Jane Addams: Cultural Feminist

rainbowguyFor Americans living during the first decades of the 20th century, Jane Addams seemed to be a Victorian matron: prim and proper, with a hint of lavender on her lace collars and a mothering instinct in everything she said and did. That characterization did not capture the real Addams, however, who was a determined, tireless advocate for the rights and the dignity owed to us all. With her feminist sensibilities and her resolute commitment to social progress, her public life was a long and unfaltering pursuit of the means to improve the human condition. Her work made her one of the most renowned and respected figures of her time.

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The world into which she was born in 1860 was very different than it is today. It believed that a proper Victorian woman’s place was in the home. Men went out into the world, pursuing careers and social lives denied to their wives and daughters, whose opportunities were limited. Many women had little choice but to stay at home, hoping that their husband returned soon and sober.

Addams would have none of it. The eighth of nine children born to an affluent Illinois businessman, she could have lived the life of privilege her father’s wealth and position provided. Instead, she wanted to do something useful in the world. Encouraged by her family, she decided to become a physician and to live and work among the poor. Unfortunately, health problems prevented her from completing her medicical studies at the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia. Dejected, she returned home, unsure of a new direction for her life.

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A magazine article changed her life. In 1887, reading about settlement houses in Great Britain, created to bring all social classes together into a shared community of effort, she saw her purpose. She and Ellen Gates Starr, a dear and intimate friend from college days, visited London’s Toynbee Hall. They were so impressed that two years later they founded Hull House in Chicago, the first settlement house in the United States. “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain,” she said, “until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Named after the building’s original owner, Hull House provided services for the immigrants and disadvantaged living in the neighborhood surrounding it. Over the years, the facility grew to include more than 10 buildings and programs to provide child care, education courses, a public kitchen, and other social services. It offered kindergarten classes, clubs for older children, a gym, a bathhouse, a music school, a drama group, an art gallery, and a library. Its night school for adults was a forerunner of the continuing education classes offered by many universities today.

Many prominent social workers and reformers visited Hull House. One who stayed was Mary Rozet Smith, who arrived in 1890 and became Addams’ constant companion for the next forty years. The women worked closely together during the day and shared a home at night. She and Smith thought of themselves as a married couple, so when they travelled together, Addams always notified their hotels to have a double bed in their room for their comfort; they wrote each other daily when apart.

A  scandal about their private lives would have destroyed Addams’ reputation and ended her work, but neither woman made an attempt to hide their relationship. “They understood,” wrote Lilliam Faderman, “that they could rely on the protective coloring of pearls and ladylike appearance and of romantic friendship, which was not yet dead in America.” The fig leaf of Victorianism, which saw women as essentially unsexual and disinterested in physical relationships, covered a naked sexual truth behind which Addams and Smith – and other couples –  could lead their lives together.

Addams, the most visible and influencial woman of her time, was not alone. She was at the forefront of an exceptional generation who also declined to accept their traditional roles of daughter, sister, wife, and mother. Often from wealthy families, which gave them the social and financial stability to pursue their own lives, they typically were the first in their family to pursue intererests outside the home.

Like Addams, many became activists for social reform. Among them, Frieda Miller and her life partner Pauline Newman led women’s efforts to organize labor unions and eliminate sweatshop conditions. Martha May Eliot, a graduate of Radcliffe College and Johns Hopkins Medical School, where she met her life partner Ethel Durham, served on the faculty of Yale Medical School and strove to improve child hygiene and wellness. Frances Perkins, the first woman to become a cabinet secretary, worked to better conditions as an investigator for New York City’s Consumer’s League; Eleanor Roosevelt also worked there. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, her constant companion, successfully fought for women’s suffrage and other human rights for women.

Addams’ long career as social reformer moved her to become a deeply committed peace activist. Many criticized her for her pacificism, but the world approved. In 1931 she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to be so honored. Sadly, Addams, who had been troubled by health problems since childhood, was unable to attend the awards ceremony. She died in 1935, but her “vision of social morality rooted in a life dedicated to social progress” continues to influence social reform for human betterment in the United States and throughout the world.

Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.