Jane Addams life and biography

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Jane Addams biography

Date of birth : 1860-09-06
Date of death : 1935-05-21
Birthplace : Cedarville, Illinois, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-07-16
Credited as : Activist and leader in woman suffrage, public philosopher and author, awarded with Nobel Peace Prize

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Jane Addams (born September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois, United States – died May 21, 1935 Chicago, Illinois, U.S.) 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.


Jane Addams, sometimes called "the Mother of the World," became famous for her efforts to aid the poor and the disadvantaged. Her most successful project, Hull House, helped to create a supportive living environment for immigrants in Chicago's Nineteenth Ward; there, Addams and other social reformers lived with working families, together creating child-care, education, and basic necessities for the community. During her lifetime, Addams was treated both as a saint and as a demon; when she provided shelter for the needy she was adored, but when she agitated for peace during World War I she was criticized as traitorous. Gradually, however, her efforts were recognized, and in 1931 she won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Born Laura Jane Addams in Cedarville, Illinois on September 6, 1860, the future political activist was the eighth of her family's nine children. Her parents, John Huy and Sarah Weber Addams, were prominent citizens in their wealthy town. Sarah Weber Addams died before Addams was three years old. John Huy Addams--a successful businessman, senator, and friend to Abraham Lincoln--served as Addams's primary caregiver. A contributor to Contemporary Heroes and Heroines commented: "An ardent abolitionist and reformer, he had a profound influence on his daughter, who adored him and made a conscious effort to pattern her own beliefs and behavior after his." Addams made an effort, for example, to study those subjects her father suggested, including history, literature, philosophy, and political affairs. In 1868, John Huy Addams married Anna Haldeman, who apparently irritated her new stepdaughter. Throughout Addams's young adulthood, her stepmother urged her to settle down with a husband, but Addams resisted.

Instead, Addams took an A.B. degree at Rockford Female Seminary in 1882, and then studied briefly at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. Addams dropped out of medical college soon after she began, however. She had long suffered from spinal curvature--the result of a childhood spate of tuberculosis of the spine--and the pain became such that she was forced to undergo surgery to correct the defect. The surgery was successful, but afterward she had to spend six months bedridden in a hideous brace, and even then she required more rest. Her family sent her to Europe, where she began to grow stronger. Soon after that trip Addams returned to Europe with a schoolmate, Ellen Gates Starr. While the two women traveled, they visited Toynbee Hall in London, a new settlement house where British social reformers attempted to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Contemporary Heroes and Heroines writer explained: "These so-called 'settlement houses' addressed spiritual as well as material poverty, offering people the use of a library and meeting rooms and the chance to attend workshops and classes." Addams and Starr resolved to pursue the same aim in America, using Chicago as their home base.

In Feminist Writers, Michelle A. Spinelli explained some of the motives driving Addams's bold experiment: "Jane Addams challenged many Americans to rethink their vision of democracy. More than just a system of government, democracy--as Addams understood it--meant collective responsibility for the social welfare of a nation. Implicit in her vision was the feminist belief that women have an active role in the evolution of a democratic society, a belief she promoted through her own actions." Addams's idea for the settlement house was simple; she wrote: "I gradually became convinced that it would be a good thing to rent a house in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs are found, in which young women who had been given over too exclusively to study might . . . learn of life from life itself." Thus, in 1889, Starr and Addams began Hull House, where Addams lived for the rest of her life. There, she provided housing, child care, youth groups, vocational training, workers' groups, plays and shows, and various classes helping adults to become educated or to become U.S. citizens. Spinelli suggested: "Hull House was the physical embodiment of the spirit of democracy that Addams envisioned. Settlement workers--mostly white, middle-class women who rejected geographic and social boundaries based on class, gender, and ethnicity--moved into immigrant neighborhoods and organized social programs for industrial workers and their families."

Judith E. Harper, writing for Gay and Lesbian Biography, noted that many of Hull House's programs grew out of its specific inhabitants. She explained: "Although Addams and Starr had their own plans for Hull House, they soon discovered the key to Hull House's future success: they allowed the community to instruct them about its needs." Addams garnered support through her charismatic personality as well as her simple force of goodness; in one letter, she wrote to a benefactor: "My dear Mrs. Hart: May we ask you to share our efforts this month to supply actual human needs as well as Christmas cheer and good-will to our hard-pressed neighbors? For forty-three years we have never altogether failed them at Christmas time and we should be more than grateful for help in this year of their many discouragements. With all good wishes of the season, I am faithfully, Jane Addams." Addams's unsentimental, practical style of social work led President Franklin Roosevelt to call her "Chicago's most useful citizen."

Hull House became a tremendous success and a model for other settlement houses around the United States. During this period, Addams began to lecture widely on the principles underlying her work. As Spinelli remarked, the project was in many ways a political act: "The ultimate mission of any democracy was to give voice to the opinions of common working people. Therefore, she maintained, common people should hold a valued place in American society. Settlement houses provided a vehicle by which middle-class men and women could aid in that end: by living among immigrant neighbors they could share their cultural and educational privilege, thereby combating class isolationism and working to temper the ethos of individualism so prevalent at the time."

During this period, too, Addams grew apart from Starr, and instead became attached to another social reformer at Hull House, Mary Rozet Smith. Harper recalls their relationship: "As is true of most nineteenth century romantic female friendships, although Addams's correspondence reveals her emotional and spiritual connection with both Starr and Smith, there is no evidence to suggest that either relationship was sexual in nature." Whether or not the women were lovers, Addams and Smith remained partners for life. With the support of Smith and her community of "neighbors," Addams created and led numerous political organizations, including the National Progressive Party, the Women's Peace Party, International Congress of Women, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, National Conference of Charities and Correction, and the American Women's Suffrage Association.

During the World War I era, Addams became primarily interested in disseminating peace. Since she preached this policy during a time of war, she was branded a traitor; when she pled for relief for the children of Germany after the war, she was further condemned. But in 1931, Addams's lifelong efforts on behalf of those less fortunate "neighbors"--immigrants, defeated foes, children, and working women--earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She died in 1935, having eased much of the suffering of her world.


Family: Born September 6, 1860, in Cedarville, IL; died of intestinal cancer, May 21, 1935; daughter of John Huy (a businessman and senator) and Sarah Weber Addams. Education: Rockford Female Seminary, A.B., 1882; attended Women's Medical College, Philadelphia. Religion: Quaker. Memberships: International Congress of Women (president, 1915), Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, National Progressive Party, Woman's Peace Party (chair, 1915), National Conference of Charities and Correction, American Women's Suffrage Association (vice president).


Nobel Peace Prize, 1931; honorary degree from Yale University (first awarded to a woman), 1910.


Established Hull House, 1889; cofounder, National Women's Trade Union League, 1903; founder and president, National Federation of Settlements, 1911-35; co-organizer, Women's Peace Party, 1915; cofounder, American Civil Liberties Union, 1920. Pacifist, philanthropist, and political activist, from 1890s.


* Philanthropy and Social Progress, T. Crowell (New York, NY), 1893.
* Hull-House Maps and Papers, T. Crowell (New York, NY), 1895.
* Democracy and Social Ethics, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1902, edited by Anne Firor Scott, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1964.
* Newer Ideals of Peace, Chautauqua Press (New York, NY), 1907.
* The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1909.
* Twenty Years at Hull-House, with Autobiographical Notes, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1910.
* A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1912.
* The Long Road of Woman's Memory, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1916.
* Peace and Bread in Time of War, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1922, King's Crown Press (New York, NY), 1945.
* The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1930.
* My Friend, Julia Lathrop, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1935.
* (With others) The Child, the Clinic, and the Court, New Republic (New York, NY), 1970.
* (With others) Philanthropy and Social Progress, Patterson Smith (Montclair, NJ), 1970.
* (With Emily G. Balch and Alice Hamilton) Women at the Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1972.
* (Author of introduction) Abraham Epstein, The Challenge of the Aged, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1976.
* Jane Addams on Peace, War, and International Understanding, 1899-1932, edited by Allen F. Davis, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1976.
* (With Ida B. Wells) Lynching and Rape: An Exchange of Views, American Institute for Marxist Studies (New York, NY), 1977.

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