Jane Addams (1860 – 1935)

Here was a pampered young socialite who launched a social revolution in the United States. She was to become the darling of the masses and the princess of the media, earning praise from presidents and Kings. But her desire to make the world a better place to live would eventually boomerang, leading some to call Jane Addams the “most dangerous woman in America.” To understand this controversial woman it is necessary to understand the world in which she lived. The world of the late 19th Century.

Jane Addams was born in 1860 to wealthy parents. Her father was an Illinois State Senator. Shortly after graduating from college Jane traveled to Europe. While in London she became interested in British settlement houses where poor working mothers could leave their children for instruction and care. She returned to America fired with a plan to improve Chicago’s urban immigrants. Miss Addams bought a dilapidated old building in the heart of the slums and founded the Hull House in 1889. Here at the Hull House the poor immigrant mothers received instruction in English, art, history, cooking, sewing, and music. Working mothers had access to a day-care nursery and kindergarten, as well as a laundry, library, medical dispensary, employment bureau and art gallery. By 1893 the Hull House was America’s most famous settlement house.
Hoping to upgrade the shocking filth and overcrowded slums, Addams and her co-workers tirelessly pressured politicians to enforce sanitation regulations. Slowly the City of Chicago began to clean the streets and remove the garbage. Eventually the City made the slum landowners improve their properties and reduce the overcrowding. Her books, including
The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909) and Twenty Years at Hull House (1910), spread the gospel of social work. The pioneering work of Jane Addams blazed the trail that many women later followed into careers in this new profession of working with the disadvantaged.
But social work wasn’t enough for Jane Addams. She branched out into women’s suffrage and international peace movements. It was her commitment to peace that brought “America’s sweetheart” crashing to earth. She demanded that the United States government not get involved in World War I. Her critics assailed Jane Addams as a Communist sympathizer and a harbinger of Bolshevik revolution. Many super-patriotic Americans branded her “the most dangerous woman in America.” Through it all, Jane Addams denied any ties with subversive elements. Near the end of the 1920’s the so-called Red Scare had passed and once again her contributions to society became appreciated.
In 1931, at the age of 71, Jane Addams received the Noble Peace Prize. She died 4 years later of inoperative cancer. Looking back we find that she never had a serious romantic relationship with a man. When asked why she never married, she said that men “did not want to marry women of the new type, and women could not fulfill the two functions of profession and homemaking until modern invention had made a new type of housekeeping practicable.” Nearly half of all female college graduates in the late nineteenth century remained unmarried. But that was to change with the invention of the vacuum sweeper.