The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.
– Jane Addams, pioneer in settlement house movement, founder of Hull House, public philosopher, sociologist, author, pacifist, and leader in woman suffrage and world peace
Today is Jane Addams’s birthday. She was born in 1860 and died on May 21, 1935. I learned about Addams as a child, though I’m unsure whether I read about her in or outside the classroom. The only thing I can think of is that one of my female teachers in elementary school admired her and wanted us to read about her accomplishments. Then again, our library carried a series of old books about famous women who made important contributions in our country. These books highlighted an event in their childhoods that shaped who they eventually became. Pretty visionary reading for the early 1970s and in our tiny, rural school library, no less.
I remember Addams as the co-founder of Hull House, a settlement house, in the west side of Chicago. When it opened its doors in 1889, Addams and fellow co-founder Ellen Gates Starr welcomed the recently arrived European immigrants. Addams’s vision for the settlement house was to enable a community of university women to provide social and educational opportunities for working-class people in the neighborhoods. These women volunteers taught classes in art, domestic activities, history, literature, and other subjects. Hull House also offered lectures and concerts.
Addams advanced what she called the “three R’s” of settlement house movement: residence, research, and reform. She felt that creating a community with the neighbors, studying the causes of poverty, and educating the public were necessary in order to drive change through legislative and social reform. Addams was the quintessential Renaissance woman – volunteering as an on-call physician and taking on the role of midwife, nursing the sick, protecting women of domestic abuse, and even preparing the dead for burial. She fought to shield children from child labor abuses and helped lead the movement for women’s rights, healthcare reform, and immigration policy. She was an advocate for playgrounds, founding the National Playground Association. She studied child behavior and understood the importance of creating a healthy environment in which children could thrive and a healthy foundation in which they could grow up to be productive citizens.
What is amazing to me is that Jane Addams suffered many childhood ailments. At the age of four, she was stricken with tuberculosis of the spine and Potts’s disease, which resulted in curvature of the spine and contributed to health issues that plagued her the rest of her life. After her father died unexpectedly and she received her inheritance, Jane Addams moved with her family from Cedarville, Illinois, to Philadelphia. She had a promising future studying medicine at the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia, but spinal surgery and a nervous breakdown sidelined her and kept her from finishing her education and receiving her medical degree. When her stepmother fell ill, the family moved back to Cedarville. (Side note: Her mother died in childbirth when she was two years old. She was the youngest of nine children, although by the time she was eight years old, she had lost three siblings in their infancy and another when at age 16.)
Her brother-in-law performed surgery to straighten her back and advised her to travel instead of return to her studies. In 1883, she and her stepmother went to Europe for two years. It was at this time that she discovered that she didn’t have to become a physician to help the poor. But when she returned to the U.S., she also returned to the prison-like confines of young women of her socio-economic class and as a result she fell into despair. During this bleak period in her life, however, she turned to books and read many that influenced and shaped her ideas about democracy and socialism and the role of women. When she read magazine article about the new concept of settlement houses in the summer of 1887, hope was restored, life became promising again and bigger than her expected role in society, and her future path was forged.
She overcame numerous medical and social adversities with all that she accomplished. She was the first female president of the National Conference of Social Work, created the National Federation of Settlements, and served as president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Jane Addams was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931,albeit as a co-winner with a male educator and presidential advisor. If anything, Jane Addams embodies for me the woman who is all too human and as such, living in the suffocating and repressed Victorian era, endures a wandering of the desert, so to speak, before finding her purpose in life, finding her voice, and finding the strength to do something useful in the world, which was an ambition of hers when she was a teen.
As I struggle to find the time and the energy to finally accomplish what I had dreamed of an idealistic young woman, I look up to Jane Addams and admire what she was up against and overcame – at a time when the political and social worlds were solidly against her – and gather tremendous strength. My battles are insignificant and therefore easily vanquished. Happy Birthday, Jane Addams! May you inspire legions of young girls and women of all ages to find their place in the world and in so doing make the world a better place.