Advantages and Disadvantages of a Broken Inheritance, May 26, 1908

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Address of Miss Jane Addams

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Broken Inheritance

I feel a certain diffidence in speaking upon a topic which has been before you all day. With such a careful sociologist as Dr. Du Bois at the head of your department, I am quite sure you would be quick to detect my ignorance if I tried to say very much about a subject which has been handled so well. Still, I have many friends among the Negro colony of Chicago, and I have been very much interested in the settlement started there by Mrs. [Woolley], to which the fair-minded people of both sides of society may come and discuss the serious problems which arise—problems of the difficulty of finding positions, with which many of the educated young Negroes in Chicago are confronted, and of the difficulty of equal opportunity and a square deal. We meet there every little while and have some interesting and heart-breaking conferences. But after all, that does not reach the family and does not throw light upon that side of the colony's life, and I thought perhaps I could be of most use this evening in giving you some of my general observations and experiences with the problems which confront families of various nationalities who move into Chicago and meet all the maladjustment, all the ups and downs of city life for the first time. These are, after all, the great human problems which must confront all of us. The thing I feel most strongly as the difficulty among the Italians, among the Greeks and among the Russians (for these are the ones whom I constantly see), is the contrast they find between the life they have led at home and the life they are obliged to live in Chicago. All sorts of customs fit them to walk in the old folk ways, the old ways which their ancestors have had for so many years. Now, as I take it, your difficulties are quite unlike that. The habits which you might have had from your ancestors were all broken into, they were all scattered, and especially the habits connected with family life. There are advantages and disadvantages in the lack of tradition and the lack of habits in those directions. The advantages are that you are much more ready to make your adaptation; you are much more ready to bring the results of education and the rationalistic side of life to bear directly upon the refining of the family. And the disadvantages are that you lack some of the restraints of the traditions which the people I have mentioned bring with them. For instance, if an Italian girl or woman in our neighborhood is suspected of having led an immoral life, she suffers the greatest amount of social penalty at once. She is probably put out of her father's house and treated with great scorn, because she has deviated from the path he holds as the right path for his daughter to take.

Adjustment to New Conditions

The experiences of adjustment to new conditions of life which the Italians have when they come to this country may prove of value. For instance, take the Italian women from Southern Italy. They have been accustomed always to wash their clothes in the open streams in the villages, [page 2] in the streams in the cities, or in the public wash-houses, and they look upon a wash tub as the most mysterious thing in the world. They have never seen anything like it. They ask what in the world they are going to do with it in the house and it takes them a long time to learn to use it. It upsets all their previous habits of life. They have been accustomed to mix their bread in their own houses and to take it to the village bake ovens to have it baked, and when they are confronted with the necessity of baking their own bread they are again very much upset and very much thrown out of their home traditions and habits. Now what we try to have their daughters do for them is this, -- we try to have them understand first of all something of the past life and habits which their mothers led. We try then to have them learn the American standard. If an Italian family lives next door to an American family and the Italian girl begins by comparing her affairs with the affairs of her neighbors next door, she is almost sure to fall into a very unfair attitude towards her own parents. But if she can be made to realize some of the difficulties which her parents are confronting, the whole thing becomes very much simpler to her and we believe she is not only in a position to judge more fairly but to help much more quickly and readily. We insist that education ought to do this for everybody,—make them able to judge a thing in its own setting and in its relation to the thing which lies back of it and not merely by its appearances. I am sure education ought to do for all of us something of that sort, give us something of a background for the interpretation of the affairs which we see before our eyes. We have tried to do this in various ways for the Italian young people.

Appreciation of the Old

Italian women in their country know how to weave and spin by the most primitive methods, not even using a spinning wheel, but holding the distaff in one hand and with the other twirling the thread between the fingers. In this way they can spin very beautiful threads which they know how to weave with their own primitive looms, reproducing the old Italian patterns. Now the Italian girls, we discovered, who had been to school in America were very much ashamed of these beautiful things which their mothers brought with them and which their grandmothers had woven and spun by these traditional methods, and it took a good deal of putting the thing before them as it actually existed to make them understand the value of these things. Gradually we have succeeded in giving them some notion of their parents as they stand in relation to their past.

Intelligent Interest in Work

We have tried also to instruct workers intelligently in the material with which they work. The young people about us many of them work in the necktie factories, many in the large clothing factories, of which our neighborhood is full. We discovered that many of the girls, and young men for that matter, handled the stuff all day long without having any idea of where it came from. They took it in entire ignorance of its method of production. To the educated person everything should have some interest; it should suggest something to his mind as to the whole process of its arrival at the stage in which he uses it, and he will study it. Life should not be a blank to him. We discovered that our young people had no such feeling in regard to the stuff they were using. I remember one group of necktie workers. We tried to get them interested by reading a book or by a debate. I remember one day the president told me she wouldn't be caught dead at a lecture. One night I found this entire group of necktie workers watching a demonstration of the different methods of spinning. In connection with this demonstration quite a stiff lecture was being given about the changes brought into England when steam was applied to spinning. Now these girls were listening very hard to this lecture and seemed quite interested, and I was vicious enough to say to the president that I was surprised, and she replied with a good deal of emphasis, "I don't call this a lecture, I call this getting next to the stuff you work with all the time." That is, she was trying to find out what her neckties were made of and she did not call it a lecture. Now I imagine here again is another test of education -- what to elect and what to eliminate. The educated person who has been told about the best things and most serious things, selects and attaches to his daily life some knowledge and some interest which will lead him on and on, so that if he is destined to stand in a necktie factory from one day to another, the whole process will suggest something to him. At any rate that is what some girls in this group did. They went on from one to another lesson, but always connected with the things they were doing. I believe, in our teaching of little children, if we can lead them on from the things they know to the next thing and always keep their minds alive, we will find it a very good way to begin with education. You can do the same with all people. If there is one thing which I resent very much it is the assumption that education is meant only for the young.

Respect for Age and Infancy

It is the business of the family to keep alive the interests of the old people by a sort of education of the home. Reverence for old age, the belief in the possibilities of old age, the confidence in a certain amount of wisdom which resides in age, are things which some nationalities have by tradition. Now that may be one of the things which some of us will have to learn. We have to learn it through our affections and sympathies and experiences. And the same thing is true, of course, of little children. The Italians are rather cruel to deformed people. Any one who is strange or deformed, they have a tendency to put aside and to put out of the way as nearly as possible. We have found that it is possible to break in upon that by a certain amount of care from the outside.

Community Life of the Family

The family which tries to isolate itself from the rest of the town isn't by any means the family which always succeeds. It is much more likely to be the family which throws itself into general movements and gets help out of them. One of the women in our Women's Club told me that in the beginning her husband rather objected to her joining the club, but she had been able to tell him at the end of ten years that she did not feed her younger children any of the things which she fed the older children, because she had learned what the proper things were to be fed to children, and she pointed out to him the very much lower doctor's bill they had for the younger children than for the older ones. She pointed this out to him as an investment of her time, trying to make him see that the time she had taken away from her family to invest in this Women's Club and to discuss things concerning the care of the children had come back to them in actual money. Now something of that sort is almost sure to happen if we begin to study the members of our family, if we study them and their needs in the light of the best teaching and the best experience which other people have had. And when we meet to discuss things quite simply and fairly, it is curious how it acts upon our own family circle and our own conduct.

Child Labor Legislation

I have always found a very quick response when I talked to women whose children were at work about the importance of child labor legislation. They always say to me, "We are willing to keep them out for two more years because after all it is for them that we are working, and if you say that it is better for them not to work for more than eight hours, of course we don't want them to do it. It is the thing we are doing all this hard work for. We are living for them." Now I found always that when they understood the situation they were only too happy to make this added sacrifice. It is the lack of understanding, the sense of being isolated, that makes you feel sometimes that your children owe you something instead of being ready to sacrifice for them. We found that this sentiment could be quickly established if people saw their particular problem in relation to that of all the rest of the children in the city. If people feel they are being singled out then they very much resent this stringent legislation. But if they see that it is applied equally to every one, then suddenly everybody begins to see how reasonable it is.

Education for Wage Earning

Now we are beginning to see another thing in Illinois -- that it isn't quite fair to the people to keep their children out of work until they are 14 and in some cases until they are 16, unless they are meantime beginning to learn things which will later be of direct advantage to them. And it is amazing how quickly the parents respond to the efforts we are putting forth in the public schools to prepare the children for more direct wage earning. Now I believe very strongly that family life is founded not only on affection, but on this willingness to sacrifice, -- the young to the old and the old something to the younger, and everybody sacrificing to the needs of little children. We do this with much more diligence and cheerfulness if we can in some way connect it with the life of the community.

These experiences of mine may have very little suggestion for you or they may have much. After all, the families in one place or another, of one nationality or another, must be founded on somewhat the same lines, and if it is given to you, as I believe it is, to make a fresher start than some of the other people I have been able to meet, to make your adaptation with the advantage of knowing something of the best, of restraining yourselves by some sort of training and belief in the better things, you should count yourselves most fortunate.

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