Jane Addams, social reformer, settlement house director, and international peace activist, was born in Cedarville, Illinois, in 1860. She was the eighth child of John H. Addams, a business entrepreneur and Republican state senator. Her mother, Sarah Weber Addams, died during childbirth when Jane was two years old. As a young woman, Jane Addams aspired toward higher education and she graduated as valedictorian from Rockford Seminary in 1881. She entered Women's Medical College in Pennsylvania but withdrew during her first year due to health problems and emotional distress over her father's unexpected death.
After leaving medical school, Addams traveled throughout Europe as she pondered a suitable career. Like many educated, unmarried women of her era, Addams looked to social reform activities to fulfill her high professional ambitions. These burgeoning charitable and service endeavors allowed women to exercise their professional authority while remaining within the acceptable sphere of "women's work." Following an extended visit to East London's Toynbee Hall social settlement, she returned to the United States to found Hull-House, Chicago's famed social settlement, in 1889. Hull-House became the center of her social and political pursuits for the remainder of her life. She resided at Hull-House with her long-term companion, Mary Rozet Smith, and a cadre of progressive social reformers, activists, artists, and intellectuals who took up residence there.
Addams devoted her personal and professional life to improving the human condition through a blend of public sector activism, published writing, and community service. She committed herself to an array of social issues, including labor reform, juvenile justice, public education, women's suffrage, and international peace. Frequently cited as the "mother of social work," Addams was elected as the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in 1909. Her career also carried her far into the national and international political arena, where she advocated for women's suffrage, civil rights, and international peace. Among many major historical achievements, Addams was elected the first chairperson of the Women's Peace Party in 1915. That same year, she presided at the International Congress of Women in The Hague, Netherlands. She also founded the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and served as its leader from 1919 until her death in 1935. In 1931, Addams's work was honored with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize (which she received jointly with Nicholas Murray Butler).
Addams's ideology and reform activities were anchored in her deep concern for children and her firm belief in children's innate goodness. In her published writings and speeches, Addams insisted that children possessed a unique creative intellect and a spirit of adventure. Her book The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets condemned modern industrial society for corrupting children's nascent curiosity by exposing them to modern city vice while failing to provide appropriate recreational venues. Both of her autobiographical works, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) and The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930), document the benefits of after-school clubs and supervised recreational opportunities for children's development and socialization.
Addams routinely voiced a particular set of concerns for working-class immigrant children and families. She believed that immigrant youth faced unjustifiable hardships stemming from poverty, acculturation, and the exploitation of their labor. As a leader in the Progressive CHILD-SAVING movement, she launched fervent state and national campaigns against CHILD LABOR and in favor of compulsory education. She also pressed for labor legislation that would allow working-class parents to spend more time with their children. Her drive to help women and children through protective legislation placed Addams and her colleagues in the center of controversies among the labor movement, the child savers, and some feminist groups.
Addams was also concerned about the plight of modern young women. In stark contrast to her own sheltered upbringing, she believed that the industrial city robbed young women of their innocence. Her work A New Conscience andan Ancient Evil (1912) documents her deepest fears that young working-class women's unfulfilling low-wage work in factories or as domestics would eventually launch them into lives of prostitution. To address these concerns, she encouraged working-class girls to seek protection in a traditional domestic life of marriage and motherhood. Although this belief contradicted some of her outspoken feminist principles, her concern for young working-class women reflected her overarching quest to preserve the sanctity and innocence of youth.
Jane Addams's persistent community activism and work for social justice has left a long-standing imprint on American ideology and policies concerning children, youth, and families. The Hull-House museum in Chicago has preserved many artifacts and some of the original structure of Addams's famed social settlement. Her papers on peace and justice are housed at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection in Pennsylvania.
Addams, Jane. 1909. The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets. New York: Macmillan.
Addams, Jane. 1910. Twenty Years at Hull-House: With Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan.
Addams, Jane. 1912. A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil. New York: Macmillan.
Addams, Jane. 1930. The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan.
Davis, Allen F. 1973. The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press.
Muncy, Robin. 1991. Creating a Female Dominion of American Re-form. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bettis, Nicolle. 2003. "Jane Addams 1860–1935." Available from www.webster.edu/~woolflm/janeadams.html.
University of Illinois at Chicago. 2003. "Jane Addams Hull-House Museum Home Page." Available from www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/hull_house.html.
LAURA S. ABRAMS