My Hero: Jane Addams
I have always admired the accomplishments of Jane Addams. One Halloween when we were expecting a visit from program monitors from the Department of Human Resources, I dressed up as Addams because I thought they’d appreciate the social work link. I think of a Family Support Center, the kind established by Maryland Family Network, as a version of a settlement house like Hull House. What I didn’t know was that Jane Addams studied early childhood development and established settlement houses to care for poor children while their parents worked. Here’s the transcript from Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac on September 6, about my hero.
Sep. 6, 2016: birthday: Jane Addams
Today is the birthday of social reformer, activist, and peace worker Jane Addams (1860), known as the “Mother of Social Services.” She co-founded Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the United States. Addams was born Laura Jane Addams to a wealthy Quaker family in Cedarville, Illinois. She was the eighth of nine children, several of whom died in infancy. Her father spent 16 years as a state senator and also owned flour and lumber mills. He doted on Jane, whose mother died when she was two.
At the age of four, Jane developed tuberculosis of the spine, also known as Pott’s disease. From then on, she had a limp and a curve to her back, which made her self-conscious. She began to read voraciously, especially the work of Charles Dickens, and thought perhaps she had a calling working for the poor and needy.
Addams graduated from Rockford Seminary and studied medicine in Philadelphia, but she was also ill and underwent surgery on her spine, which kept her bedridden and depressed. When she was well enough, she and her friend Ellen G. Starr traveled to Europe for 21 months. While visiting Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London’s East End, Addams began thinking seriously about the poverty in Chicago. In London, she saw a bedraggled man tear into an unwashed and uncooked cabbage on the street. In her memoir, Twenty Years of Hull House (1910), she wrote, “Perhaps nothing is so fraught with significance as the human hand, this oldest tool with which man has dug his way from savagery, and with which he is constantly groping forward.”
In 1889, Addams and Starr leased a neglected mansion at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets in Chicago. The building needed repairs, but they received a 25-year rent-free lease. They convinced the wealthy daughters of Chicago’s elite to serve as volunteers and within two years, Hull House was helping more than 2,000 people a week. The neighborhood was filled with immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Greece. Addams added an art gallery, kindergarten classes, a book bindery, public kitchen, and gymnasium. Addams had studied early childhood behavior and the plight of immigrant children, often left at home, sometimes tied to chairs, while their parents worked, disturbed her. Hull House opened a daycare and the first public playground in the city of Chicago (1893).
By 1913, Hull House had added 13 more buildings. By 1920, there were almost 500 settlement houses across the United States. Addams wrote several books on social reform, settlement houses, poverty, and peace, including Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), and Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922). Addams’s anti-war lectures got her expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution and earned her the nickname “Bull Mouse” from Teddy Roosevelt.
Jane Addams was a founding member of the Progressive Party (1912) and the American Civil Liberties Union (1920). And she was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University (1910).
Jane Addams was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (1931). She was admitted to a Baltimore hospital after suffering a heart attack on the very day that the award was being given in Oslo, Norway.
From the day Hull House opened until the day she died (1935), Jane Addams never lived anywhere else.