Jane Addams (Social Reformer/Author/Nobel Peace Prize Winner)

jane-addams.jpgJane Addams (September 6, 1860 – May 21, 1935) was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a long complex career, she was a pioneer settlement worker and founder of Hull House  in Chicago, public philosopher (the first American woman in that role), author, and leader in woman suffrage and world peace. 


She was the most prominent woman of the Progressive Era  and helped turn the nation to issues of concern to mothers, such as the needs of children, public health and world peace.

She emphasized that women have a special responsibility to clean up their communities and make them better places to live, arguing they needed the vote to be effective. Addams became a role model for middle class women who volunteered to uplift their communities. She is increasingly being recognized as a member of the American pragmatist school of philosophy.

Born in Cedarville, Illinois, Jane Addams was the youngest of eight children born into a prosperous, loving family.  Although she was the eighth child, three of her siblings died in infancy, and another died at age 16, leaving only four by the time Addams was eight.  Her mother, Sarah Addams (née Weber), died from internal bleeding after a fall during pregnancy when Jane was two years old.

Jane Addams spent her childhood playing outdoors, reading indoors, and attending Sunday School. When she was four, she contracted tuberculosis of the spine, Pott's disease, which caused a curvature in her back and lifelong health problems. As a child, she thought she was "ugly" and later remembered wanting not to embarrass her father, when he was dressed in his Sunday best, by walking down the street with him.

Jane Addams adored her father when she was a child, as she made clear in the stories she told in her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910). John Huy Addams was an agricultural businessman owning large timber, cattle, and agricultural holdings, flour and timber mills, and a woolen factory. He was also the President of The Second National Bank of Freeport. He remarried in 1868, when Jane was eight. His second wife was Anna Hostetter Haldeman, the widow of a miller in Freeport. She had two sons, Harry, age 20, and George, age 7.

John Addams was a founding member of the Illinois Republican Party, served as an Illinois State Senator (1855-70), and supported his friend Abraham Lincoln in his candidacies, for Illinois senator (1854) and the presidency (1860). John Addams kept a letter from Lincoln in his desk, and Jane Addams used to love to look at it as a child.

Jane was a first cousin twice removed to Charles Addams, noted cartoonist for The New Yorker.

In her teens, Addams had big dreams—to do something useful in the world. Long interested in the poor from her reading of Dickens and inspired by her mother's kindness to the Cedarville poor, she decided to become a doctor so that she could live and work among the poor. It was a vague idea, nurtured by the delights of fiction. She was a voracious reader.

Meanwhile, in 1875, Addams's sister Alice married their stepbrother Harry Haldeman. This was despite John and Anna's shared opposition to the marriage. However, they could not mount a unified campaign against it. Each was in the awkward position of thinking the other's child was an unworthy partner for his or her own offspring.

Addams's father encouraged her to pursue higher education but not too far from home. She was eager to attend the brand new college for women, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; but he required her to attend Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford College) in Rockford, Illinois. After graduating from Rockford in 1881 with a collegiate certificate, she still hoped to attend Smith to earn a proper B.A. That summer, her father died unexpectedly from appendicitis. Each child inherited roughly $50,000 (equivalent to $1.12 million today).

That fall, Addams, her sister Alice, Alice's husband Harry Haldeman, and their stepmother, Anna Haldeman Addams, all moved to Philadelphia so that the three young people could pursue medical educations. Harry was already trained in medicine and did further studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Jane and Alice completed their first year of medical school at the Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia, but Jane's health problems—a painful back and a nervous breakdown—prevented her from completing the degree. She was filled with sadness at her failure. Stepmother Anna was also ill, so the entire family canceled their plans to stay two years and returned to Cedarville.

The following fall her brother-in-law/stepbrother Harry performed surgery on her back, to straighten it. He then advised that she not pursue studies but, instead, travel. In August 1883, she set off for a two-year tour of Europe with her stepmother, traveling some of the time with friends and family who joined them. Visiting the Catacombs in Rome, where the early Christians—a community of people from all walks of life—worshipped in secret and were buried when they died, she decided that she did not have to become a doctor to be able to help the poor. But what then should she do?

Upon her return home in June 1885, she lived with her stepmother in Cedarville and spent the winters with her in Baltimore, where Jane's other stepbrother George Haldeman was earning his Ph.D. in Biology at Johns Hopkins University. Addams, still filled with vague ambition, sank into depression, unsure of her future and feeling useless leading the conventional life expected of a well-to-do young woman. She wrote long letters to her friend from Rockford Seminary, Ellen Gates Starr, mostly about Christianity and books but sometimes about her despair.

Meanwhile, she was gathering clues about her choices from what she read. Fascinated by the early Christians and Tolstoy's book My Religion, she was finally baptized a Christian in the Cedarville Presbyterian Church the summer of 1886. Reading Giuseppe Mazzini's Duties of Man, she began to be inspired by the idea of democracy as a social ideal. She still felt confused about her role as a woman, though. John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women made her question the social pressures on a woman to marry and devote her life to family.

Then, finally, she read about something she could actually do. In the summer of 1887, she read in a magazine about the new idea of a settlement house. She decided to visit the world's first, in London, on a second trip to Europe. It was called Toynbee Hall. She and several friends, including Ellen Gates Starr, traveled in Europe from December 1887 through the summer of 1888. Addams told no one of her dream to start a settlement house at first; but, as she traveled, she felt increasingly guilty that she was just being a tourist and not acting.

Her feelings finally overwhelmed her after watching a bullfight in Madrid. While her friends soon left the arena, too horrified by the great bloody gore of the event to remain, Addams stayed, mesmerized by what she saw as an exotic cultural tradition. Afterward, she condemned her fascination with the bullfight and her inability to feel outraged at the suffering of the horses and bulls that had been killed. She blamed her love of culture for hardening her heart to suffering, for inhibiting her from acting. And was not that the underlying reason she still had not started a settlement house? Believing that if she told someone her dream, she might finally do something, she told Ellen Gates Starr. Starr loved the idea of starting a settlement house and agreed to join Addams in pursuing her dream.

Addams and another friend traveled to London without Starr, who was tied up. Visiting Toynbee Hall, Addams was enchanted. She described it as "a community of University men who live there, have their recreation clubs and society all among the poor people yet in the same style in which they would live in their own circle. It is so free of 'professional doing good,' so unaffectedly sincere and so productive of good results in its classes and libraries that it seems perfectly ideal." Addams's dream of the classes mingling socially to mutual benefit, as they had in early Christian circles, seemed embodied in the new type of institution.

Related Links:
Jane Addams on Wikipedia


Related Articles