The rich girl driven to help the poor

June 2, 2006

Jane Addams, one of America's most admired women, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. The co-founder of the well-known Hull House settlement, a social reformer and a public intellectual, she was prominent during her lifetime and eulogised after her death in 1935. Yet strangely, despite the outpouring of essays about her, scholarly biographies have been few. The first, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (1973) by Allen F. Davis, was unsympathetic, arguing that its subject gained fame not because of her passionate desire for reform but because she sought celebrity as an end in itself.

Louise Knight, in this impressive book that covers only the first half of her subject's life, offers an insightful, more persuasive interpretation. Addams, who was born to wealthy parents in 1860 in the small town of Cedarville in rural Illinois, was only two years old when her mother died. She adored the widowed father who brought her up. John Addams, a banker, state senator, abolitionist and friend of the great Abraham Lincoln, was an evangelical Christian whose religious ideas were closest to those of Hicksite Quakers. The dutiful daughter absorbed his civic conscience, his moral earnestness and his passionate individualism. At the tender age of six, she announced that she wanted to live among the poor, doing good works.

When John remarried, a number of tensions developed between the solemn but quietly determined Jane and her fiery, cultured but capricious stepmother. But the two learnt to co-exist. The serious-minded Jane escaped to her books and dreamt of becoming a doctor tending the working classes. However, her ambitious plan to attend Smith College was dashed when her father insisted that she go to an all-female boarding school, Rockford Seminary. Nonetheless, the academically gifted pupil thrived in this community of women, becoming the outstanding girl of her year.

The death of her father in 1881 was a devastating blow, although her inheritance gave Addams the financial resources to gain a degree. She enrolled at the Woman's Medical College in Philadelphia but withdrew. She grew physically ill and depressed and felt guilty about dividing her time between her studies and her unhappy stepmother. For eight years, during her twenties, she floundered, leading the conventional female life to which she had been born - visiting family, travelling in Europe, pursing a study of culture. But her great longing to do something for the poor remained. In 1887, Addams was deeply impressed by an article she read about a new form of philanthropic organisation in the East End of London where young male graduates lived in a settlement house, Toynbee Hall, trying to enrich the lives of the working classes in the community around them. She wanted to found a similar venture in Chicago but suppressed her ambition, believing that she should try to lead a submissive, obscure private life, like most women of her class. Some months later, the troubled Addams changed her mind; she had failed to act on her beliefs and felt ashamed of her selfishness. The decision changed the course of her life.

In 1889, shortly after her 29th birthday, Addams moved into an industrialised, working-class, mainly immigrant neighbourhood of Chicago and, together with her close friend, Ellen Gates Starr, a schoolteacher, co-founded Hull House. Soon other women joined them, including Florence Kelley and Mary Rozet Smith.

Addams appears never to have had a romantic interest in men, finding emotional fulfilment in her friendships with women, particularly with Starr and then with Smith. The group of dedicated upper-middle class women resident at Hull House offered a range of social, cultural and educational activities to the poor in their neighbourhood, including a free weekly series of public lectures about social and economic issues. Hull House soon established a reputation for radicalism. It also launched Addams as a campaigner fighting for improved labour laws for women and children, for better sanitation services, for an end to corruption in city politics, for votes for women, and for peace. She eagerly took part in debates about "democracy", that central value of American life; her first book, Democracy and Social Ethics , was published in 1902.

Unfortunately, this compelling biography ends abruptly at the beginning of the 20th century. It is to be hoped that Knight will write a second volume that covers the later years of her subject's life because she gives in this volume a vivid portrait of a powerful mind that struggled against the conventions of her day. After all, Addams, the great American urban reformer, helped to shape the radical ideas of her time and was more than a daddy's girl.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy

Author - Louise W. Knight
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 582
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 0 226 44699 9

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