Single Women who Dared to Live Boldly: Jane Addams

When I was in graduate school I did a presentation on a woman named Jane Addams. I had never heard of her before, but I quickly became a fan. Several years ago I even visited her settlement home, Hull House, in Chicago. This remarkable woman is proof that one person can make a major difference.

Jane Addams was born into a wealthy family. Reared in Chicago, she was well-educated and very well-read, graduating from a women’s seminary in 1881. Jane was part of a new generation of college-educated women. Her accomplishments continued from there.

Like so many women of the earlier generations, Jane Addams suffered from weak health. She tried for years to become a doctor, but her health always prevented her from accomplishing her goal. As with so many others, though, the death of one dream paved the way for another, far better one. Jane was destined for a whole different path.

While she was travelling in London, Jane and a friend visited a settlement house there. These settlement houses sought to address the crushing needs of deep poverty. In a settlement house, rich, educated young women would “settle” into a poor neighborhood, in the hopes of helping to improve the lives of those around them.  In Jane’s time, the divide between rich and poor was enormous; the vast number of immigrants flooding into Chicago only made this problem worse.  These people lived in some of the most squalid conditions imaginable. 

Actually, you can’t imagine it. At least, I couldn’t.  When my friend and I visited Hull House, placards shared a little bit of the life people in that neighborhood experiences- the streets flooded in spring, flowing with mud, garbage, and refuse. They stated that dead horses lay in the streets. Very young children were sometimes chained up in the house to “keep them safe” because there was no one available to watch them. Older children grew up small and stunted, with rickety legs due to a lack of sun exposure in their tall tenement neighborhoods.

This was the situation Jane Addams walked into. Inspired by what she’d seen in London, Jane and her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House- the first settlement house in the United States.  Hull House campaigned for better housing, stricter child-labor laws, and protection for working women.  It offered medical treatment, night school, clubs for children, art classes, a library, and much more. It became a cultural center or art, music, and theater and a safe haven for the poor immigrants of Chicago. Up to twenty-five women lived there at a time, while as many as 2,000 people daily visited the settlement.

Hull House- the first settlement house in the United States. I was so excited to visit here!

Not only that, but Jane also became an activist and social reformer. Many consider her the founder of social work. In a time when small children were often forced to work, Jane argued for the need to play and spend time in recreation- Hull House created one of the first playgrounds in the country.  Jane supported the suffragettes as well, calling for women to have the vote because she believed women were better judges on the needs of education, sanitation, community life (things that should start at home).

When World War I began, Jane again took up the activist mantel, this time to lobby for peace. She was strongly against the war. Her efforts earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first American woman to be awarded one.

Jane Addams defined the strong, independent woman. In an era when most women of her station rarely ventured from their homes, she turned her time, her wealth, and all of her caring on the people that needed it the most. She is a role model and inspiration to all of us.

There are many books and biographies written about Jane Addams, but if you want to learn more about her work at Hull House I recommend a book she wrote herself- Twenty Years at Hull House.

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