Rutherford H. Platt: The timeless moral compass of Jane Addams

Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jane Addams, who established Chicago’s Hull House 125 years ago this summer, may be the most important American woman that you have barely heard of.

Addams has all but vanished from the pantheon of American history, though she was called “one of the greatest public citizens of the 20th century” by Jean Bethke Elshtain.

She was founder of the American settlement house movement, disciple of Lincoln, Tolstoy and Gandhi, social and economic reformer, labor unionist, feminist, suffragist, pacifist, internationalist, ethicist, founding board member of the NAACP and the ACLU, advisor to eight U.S. presidents, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prolific author and public speaker.

This century’s foremost public tribute to her was the naming of the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway west of Chicago in 2007. Can you imagine her reaction?

Spelled with a “double D” (as Abraham Lincoln affectionately nicknamed her father), Jane was no relation to the aristocratic “Single D” Adams line of Massachusetts. She was a product of small-town, populist Illinois, a descendant of pioneers, whose father was a respected local entrepreneur and state legislator.

Her lifetime, which extended from the onset of the Civil War into the Great Depression (1860-1935), spanned the coming of age of the United States as an industrial dynamo, a military superpower and a nation of cities.

America’s cities by the late 19th century were cauldrons of social and economic injustice to factory workers, immigrants, women, children, African-Americans and non-Protestants. In 1889, inspired by a visit to Toynbee House in London, Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr rented a pre-Civil War mansion surrounded by tenements on Halsted Street near downtown Chicago which they named Hull House.

Their goal: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises; and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.”

The “business plan” for Hull House was to recruit educated and idealistic young women — like Addams and Gates themselves — who would agree to live at the house for substantial periods of time as volunteers to work with and befriend the immigrants living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Hull House was quickly replicated: By 1900, there were more than 100 settlement houses in the United States, which doubled by 1905, and doubled again to 400 by 1910. Many leading women reformers of the era were associated with Hull House including Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Dr. Alice Hamilton, Lillian Wald and Frances Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and first woman cabinet member.

Philanthropic support enabled Hull House to expand to 13 buildings by 1910, adding dining facilities, a gymnasium, coffee house, library, auditorium, art gallery, cooperative apartments, meeting spaces and classrooms. Hull House early on established the city’s first kindergarten and hosted countless social clubs and classes in English, cooking, sewing, carpentry and other life skills for immigrant youths and adults. It sponsored programs of arts, theater, poetry and literature, drawing on the broader cultural resources of the city and the nearby University of Chicago (founded in 1892).

The city’s first playground was established there in 1893, and Addams would head the Playground Association of America founded in 1906.

More than refuge

Hull House was more than a safe, warm and welcoming refuge for newly arrived immigrants. After visiting Leo Tolstoy in Russia in 1895, Addams embraced his conviction that “good works” such as Hull House were “a mere pretense and travesty of the simple impulse ‘to live with the poor’ as long as the residents did not share in the common lot of hard labor and scant fare.”

Hull House members sought to learn the needs of their neighbors and help meet them, rather than imposing their own preconceptions.

Louise Knight’s 2010 biography “Jane Addams: Spirit in Action,” chronicles the many social and political reforms promoted by Hull House and its allies. Addams supported the workers in the 1894 Pullman Strike and thereafter mobilized support for state and federal labor legislation.

Her cadre of young women mapped housing and sanitary conditions in the Halsted Street area that was published as Hull House Maps and Papers in 1895, a pioneering exercise in sociology and urban geography. Addams used the maps of filth and uncollected garbage to shame the mayor into appointing her as garbage inspector for the 19th Ward.

Collecting garbage from neighborhood streets symbolized the earthy, bottom-up efforts by settlement house members to improve living conditions for the poor and powerless. By contrast, the city beautiful movement — another turn-of-the-century progressive crusade — catered to the rich and powerful with a top-down program of grandiose buildings, tree-lined boulevards, and formal public spaces, as epitomized by Daniel H. Burnham’s famous 1909 Plan of Chicago.

Addams and Burnham each sought to “improve” the city from very different perspectives. According to the late Janice Metzger, “Jane Addams and other settlement leaders chose to live in the neighborhoods and improve them from within, in collaboration with people already living there. Burnham [who lived in the leafy suburb of Evanston] and the Commercial Club sought to impose ‘order’ from afar, represented by bird’s-eye-views in the Plan of Chicago, beautiful but dehumanized representations of order, requiring wholesale demolition of existing neighborhoods [including that of Hull House].”

My book, “Reclaiming American Cities,” suggests that the Addams–Burnham divide foreshadowed a century of struggle between top-down and bottom-up urban agendas.

By the 1910s, Addams was widely renowned, receiving countless accolades and awards including at least five honorary doctoral degrees.

However, her unflinching opposition to American involvement in the First World War as leader of the Woman’s Peace Party subjected her to a storm of criticism and “blacklisting,” from which her reputation perhaps never fully recovered. The Nobel Peace Prize for 1931, which she shared with Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler, placed her in league with later political dissident laureates like Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.

Addams is surprisingly under-appreciated today.

Of course, she would not expect any more personal honors: she has her Nobel and her Tollway.

But her unfailing moral compass and powers of persuasion are sorely needed today when so many issues she confronted are more intractable than ever: economic inequality, immigration, minimum wage, public health, civil liberties, affordable housing, racism, militarism, and corruption of democracy by plutocrats and demagogues.

And we also have a small problem called climate change.

Are there any more Janes out there?

Rutherford H. Platt of Northampton is professor of geography emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature Since 1900” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).


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