Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860. Her father was John Addams a noted politician; he was the Senator in the state of Illinois. The family lived at the state Capitol in Cedarville, Illinois. When Addams was only 2 and1/2 years old, her mother had a serious accident while pregnant – assisting in a neighbor’s childbirth – and she subsequently lost the baby she was carrying and lost consciousness. After five days, the mother died. The young Addams never had the opportunity to see her mother during this brief illness, for she was not permitted to enter her mother’s bedroom or attend the funeral. She had four other siblings. Her oldest sister, Martha, died of typhoid at the age of 16. When Addams was 20 years old, her father passed away.
Religion played a strong role in Addams’ young life. Although the family went to church every week – they were Presbyterian – her father refused to have any particular religious affiliation. He viewed himself as a “perfectionist” Christian. He believed that all deeds should be for the benefit of others. As Addams was growing up in this religious environment, she began to take issue with the idea of predestination, for she felt that human actions had definitive moral consequences. She was influenced by her father’s intellect. She remembered one of his admonitions to her, “Do not pretend to understand what you don’t understand and you must always be honest with yourself inside, whatever happens.” These words resonated with the young woman. In addition, she befriended Elias Hick, an influential Quaker and John Noyes – founder of the utopian Oneida Community in the western region of New York State.
John Addams joined the Republican Party in 1854. He believed that the government had a meaningful and necessary role to play in protecting the vulnerable and strengthening the economy. He was against slavery and even took on the role of a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad – a system set up to assist slaves in breaking the yolk of slavery by secretly leaving the South. Addams was 4 and 1/2 years old when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; her father was profoundly impacted by this tragic event. At the age of 12, she read about Robert Owen and the community of New Harmony in Indiana. Owen had a vision of a classless society whose members worked together to meet everyone’s needs. At the age of 15, she read a long series of articles about John Brown – the radical abolitionist. In her later years she became familiar with the life of Lucy Stone –a well-known abolitionist and suffragist - a woman she came to admire, deeply. All these myriad influences in her life, convinced her to pursue a career in social reform.
As the young Addams matured, she became enthralled with politics; this should be no surprise since she grew up within that arena. She was especially interested in the Presidential election of 1876 – the election was between Samuel J. Tilden form New York and Rutherford B. Hayes from Ohio. Tilden won the popular vote but an electoral controversy had to be resolved in the US House of Representatives where Hayes was declared the winner.
As she was formulating the direction her life would take, Addams decided to practice medicine among the poor. In order to achieve this goal, she was determined to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Although from today’s perspective that does not seem like a formidable task, in that era less than .75% of women went beyond high school. Unlike her three sisters, Mary, Martha and Alice, Addams wanted to attend the recently opened Smith College for women. Her father refused to send her there; he cited her duty to her family. Addams was not happy with her situation; she felt personally thwarted.
Regarding the spiritual dimensions of her life, Addams identified herself as a deist – she did not believe in the Son of God, but envisioned that God was everywhere. It is this kind of independent thinking and resolute behavior that set Addams apart from her contemporaries. In addition, she drew inspiration from a number of free thinking women. Among them was a teacher, Caroline Potter, who believed that the study of history taught about character, for it was character, she believed, that shaped history. Potter and Addams were also deeply influenced by Margaret Fuller’s book - Women in the Nineteenth Century published in 1845. A major thesis in this work was that the division of society into rigidly defined gender spheres damaged both men and women and that for human beings to thrive requires expanding the mind. Fuller went on to conclude that women must discover their masculine aspect, energy, power and intellect as well as the feminine side. Potter believed that her mission was to groom women for what she believed was a new age.
All this input convinced Addams to find an all-consuming passion in a role that would be self-sacrificing. She was determined to shatter the perception that women were, by nature, limited in their minds; she refused to succumb to the notion of women’s inherent powerlessness. On account of her father’s obstinacy, however, she postponed her desire to go on to higher education and received a collegiate certificate in 1881 from Rockford Female Seminary when she was 20 years old. That same year, during the summer, her father died from acute appendicitis. Each child inherited roughly $50,000 (about $1.2 million in today’s economy). Following her father’s death, Addams and family moved to Philadelphia. It was there that she began to fulfill her dream of going to medical school. However, she suffered a long illness (1881-1883) that severely limited her energy and she had to drop out of school.
Undaunted, Addams decided to expand her horizons and traveled to Europe; the year was 1883. She traveled through Ireland, England, Holland, Italy Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France. In London, considered to be biggest city in the world with a population of 4.7 million people, she witnessed extreme and devastating poverty. There, she visited the Mile End Road Market – five miles long that on Saturdays at midnight sold decaying meat, fruits and vegetables to the poor for pennies. Addams was deeply impacted by what she saw. She became obsessed with the suffering of the poor.
In 1885, she returned to the US. Addams read Leo Tolstoy’s My Religion and was deeply taken by what she read. She felt redeemed and wished to emulate Tolstoy’s example and that of Adin Ballou regarding passive non-resistance to evil. She was also influenced by a book entitled, The Duties of Man by the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini. Accordingly, Addams came to believe that serving humanity was a higher calling than serving one’ country or one’s family and that to attain true democracy a person should interact closely with as many individuals as possible. Another writer that had a marked influence on her thinking was John Stuart Mill, especially his book entitled, The Subjugation of Women (1869), in which the author argued that women should have complete latitude in choosing their work. Addams ultimately converted to Christianity, joining the Cedarville Presbyterian Church.
While in London, Addams had the opportunity to visit Toynbee Hall, a so-called settlement house. It was located in London’s East End. It was established by the Anglican Clergyman, Samuel Barnett. Fifteen young graduates from Oxford University moved there, living in an exceedingly poor neighborhood. The purpose of this arrangement was to serve the poor. The model upon which this was based was innovative in that those who were serving the indigent did so on an equal social footing. Addams was so enamored of this idea that together with her good friend, Ellen Gates Starr started a settlement house in Chicago; it came to be called Hull House.
Each day Hull House served the under-privileged including mothers leaving their children in its nursery and the young and the elderly attending classes and social clubs. The policy of Hull House, under Addams’ guidance, was to serve all of those seeking assistance. Addams describes it in the following terms, “The memory of the first years at Hull House is more or less blurred with fatigue, for we could of course become accustomed only gradually to the unending activity and to the confusion of a house constantly filing a refilling with groups of people.” Hull House endured many setbacks but had many successes and helped draw attention to the plight of the poor. It endured for twenty years under her aegis. The work of Hull House exposed many deficiencies in public policy in regards to child labor and the working conditions of the poor. These revelations helped in the overall reform effort and, ultimately, the State of Illinois remedied many of these situations with appropriate legislation.
Addams, due in large part to her eloquence as a public speaker and sharp uncompromising intellect, became a spokeswoman and ally in regards to the issues of peace, social justice and women’s suffrage. She was so influential that she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Addams was hospitalized that same year and was unable to receive her prize and give an acceptance speech. In its stead, the following excerpt is from the presentation speech given by Halvdan Koht, a member of the Nobel Committee on December 10, 1931.
“It must be said, however, that the United States is not the power for peace in the world that we should have wished her to be. She has sometimes let herself drift into the imperialism which is the natural outcome of industrial capitalism in our age. In many ways she is typical of the wildest form of capitalist society, and this has inevitably left its mark on American politics.
“But America has at the same time fostered some of the most spirited idealism on earth. It may be that this idealism derives its vigor from the squalor and evil produced by social conditions, in other words from the contrasts within itself. It is certainly an undeniable fact, which must strike anyone who knows the country that the American nation has an instinctive and profound faith in what the philosophers of 100 or 150 years ago used to call human perfectibility, the capacity to become more and more perfect. It is a faith which has provided the foundation for some of our greatest religions and one which has inspired much of the best work for progress. It was proclaimed by Jesus Christ; it inspired the work of men like Emerson and Wergeland1. To the American mind nothing is impossible. This attitude applies not only to science and technology but to social forms and conditions as well. To an American an ideal is not just a beautiful mirage but a practical reality the implementation of which is every man's duty. American social idealism expresses itself as a burning desire to devote work and life to the construction of a more equitable society, in which men will show each other greater consideration in their mutual relations, will provide stronger protection to the weak, and will offer greater opportunities for the beneficent forces of progress.
“Two of the finest representatives of this American idealism are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today. Both have worked assiduously and for many years to revive the ideal of peace and to rekindle the spirit of peace in their own nation and in the whole of mankind.
“In honoring Jane Addams, we also pay tribute to the work which women can do for peace and fraternity among nations. The old concept implied that woman was the source of nearly all sin and strife on earth. Popular tradition and poetry would also have it that women were frequently the cause of the wars waged by kings and nations. I know of only one legend to the contrary, the story of the Sabine women who threw themselves between their Roman fathers and brothers and their Sabine husbands.
“In modern times the poets, starting with Goethe, Ibsen, and Bjørnson 2, have seen women in a different light; in their eyes women reflect the highest and purest moral standards of society. And no man has placed greater faith in the work of women for the cause of peace than did Bjørnson. It is this new position acquired by women in the society of our time, their new independence in relation to men, that gave us reason to anticipate that they would constitute a new force in the work for peace. Bjørnson seemed to see women as bringing «the spirit of calm to the tumult of battle», with the prayer that love should prevail over the passion to kill, and to believe that when women obtained power in society and in the state, the very spirit of war must die.
“We must nevertheless acknowledge that women have not altogether fulfilled the hopes we have placed in them. They have allowed too much scope to the old morality of men, the morality of war. In practical politics we have seen too little of that love, that warm maternal feeling which renders murder and war so hateful to every woman. But fortunately we have seen something of this feminine will which revolts against war. Whenever women have organized, they have always included the cause of peace in their program. And Jane Addams combines all the best feminine qualities which will help us to develop peace on earth.
“Twice in my life, once more than twenty years ago and now again this year, I have had the pleasure of visiting the institution where she has been carrying on her lifework. In the poorest districts of Chicago, among Polish, Italian, Mexican, and other immigrants, she has established and maintained the vast social organization centered in Hull-House3. Here young and old alike, in fact all who ask, receive a helping hand whether they wish to educate themselves or to find work. When you meet Miss Addams here - be it in meeting room, workroom, or dining room - you immediately become poignantly aware that she has built a home and in it is a mother to one and all. She is not one to talk much, but her quiet, greathearted personality inspires confidence and creates an atmosphere of goodwill which instinctively brings out the best in everyone.
“From this social work, often carried on among people of different nationalities, it was for her only a natural step to the cause of peace. She has now been its faithful spokesman for nearly a quarter of a century. Little by little, through no attempt to draw attention by her work but simply through the patient self-sacrifice and quiet ardor which she devoted to it, she won an eminent place in the love and esteem of her people. She became the leading woman in the nation, one might almost say its leading citizen. Consequently, the fact that she took a stand for the ideal of peace was of special significance; since millions of men and women looked up to her, she could give a new strength to that ideal among the American people.”
Addams died in 1935 and her funeral was held in Hull House, a fitting location. She was a remarkable woman whose life journey is a testimonial to courage, persistence, intellect and an unflinching dedication to a life of service.