, which informed the way that she tried to help them. She believed that when people of different opinions got together with a spirit of cooperation, that results would come. Addams’ work with education, child labor reform, juvenile delinquency, and factory conditions all came out of her policy of learning the conditions first hand and working to solve them.

There are certain moments that defined Jane Addams’ life. The opening of Hull-House in 1889, her work for woman suffrage in 1906-1910, her entanglement with the Progressive Party, and her support for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 presidential campaign, and her efforts, starting in 1915 to work with pacifists to try to stop World War I. In her books and articles, she made the case for a philosophy of social justice and democracy. Addams’ published books include: Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes (1910), A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912), The Long Road of Woman’s Memory, (1916), >Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922), The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, September 1909 to September 1929, With aRecord of a Growing Consciousness (1930), The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932), and My Friend, Julia Lathrop. New York: Macmillan (1935).

Jane Addams’ impact on the modern world remains to this day. She was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Civil Liberties Union. Her Hull House Association continued to operate until 2012, after which the building became a museum. Her efforts to secure peace and social justice through the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom continues to this day, and her work helped establish social work as a professional field.

Recommended primary sources: Twenty Years at Hull House excerpts

  1. Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: A War Time Childhood, April 1910
  2. Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: The Snare of Preparation, May 1910
  3. Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: Early Undertakings at Hull-House, June 1910
  4. Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty years at Hull-House: Problems of Poverty, July 1910
  5. Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: The Resources of the Immigrant, August 1910
  6. Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: Echoes of the Russian Revolution, September 1910

Additional Resources:

Jane Addams: the activist who set the foundation for modern social work, from The Guardian

The Nobel Prize: Jane Addams

Social Welfare History Project: Jane Addams

Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull-House and Its Neighbors, 1889-1963

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Jane Addams

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