Jane Addams

Honored by:The Iowa State University History Department
Brick location:PAVER:22  map

Jane Addams was born September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois. Quiet and introspective yet determined and highly principled, she resisted efforts to channel her life into work considered suitable for women and determined, as she put it, "to study medicine and live with the poor." She graduated first in her class from Rockford (Illinois) Female Seminary, but instead of blazing new trails for herself and for American women, entered upon eight years of disappointment, ill-health, and chiding by her stepmother for failing to marry. She sought a purpose for her life in traveling abroad and experimenting with different social and religious philosophies until realizing that her only true course was to take charge of her own future. She visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London's East End where university men were seeking ways to minister to the needs of the industrial poor. In the fall of 1889 she and her companion Ellen Starr acquired Hull House in Chicago and declared themselves "at home" to their neighbors most of whom were Greek, Italian, Russian, and German immigrants.

Efforts by middle class and wealthy Americans to care for the poor and unfortunate were a generation old by the time Jane Addams opened Hull House, but she and her associates were imaginative and energetic in updating the settlement house endeavor. She formed clubs for entertainment, artistic expression, education, and recreation. She undertook an extensive "social survey" which formed the basis of lobbying efforts for state laws to regulate working conditions. Her projects were the training ground for such pioneers in social work as Florence Kelley, Grace Abbott, and Julia Lathrop.

During the early years of the new century, Jane Addams became a leading figure in the Progressive Movement, an effort by middle class professionals to solve social problems by the techniques of nonpartisan "expert" management. Honors and recognitions came her way. She became a popular essayist and lecturer. Her autobiography, "Twenty Years at Hull House," was a national bestseller. She became the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, the first female to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University, and the first head of the National Federation of Settlements. In 1912 she gave a seconding speech for Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party nomination for president.

As she became more active in politics, Jane Addams spoke out on behalf of women's suffrage. She campaigned for the vote in Chicago elections and became a vice prescient of the National American Women Suffrage Association. Believing that women would invest politics with greater moral sensitivity, she joined women opponents of the world war, organized the Women's Peace Party, and supported President Woodrow Wilson's efforts to end the fighting in Europe by mediation. She endured public censure when she continued to oppose the war after the United States entered the conflict, but steadfastly persevered. In 1919 she helped to form the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1920, dismayed by the intolerance the war produced, she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1931 she shared the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in Chicago May 21, 1935.

Perhaps the most notable American woman of her generation, Jane Addams stood for much that was typical of that generation: its striving for principle, its confidence in "modern" techniques of fact-gathering and "management," its belief in its ability to 'improve" social conditions, and to bring about "progress." To this enterprise she brought an ethic of tolerance for social difference, an empathy for human suffering, a firm faith that compassion and understanding could break down social barriers, and a hardheaded determination to fight the forces of corruption, intolerance, and reaction with organization, principle, and free expression. 7/1/96

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