I remember being pretty troubled once in high school when someone asked me who my heroes were and I had to admit, I had none. In fact, I worried about it for quite some time because (I was told) those without heroes have nothing to pattern their life after, and trust too much in themselves. (Yikes!) That’s the type of thing to worry a 17 year old with, trust me.
Lucky for me, I have several heroes now so I’m not on the path to moral dissolution. Today, I’d like to share my favorite hero with you – Jane Addams.
Jane Addams was born in 1860 to into a fairly well-to-do family. Her father, who was a politician and capitalist, had an enormous influence on her life. Her mother died early in her life, which one biographer believes caused Addam’s few intimate relationships in life. Addams father remarried shortly after this, and her relationship with her step-mother is somewhat strained, though still amicable throughout her life. Addams early life was one of privilege and study. She was a smart girl, and her father encouraged her ambitions to attend a two year college (though eventually she wanted to go on to get her degree at a fully accredited college.) Obviously this was fairly abnormal in the 1870’s.
In college she was a gifted writer and leader and she developed the ambition to be a nurse. Unfortunately, her graduation coincided with her father’s death, and also a serious illness coupled with depression, which also manifested in some physical difficulties. In order to rest, she embarks on a tour of Europe with her step-mother and some friends, a common activity for well-to-do turn-of-the-century women. This is the point where her story gets truly interesting. While in England she sees some desperate poverty, the likes of which she has never seen before and she begins to think – I don’t want to be a nurse – I want to make a difference with people who are abysmally poor and broken. She visits the first Settlement House (Toynbee Hall) in England. This plants some seeds in her mind, but she doesn’t quite know where to go with them. She continues her travels throughout Europe, including meeting Tolstoy in Russia, and having a particularly poignant and life altering moment as she’s at a bull-fight in Spain.
When she returns to America she ruminates over her idea for several years. In 1889 she and several friend make plans and then rent (with the inheritance from her father’s death) a large house in Chicago, called Hull House, with the goal to make it a settlement house like Toynbee Hall. The goal is to live there and alleviate suffering in the predominantly Italian immigrant neighborhood, to spread the culture of the upper classes, to teach and provide for the needs both physical, spiritual, and cultural of the area residents. It is also to expose upper-class women (and men) to the lower classes.
From here she gradually builds up a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. She conducts what might be termed ethnographic studies, she gets involved in politics to combat child labor, campaign for women’s suffrage, a shorter work week, she founds a peace movement, she lectures, she writes, she tours, she gives advice to presidents, and the whole time she’s living at Hull House providing care and classes.
She’s a national hero until World War I, when she continues to champion peace, and the nation has none of it. She then become vilified for the next twelve years. So she turns her focus to Europe, traveling organizing and continuing to write and lecture on Peace.
Until she is unable any longer she writes, promotes peace, and women’s rights. She dies in 1935.
A few reasons why I really admire Jane:
Her perseverance – Jane has her first inkling that she want to do public good when she is 18. She doesn’t actually accomplish anything in this vein until she is 30, and even then she isn’t recognized for it until she is about 40. Additionally, despite setbacks and criticism she always pursues what is morally and ethically correct.
Her compassion – Jane, from the first, chooses a field which is not glamorous. Sure, there weren’t a lot of “fields” available for women to go into either, but she picked one with social impact. She believed that when good is done, it’s done in groups and for group of people. Self improvement is important, but social improvement is even better.
Her humility – She didn’t seek out these positions of power, yet, they came to her. Jane is repeatedly asked to be on committees and chairs and she says yes, or suggests others who can be of service. She also continually evaluates her motives and reasons for doing things, and once she realizes she harbors incorrect motives, she changes them.
Her scholarship – Jane is considered to be one of the earliest women sociologists, along with the other Chicago School men, and is widely respected by other scholars (such as William James) as well. She’s also very prolific as a writer, even amidst her other duties.
I recommend reading more about Jane Addams and her work at Hull House. You could pick up 20 Years at Hull House, which used to be required reading in schools. Or, like I am right now, you could dive into her 1907 book, Democracy and Social Ethics. Earlier this year I read her most recently published biography Spirit in Action by Louise W. Knight, and I recommend that too.