This Week of All Weeks, Jane Addams Is Worth Thinking About

Jane Addams (1860-1931) isn’t famous these days. At one time, however, she was the most-admired woman in America and well-known throughout the world.

Wikipedia lists her occupation as “social and political activist, author and lecturer, community organizer, public intellectual”. Her tombstone in Cedarville, Illinois, describes her as a “humanitarian, feminist, social worker, reformer, educator, author, publicist, founder of Hull House, President [of the] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom”. It also notes that she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Addams fought for women’s suffrage and is considered the founder of the social work profession in the United States. Sociologists view her as a social theorist. Philosophers place her in the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.  At her death, some compared Jane Addams, who never sought political office, to her hero, Abraham Lincoln.

As this horrible week comes to a close, it may help us to consider Jane Addams as an example of, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature”.

Today, Addams is best known as the principal founder of Hull House, the first “settlement house” in the United States. It opened its doors in Chicago in 1889 and continued to operate until 2012. Its initial goal was to help recent immigrants find their place in American society, because Addams’s purpose in life was to convert her progressive ideas into action.

Here is a passage from Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by Jane Bethke Elshtain:

The statement of purpose in Hull-House’s charter read: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago”; but this fails to capture the spirit and the manifold activities of Hull-House. Addams refined this statement over the years. It was a “place for enthusiasms”; it helped “give form to social life”; it offered “the warm welcome of an inn”; it was a place for mutual interpretation of the the social classes one to another; it responded to ethical demands and shared fellowship; it was a place for the life of the mind….

At the conclusion of her second autobiographical volume, The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams takes another stab at it: “It was the function of settlements to bring into the circle of knowledge and fuller life, men and women who might otherwise be left outside” [ p. 92].

The work of Hull House “gained expression in day nurseries, kindergarten classes, playgrounds, boys’ and girls’ clubs, a cooperative boardinghouse, theater workshops, music schools, language classes, reading groups, handicraft centers and eventually a Labor Museum” [p. 93].

In the early days, after Addams and a Hull House resident named Julia Lathrop came to the aid of a young woman, all alone, giving birth in a nearby tenement, Addams exclaimed:

“This doing things that we don’t know how to do is going too far. Why did we let ourselves be rushed into midwifery?” To which [Lathrop] replied: “If we have to begin to hew down to the line of our ignorance, for goodness’ sake don’t let us begin at the humanitarian end. To refuse to respond to a poor girl in the throes of childbirth would be a disgrace to us forevermore. If Hull-House does not have its roots in human kindness, it is no good at all” [p. 93].

We might say the same thing about the United States of America during the months and years ahead.