Jane Addams (Sept. 6, 1860 – May 21, 1935), born into the wealthiest family in Cedarville, Ill., was a social reformer and pacifist. Her father was a businessman, banker and philanthropist with a sense of civic responsibility. Her mother died when Addams was 3 years old, and five years later her father married a widow who was interested in the fine arts and culture. Between her father and stepmother, Addams became aware of individual rights, civic duty and the belief that Christian ethics and the arts were necessary for a successful life.
She entered Rockford Female Seminary in 1877, where she was class president all four years, school newspaper editor and valedictorian. Her interest in science led her to the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, but she abandoned her studies to undergo spinal surgery. Addams fell into depression during her convalescence and, at the suggestion of her stepmother, toured Europe for more than two years. Upon her return she did charity work in Baltimore, but struggled to find a purpose that would engage her intellect and her knowledge of the fine arts. During a second trip to Europe, she became acquainted with Toynbee Hall, an influential settlement house in London, which inspired her to open Hull House in 1889 in Chicago. Hull House, often cited as one of her most noteworthy accomplishments, became the most famous and inventive settlement house in the country, encompassing 13 buildings and a community playground.
Addams envisioned it as a place where educated women could help young working and poor women develop cultural interests, but the poverty around Hull House soon motivated her to provide social services to the residents, including day care, visiting nurses, legal aid, a boys club, a home for working girls and English classes for immigrants seeking citizenship. Considered by many to be a keen social theorist and an expert on social problems, Addams was a frequent lecturer and wrote articles and books advocating social reforms. She believed true democracy was threatened by urban industrialization and worked to bring about a democracy that insured the welfare of all. She was involved in politics, education, labor negotiations, women’s rights and world peace. Addams served on the Chicago Board of Education and founded organizations that lobbied for vocational education funding and strong child labor laws.
Addams was the first woman president of the National Conference of Social Work, vice president of a national suffrage association and a founding member of the NAACP. She became involved in many labor disputes, believing that conciliation was the answer to conflict, which also reflected her pacifism during World War I. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her efforts to bring about world peace. British labor leader John Burns called her “the only saint that America ever produced.”
Brown, Victoria Bissell. (1999). “Addams, Jane.” In: John A. Garraty & Mark C. Carnes (Eds.), American national biography, Vol. 1, pp 139-141. New York: Oxford University Press.
Byers, Paula Kay & Bourgoin, Suzanne Michele (Eds.) (1997). Encyclopedia of world biography, Vol. 1, pp 56-57. Detroit: Gale.
Frederick, Richard G. (2008). Jane Addams. In: Robert. F. Gorman (Ed.), Great lives in history. The 20th century, 1900-2000. Vol. I, pp 22-25.
Photo: Sociologist, suffragette, social worker, philosopher, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, in 1924 or 1926. Source: George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.