American social worker
Jane Addams was one of the first people in America who sought to improve the lives of these desperate poor.
The Industrial Revolution took place in America in the years immediately following the Civil War. The boom of machines and manufacturing required a cheap and plentiful labor force around the same time millions of Europeans swarmed into American cities. By 1890, 80 percent of the people living in Chicago were immigrants or children of immigrants. Most cities, however, did not have the resources to handle such a rapid growth of people. Many immigrants were forced to settle in slums, living lives of poverty and hopelessness. Problems were only worsened by the fact that several different ethnic groups were huddled into one area.
Jane Addams was one of the first people in America who sought to improve the lives of these desperate poor. In Chicago she founded a settlement house (community center) called Hull House. Her work toward social improvements in Chicago, coupled with the work of other reformers, marked the beginning of the Progressive movement in America. Reaching its height in the early twentieth century, this movement sought to overcome the often dehumanizing effects of rapid industrialization through a variety of political, economic, and social reforms. Later in her life, Addams focused her energies on international problems, becoming a dedicated leader in the peace movement.
Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois, only seven months before the start of the Civil War. Her mother died when she was two years old, and Addams was raised by her father, John Huy Addams. A successful businessman and politician, John Addams helped build Cedarville into a thriving community. He passed on to his daughter his belief in the ideals of hard work, achievement, democracy, and equality. He also imparted to Jane a high moral sense of responsibility and purpose, traits of his Quaker faith.
Jane Addams was torn because of these teachings. She had learned that it was essential to do something important with her life, yet she grew up in a society that gave women the single role of homemaker. Even though her father encouraged her education, he believed its purpose was to make her a better wife and mother. Addams, however, desired more and enrolled in nearby Rockford College beginning in 1877. Upon her graduation in 1881, she planned to attend Women's Medical College in Philadelphia and, later, to work as a doctor among the poor.
These plans went awry when a mysterious illness struck Addams. An unknown back ailment forced her to drop out of Women's Medical College at the end of her first year. She underwent an operation and was confined to bed for six months. After recovering her health, she went to Europe to figure out what to do with her life. In her travels through European cities, Addams was deeply moved after seeing the dismal conditions in which the poor lived. Her visit to Toynbee Hall in England opened her eyes to what could be done to help these people. Founded by Samuel Barnett in 1884, Toynbee Hall was the very first community center established to tackle the problems of poverty in the cities.
Addams returned to America determined to achieve similar improvements. On September 8, 1889, she opened Hull House on Halsted Street in the middle of Chicago's worst immigrant slum. By living at the center, Addams and her fellow reformers believed they could better understand the problems of the poor. Hull House offered the people of the surrounding neighborhood hot lunches, child care services, tutoring in English, and parties. Addams tried to develop the idea of a neighborhood spirit. She encouraged the immigrants to work together to do what they could to improve the conditions of their neighborhood. Addams also petitioned the city government to pave better streets and to build public baths, parks, and playgrounds.
Local activities to improve social conditions soon spread to state and national levels. Community centers sprang up across America. Hull House became a meeting place for intellectuals and reformers like the physician Alice Hamilton and the philosopher and educator John Dewey. Investigations into every social problem took place at Hull House. National campaigns were developed for issues such as women's suffrage (the right to vote) and labor rights of women and children. Addams gave lectures and wrote articles and books detailing the work performed at the center. Her book Twenty Years at Hull-House, published in 1910, did much to promote her work. In 1911 the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers was established with Addams serving as its first president.
Addams spent her life working to overcome social inequalities. When World War I began in 1914, she became an outspoken member of the pacifist (peace) movement. The following year she joined other peace-minded women in forming the Women's Peace Party. The party sought a peaceful end to the war and worked to establish a permanent international peacekeeping organization. National pride was high both during and after the war, and pacifists were criticized for their activities. Remaining firm in her beliefs, Addams helped organize the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She served as its president until her death. For her dedicated work toward peace, Addams was awarded (along with fellow activist Nicholas Murray Butler) the Noble Peace Prize in 1931. Four year later, she died of cancer in Chicago.
Davis, Allen F., American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane
Addams, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Lasch, Christopher, ed., The Social Thought of Jane Addams, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.
Linn, James Weber, Jane Addams: A Biography, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935.
McPherson, Stephanie Sammartino, Peace and Bread: The Story of Jane Addams, Carolrhoda Press, 1993.
Tims, Margaret, Jane Addams of Hull House: A Centenary Study, Macmillan, 1961.
Wheeler, Leslie, Jane Addams, Silver Burdett Press, 1990.