Jane Addams is remembered primarily as a founder of the Settlement House Movement. She and her friend Ellen Starr founded Hull House in the slums of Chicago in 1889. She is also remembered as the first American Woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jane is portrayed as the selfless giver of ministrations to the poor, but few realize that she was a mover and shaker in the areas of labor reform (laws that governed working conditions for children and women), and was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Jane grew up in the small community of Cedarville, Illinois. She was the daughter of a very well-to-do gentleman; her mother was a kind and gracious lady. Jane had five brothers and sisters at the time of her mother’s death, when Jane was two. Her father remarried and her new stepmother brought two new step-brothers to the already large family.
Jane was especially devoted to her father. He taught her tolerance, philanthropy, and a strong work ethic. He encouraged her to pursue higher education, but not at the expense of losing her femininity and the prospect of marriage and motherhood — the expectation for all upper-class young ladies at that time. Jane attended the Rockford Seminary for young ladies and excelled in her studies. She also developed strong leadership traits. Her classmates admired her and followed her examples. Jane decided that she wished to pursue a degree in medicine when she completed her studies at Rockford. This choice caused a great stir in the Addams household. Her parents felt that she had had enough education and were concerned that she would never marry. Jane became despondent. She wanted more in life. If her brothers could have careers in medicine and science, why couldn’t she? Besides, she disliked household duties and the prospect of raising children held no appeal.
Jane’s parents decided that the best course was to take Jane and her friends on a grand tour of Europe for a year or two. Perhaps Jane would settle down and realize that her duty was to marry and have a family. Jane began to show signs of serious illness during this time. Was her health affected by stress? There was the pressure to do her parents’ bidding, and inner turmoil over whether or not to disobey them and choose a career.
Her father died upon her return. This set Jane into a deeper depression and a sense of guilt that somehow she had upset him with her insistence upon a vocation. Her illness grew to the proportion of “invalid.” She could barely walk or move without great pain. Jane did have a slight curvature of the spine and for this she sought treatment. Eventually, she had surgery and was strapped into a back harness from which she could not move for about a year. This year gave her time to think.
When she recovered, she headed to Europe, this time just with friends. Jane did a lot of the usual sightseeing. Just by chance, while in England, she was introduced to the founders and the workings of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in the slums of London. It did not immediately strike her that social work was to be her calling. It took some time after returning to the United States before she and her traveling companion, Ellen Starr, committed themselves to the idea of starting a settlement house in Chicago. Once committed, there was no stopping these young women, especially Jane. Jane was a fireball. She was the creator, the innovator, and the leader. People flocked to her. Most everything she needed she was able to procure with the generosity of patrons. Money poured in. Within a few years, Hull House offered medical care, child care and legal aid. It also provided classes for immigrants to learn English, vocational skills, music, art and drama.
In 1893 a severe depression rocked the country. Hull House was serving over two thousand people a week. As charitable efforts increased, so too did political ones. Jane realized that there would be no end to poverty and need if laws were not changed. She directed her efforts at the root causes of poverty. The workers joined Jane to lobby the state of Illinois to examine laws governing child labor, the factory inspection system, and the juvenile justice system. They worked for legislation to protect immigrants from exploitation, limit the working hours of women, mandate schooling for children, recognize labor unions, and provide for industrial safety.
All this led to the right to vote for women. Addams worked for Chicago municipal suffrage and became first vice-president of the National American Women Suffrage Association in 1911. She campaigned nationwide for Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in 1912.
She became a very controversial figure while working on behalf of economic reform. When horrible working conditions led to the Haymarket riot, Jane was personally attacked for her support of the workers. It resulted in a great loss of donor support for Hull House. She supplemented Hull House funding with revenue from lecture tours and article writing. She began to enjoy international acclaim. Her first book was published in 1910 and others followed biennially. Her biggest success in writing came with the release of the book, Twenty Years at Hull House. It became her autobiography and brought her wealth.
Addams foresaw World War I. In 1915, in an effort to avert war, she organized the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women. This latter organization met at The Hague and made serious diplomatic attempts to thwart the war. When these efforts failed and the U.S. joined the war in 1917, criticism of Addams rose. She was expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution, but it did not slow her down. In 1919 she was elected first president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a position she held until her death. She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), having answered the “call” in 1909 that led to the organization’s formation. These positions earned her even more criticism than her pacifism. She was accused of being a socialist, an anarchist and a communist.
Hull House, however, continued to be successful. When the depression of the 1930’s struck, Addams saw many of the things that she had advocated and fought for become policies under President Franklin Roosevelt. She received numerous awards during this time including, in 1931, the Nobel Peace Prize.
That year her health began to fail but she continued her work until her death in 1935. Thousands of people came to her funeral at Hull House before she was taken to Cedarville to be buried.
Jane Addams Hull House Association
Jane Addams biography – Nobel e-Museum