Jane Addams entered public life in an era not all that different from our own time: the Oval Office was inhabited by a succession of men who were, it seemed, much smaller than the times, too often treating the position as a way to confer privileges on cronies for four (or, quite infrequently, eight) years, sucking all of the possible prestige (and income) out of this position but doing very little in the way of inspiring or even leading the nation. This procession began with the Republican Party’s deal to effectively end Reconstruction if Rutherford B. Hayes could take office, in an election that was close enough to require resolution in the House of Representatives, and did not end until the hero of San Juan Hill, Teddy Roosevelt, took office upon the death of President McKinley. Because neither political party seemed to care much about the plight of the common man, the Progressive Party took root as a third force in American politics, and the injustices of the era also inspired such individuals as Jane Addams to speak, write and otherwise demand change.
When one considers the legacy of Jane Addams in American society, one has to mention two items: Hull House and the American peace movement. One of Addams’ basic beliefs was that, to effect social change, one had to live at or near the site of the problem, to gain credibility and build relationships (“Jane Addams”). As a result, Hull House was not an office, blocks and blocks away from the poor, but it was located near the needy. Founded as a settlement house for immigrants, Hull House grew to include a wide variety of social services for the poor. At its largest, Hull House would house 25 women full-time, all of whom were involved in providing social programming of a wide variety of types. Over 2,000 clients visited Hull House each week, mostly to receive services of some kind. These programs included such offerings as a coffeehouse, music school, theater group, art gallery, set of older kids’ clubs, night school for adults, public kitchen, and even a kindergarten for children – at that time, first grade was the first compulsory grade, and many public school systems did not even offer kindergarten (Linn p. 17). The “house” came to contain 13 different buildings and a playground.
Chicago at that time looked like a patchwork quilt, with each piece occupied by a different ethnic group of immigrants. Hull House was inside a mostly Italian neighborhood, but in the surrounding area lived groups of French Canadians, Greeks, Germans, and Jewish people. Immigrants of all backgrounds made their way to Hull House, though, because of the wealth of services that were available. The base “ethical principles” upon which the settlement house was founded were: “to teach by example, to practice cooperation and to practice social democracy, that is, egalitarian, or democratic, social relations across class lines”(Knight p. 182). As a result, in addition to programming, Hull House tried proactive means to enact social change as well. Some examples included studies on the harmful effects of such problems as cocaine use, illiteracy, infant mortality, typhoid fever, truancy, overcrowding and even the use of midwives as opposed to traditional medical practitioners in childbirth. In the arena of politics, Addams not only ran for alderman (losing to the political machine’s candidate), but also lobbied for legislation on the municipal and state level for improved housing for the poor, reform in the distribution of public welfare, and protections for women and children in the workplace (Elshtain 42).
Hull House reserved a special emphasis for its youngest clients – the children of immigrants and the poor. In her book The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, Addams strongly advocated a system of recreational programming, including the provision of space in cities for parks, as well as the construction of facilities where children could go and play, in both unstructured and structured settings (92). This idea was the driving force behind much of urban planning throughout the 20th century, as every major city (and most major towns) included park space and recreational facilities in their short-term and long-term planning. She praised the “undoubted powers of public recreation to bring together the classes of a community in the modern city unhappily so full of devices for keeping them apart”(Addams p. 96). These spaces would, in her mind, blur class divisions and foster harmony.
In addition to Hull House, though, Addams also created a legacy as a pacifist. In modern times, we often see World War I as a quirky predecessor to the horrors that were wrought by Hitler, a war ended so dramatically by the mushroom clouds at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In contrast, World War I actually featured mounted cavalry, and the American experience was brief; the arrival of the “doughboys” from the United States only predated the war’s end by a matter of months. However, looking at the conflict from the lens of that time period, the conflict was the Great War – what President Wilson hoped would be the “war to end all wars.” Countless rounds of mortars destroyed wave after wave of infantry on both sides of the battle; mustard gas ravaged the bodies of soldiers in the field. The conflict was bloody and tragic enough, all on its own. When the conflict began in Europe, Addams joined the Woman’s Peace Party and, later, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. As a result, she met with ten different international leaders, as the head of a panel named by the International Woman’s Conference to bring the war to an end (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom). Despite attacks made on her for a lack of patriotism, once the Great War began, Addams would become the first woman from the United States to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 (“Jane Addams”).
In both areas in which Jane Addams developed a legacy, she encountered, and survived, considerable opposition from political powers of the day. Her work on behalf of immigrants took on nativist sentiments in the United States, as many predicted that turning the country into a “melting pot” would rob the country of its identity – or at least its jobs. Addams’ insistence on dignity for all, and for peaceful resolution of differences, have secured her a place of honor in the annals of American history.
Addams, Jane. The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois
Brown, V.B. “The Education of Jane Addams,” in Politics and Culture in Modern America.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
“Jane Addams.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. Retrieved 14 October 2011 at
Knight, Louise W. Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005.
Linn, James W. Jane Addams: A Biography. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, c2000.
Skerrett, Ellen. “The Irish of Chicago’s Hull-House Neighborhood.” Chicago History 30/1: 22-63.
“Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.” Web. Retrieved 14 October 2011 at