Jane Addams was a suffragist, social worker, and peacemaker. Addams founded the Hull House in 1889 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
The latter part of the nineteenth century was a time of great industrialization and social inequity in Chicago and the rest of the United States. Rich industrialists were profiting on the cheap labor of immigrants. Medical care and educational benefits were not available for the poor. Cultural events consisted of a night in the local saloon drinking and brawling. Sanitation was mandated in the city, but not enforced. Into this dismal cesspool of Chicago came Jane Addams.
Jane Addams was a wealthy woman raised in a Quaker household. Her mother died early in Addams’s life and her father was left with the task of raising the children. A strongly religious humanitarian, he greatly influenced Addam’s life. Attending college at Rockford University further imbued Addams with a liberal social education. After school she wandered around Europe, perhaps searching for a purpose in her life. Then she heard about Toynbee Hall. During a visit to Oxford she melded the moral implications of Toynbee Hall with the teaching of Abraham Lincoln and came away with a purpose for herself.
Jane Addams Founds Hull House
Addams made the decision that she would not be a rich matron who did part time work for the needy. Instead she would live and work in the community she hoped to serve. Addams created Hull House in 1889 in Chicago and based its premise on the following principles: neighbors helping neighbors, fundamental dignity of all people, and access to opportunity.
Opportunity, to Addams, meant many things. She believed education gave the poor the ability to improve themselves and she thought that cultural education was equally as important as learning the language or arithmetic. The women of Hull House provided theater to the residents and neighbors at a time when most could not afford to go downtown and pay to see a play. Paintings were exhibited at Hull House for all to see.
Chicago’s Crooked Politicians and Sanitation
The members of Hull House got involved with the local politicians over the lack of sanitation in the district. Many a crooked Alderman met his match with Jane Addams. Hull House was also the first institution to have public baths. Concern for the welfare of children brought the members of Hull House into the role of juvenile protectors and they helped push through child labor laws. Hull House also became the site of the first public playground for children.
Jane Addams was not content to sit idly in Hull House. Besides assisting the local residents, she became a political activist. There does not seem to be any bit of social activism that Addams was not involved in. Addams was a viable part of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. She found herself involved in civil rights, women’s suffrage, international peace, court reform, juvenile justice, public health, public housing, civil watchdog, and urban planning. She did not play a minor role in any of these activities. She in fact, instigated most of the reform movements in Chicago and ultimately the nation.
Addams Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
Jane took her ideals with her when she helped found the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was president of the league from 1919 until her death in 1935. Her work for international peace landed her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
The members of Hull House contributed much to the present system of sociological theory and social work in the United States. Most of the reforms initiated by Adams and her partners have become institutionalized today. Even so, the problems of today seem to mirror the problems at the turn of the nineteenth century. The United States has a large population of immigrants, ghettos still exist, corrupt politicians still exist, and the poor still exist.
If there is a lasting legacy for Jane Addams and the members of Hull House, it must be that self-sacrifice and good intentions can influence the rich and help the underprivileged. Today the Hull House organization helps thousands of people and Jane Addams’ spirit lives on.
- Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House. New York: McMillan, 1910
- Addams, Jane. The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements