Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy

Note:  This paper was delivered to the Central Pennsylvania Torch Club 6/13/2012

For much of the first half of the 20th century, Jane Addams was one of the best-known American women in the world.  The founder of Hull House, she was also a leader of social reform nationally and internationally, a true public intellectual, and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Today, she is less well known.  Her influence lives on, but this year suffered a setback when Hull House closed after 123 years of service to the people of Chicago and beyond.  This is a good time to look back on Jane Addams’ contributions to how Americans think about their communities and about democracy in general.
Early Life
            Addams was born in Illinois in 1860, the daughter of a wealthy mill owner.  John Addams served eight terms in the Illinois Senate and was a friend and supporter Abraham Lincoln and widely known as a man of principle.  Her mother died when she was three, so her father became a major influence on her thinking.  Similarly, Lincoln’s ideals became a continual source of strength for her in later years.  At the age of 17, she entered Rockford Seminary and, upon graduation in 1881, moved to Philadelphia, where she hoped to attend the Woman’s Medical College.  However, her health failed, due to the combination of her shock over her father’s death, illness, and complications from a spinal injury she suffered in childhood.  She was forced to end her studies.  She spent the next few months in bed and struggled with trying to find a new way to fulfill her need to live a useful life.  On her doctor’s advice, she traveled to Europe.  At first, she used travel to expand her knowledge of arts, architecture, and languages, like many young people before her.  During a second trip, however, she visited Toynbee Hall, an innovative “settlement”—a residential outreach program—that had just been founded in the slums of London’s East End in 1884.  It gave her a concrete model for how she could create that “useful life” that she so wanted to life.  She decided to devote her energies to working with the poor and to create a place where educated young women could put their ideals into action.   When she returned to Illinois, she and her friend and collaborator Ellen Gates Starr rented an old mansion on the West Side of Chicago, which became Hull House, one of the first Settlement Houses in the U.S.
            The story of Jane Addams in inextricably linked to the story of Chicago.  In the 1890s, Chicago had become America’s second-largest city and a microcosm of the impact that the Industrial Revolution was having on American society and culture.  H.G. Wells described Chicago as “the most perfect presentation of nineteenth century individualist industrialism I have ever seen” (Citizen, p. 186).   The Industrial Revolution began as a transportation revolution, and Chicago had become a transportation hub, connecting the settled east and the new communities of the American west.   As the Chicago Stockyards attest, it had also became both an agricultural and manufacturing center.  More importantly, it was a city of immigrants.  Seventy-eight percent of Chicago’s 1 million population in 1890 were either foreign-born, the children of immigrants, or African Americans
            Chicago was also a microcosm of the changing social currents that were reshaping American life.  The Haymarket Riot, which began when someone threw a bomb at police as they broke up a peaceful labor demonstration for an 8-hour workday—happened just two years before Hull House opened.  It illustrates the complex confrontations among Robber Baron industrialists, immigrant labor, urbanization, and radical ideologies—from social Darwinism to socialism, to anarchism—that were coming into conflict as the Industrial Age reached its full maturity in the U.S.
            At the same time, in this turmoil-filled environment, Chicago had already earned its reputation for political corruption.   
Hull House
Addams and Starr scanned the teeming cultural mix of Chicago’s working class neighborhoods and decided to focus on the west side, on Halstead Street in Chicago’s 19th Ward.  The area was, essentially, an immigrant slum.  Eighteen nationalities were represented.   They began by renting what came to be called Hull House (after the man who built it).  They based their plans for the settlement on Toynbee Hall, with three distinct differences:
·      First, their settlement house would focus specifically on working with immigrants, who dominated the neighborhood.
·      They expected that mostly women would be attracted to be residents at Hull House.
·      Third, the settlement would focus on what Addams described as the “western American” approach to social classes.  She had been unimpressed by way the English social class system shaped the work at Toynbee Hall.  The goal, as Ellen Starr wrote in a letter to a friend, was “to learn to know the people and understand them and their way of life; to give them what we have to give out of our culture and leisure and over-indulgence and to receive the culture that comes out of self-denial and poverty and failure, which these people have always known” (Citizen, p. 181).
            Their work was based in three guiding ethical principles:  (1) to teach by example, (2) to practice cooperation, and (3) to practice social democracy.   In describing “teaching by example,” Addams used the metaphor of the grandmother’s quality of emotional engagement guided by intuition and experience.  Variations on her basic idea were also being developed by John Dewey, who had come to the University of Chicago to open a laboratory school and who often lectured at Hull House.  The second principle combined cooperation and nonresistance.  As Addams described it, the goal represented by this principle was “to live with opposition to no man, with recognition of the good in every man, even the meanest.” (Citizen, p. 184).    This idea—of encouraging cooperation and avoiding antagonism, not taking sides—would also mark Addams’ later work in labor relations and the peace movement.  The third principle—practicing social democracy—was based on the notion that there are three dimensions of democracy—political democracy, economic democracy, and social democracy, or social equality.  It required that the Hull House residents treat everyone with equal courtesy, regardless of their social position, cleanliness, language, or education.
            Addams and Starr began by visiting their neighbors, some of whom were a bit distrustful.  For instance, some thought they were trying to convert them to Protestantism.  Addams decided that there would be no religious instruction at Hull House.  But, as they listened to their neighbors, they began to hear their stories and understand their needs.  They organized several different kinds of activities in response.
            Among the first were children’s clubs.  They learned that working mothers often had to lock their children inside their rooms while they went to work.   Since the normal work shift was 11 hours, this created significant health and safety issues for children of working mothers.   Addams and Starr organized two boys clubs and, later, a third, a drawing class, and, a weekday morning kindergarten. 
            They also offered weekly social receptions for adults, organized around ethnic groups, and a “Working People’s Social Science Club,” which included weekly public lectures on economic and social issues.  Addams later noted that the Social Science Club gave Hull House an “early reputation for radicalism.”  Meetings were held at 8 p.m. so that workers could attend after their 11-hour work shift.  Topics—chosen by the community—included strikes, socialism, trade unions, progressive taxation, unemployment, Christian socialism, etc.    The Wednesday night events drew people from across Chicago’s social strata, creating a cross-class and cross-ideology discussion of these issues.
            They also launched formal adult education classes—the first adult college extension courses in Chicago—academically rigorous courses in literature and art—that attracted factory workers, teachers, bank tellers, and others.  Eventually, this program would be incorporated into the new University of Chicago’s extension program.
            Less easy to categorize were activities that encompassed what Addams called “being neighborly”—going out into the community to see what they, individually and as a Settlement, could to do help individuals.  This included baby-sitting for working mothers, mind the sick, and attending the dying.   It was in this arena that they really began to learn about the their neighbors and the struggles that dominated their day-to-day lives.  Addams sprinkled anecdotes about this dimension of Hull House’s work in Hallstead Street neighborhood throughout her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull House.
Involvement in Social Movements
            It was, perhaps, inevitable that Addams—and Hull House, more generally—would become involved in the broader social issues that affected the neighborhood and the broader community of Chicago.  Her role as a civic activist began when she called attention to the serious problem of garbage collection in the neighborhood.  In those days, Chicago contracted with private firms to collect garbage.  However, Chicago government was corrupt, and collection in neighborhood was practically non-existent.  It had become a significant health issue in the neighborhood.  When Addams raised the issue, the solution was to name her Garbage Inspector.  She and a friend went out every week to monitor garbage collection and to report problems.  It was, in consideration, very good training for what was to follow.  
            Municipal corruption remained a serious issue in Chicago, and in 1893 Addams was invited to join a committee to organize the Civic Federation of Chicago, designed to concentrate “in one . . . nonpolitical nonsectarian center all the forces that are now laboring to advance our municipal, philanthropic, industrial, and moral interests, and to . . . energize . . . the conscience of Chicago.”  This was part of a national movement:  in 1894, there were more than eighty similar federations around the country.  Most—unlike the Chicago Federation—did not allow women as members.  For Addams, it was an opportunity to expand her vision.  She represented the 19th Ward on the Central Council and also served on the Board of Directors and the Industrial Committee, as well as a special committee to create Lakeside Park.  It was her introduction to a broader role as a social reformer.
The Pullman Strike             In May of 1894, in the midst of a national economic depression, a major strike erupted at the Pullman Car Works in Chicago.  It was the result of dual pressures that the company had placed on its workers.  George Pullman had achieved international recognition by creating company towns for his workers.   However, in the economic crisis, two things happened:  First, foreman began to require that all Pullman workers move into the company town and rent homes there, as a way of increasing company revenues.  Second, the company cut wages by an average of 30 percent.   The result was that many families struggled to make ends meet.  “We struck at Pullman,” one worker said, “because we were without hope.”  The company refused to negotiate.  It locked out the 2,500 strikers and laid off the remaining 600 employees.  The strike broadened when, on June 26, the railroad workers union voted to boycott trains with Pullman cars and the General Managers Association, representing 24 railroad companies serving Chicago, agreed to fire any workers who refused to handle Pullman cars.  Eventually, the boycott affected more than 200,000 workers in 27 states and territories.  The General Managers Association arranged for one of its lawyers to be named a U.S. Special Attorney who then hired several hundred unemployed men, deputizing and arming them as U.S. Marshals to guard federal mail cars.
            Jane Addams, as a member of the Civic Federation’s Industrial Committee, was asked to sit on a Conciliation Board, to serve as a neutral third party for arbitration.   She focused on the principle of cooperation, insisting on taking no side and hoping to bring both sides together.   The result was extreme criticism from all sides.  The boycott was broken in August 1895, and the ARU died.  In the aftermath, a national commission was established to push for federal legislation requiring arbitration in future strikes.  Jane Addams was elected Secretary of the Commission.
            She also was active as a social reformer in other areas, working for legislation to reducing the working day for women from 11 hours to 8 and advocating the right of women to vote.  She was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.   Increasingly, she was widely sought as a speaker and writer, using the proceeds to maintain Hull House, which had quickly absorbed her small inheritance.   By 1915, she was one of the best-known public intellectuals in America.
Pacifism and the Nobel Prize
            Her popularity suffered significantly with the beginning of World War I in Europe.  Addams maintained a consistent pacifist and anti-war stance.  She also continued to advocate for immigrant rights at a time when Americans were increasingly fearful of radical ideas—socialism and anarchism, for instance—that they associated with immigrants.  In 1915 she was elected national chairperson of the Women’s Peace Party and, that same year, President of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.   The first meeting was attended by women from all of the warring countries as well as neutral ones.  Afterwards, she toured Europe, hoping to persuade the heads of the warring countries to make peace.  She advocated a conference focused on continuous mediation, but that idea was rejected by President Wilson.  After the U.S. declaration of war in April, 1917, she responded to the blockade of the Central Powers with the declaration that the United States "should not allow the women and children of any nation to starve."  After the war she presided at international conferences of the league in Zurich in 1919, in Vienna in 1921, in The Hague in 1922, in Washington in 1924, in Dublin in 1926 and at Prague in 1929.
The Nobel Peace Prize
            In 1931, Addams became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared that year with Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University.  In presenting the award, Nobel Committee member Halvat Koht, a professor of history at the University of Oslo, noted the growing international influence of America in the 20th century.  Acknowledging that America had not always been the “power for peace that we should have wished for her, ” Koht noted that “America has at the same time fostered some of the most spirited idealism on earth.  It may be that this idealism derives its vigor from the squalor and evil produced by social conditions, in other words from the contrasts within itself.”  Addams had, in fact, bridged these contrasts for most of her adult life.  Koht summarized her work during the war period as follows:
Throughout the whole war she toiled for a peace that would not engender a new war, becoming, as she did so, the spokesman for the pacifist women of the world. Sometimes her views were at odds with public opinion both at home and abroad. But she never gave in, and in the end she regained the place of honor she had had before in the hearts of her people. Devotion to a cause always inspires respect, and in her devotion Miss Addams is truly American.
Jane Addams died in 1935 at the age of 74.  A few weeks before her death, she was honored by a dinner at the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt hailed her as one of the world’s greatest living women.  Her obituary in the New York Times noted:

Miss Addams has been called "the greatest woman in the world," the "mother of social service," "the greatest woman internationalist" and the "first citizen of Chicago." With her idealism, serene, unafraid, militant, was always paramount. Devoted to the cause of social and political reform, to the betterment of the economic condition of the masses, to world peace and to internationalism, Miss Addams's influence was world-wide. She was, perhaps, the world's best-known and best-loved woman.  
            One evidence of how her reputation had been regained is that, five years later—ironically, while Europe was already engaged in a war that was engendered by the first world war—she was honored with a U.S. postage stamp.   
             Today, much of that legacy has been obscured by events.  Jane Addams is not widely known by younger Americans today.  The original settlement site was overtaken by expansion of the University of Illinois-Chicago campus in the 1960s, although the original mansion was kept as a museum.  Hull House operations moved to an old American Legion Hall, which was renamed the Jane Addams Hull House Center.  In 2002, it was sold and remodeled as a high-end fitness club.  And, in January of this year, the Hull House Association, the foundation on which her life’s work was built, announced that it was filing for bankruptcy.  It is now closed.  More than 300 employees lost their jobs.
            Still, there is a legacy that goes beyond the institution she created.             Hull House was established when the University of Chicago—which in many ways is the prototype of the modern research university—was itself just getting started, and the two shared some synergy.  John Dewey, who came to Chicago to open a laboratory school, became friends with Jane Addams and lectured at Hull House many times.  “The real question is not what we read,” Addams said of Hull House, “but what social use do we make of the mental and physical life we have thus acquired. Here we learn many things that we could not get in the school room . . . ”  Clearly, her idea of teaching by example and Dewey’s emerging ideas about progressive education—education for and by democracy—influenced each other.             
            As an active practitioner of pragmatist philosophy, Addams also influenced social policy, including the right of women to vote, civil rights for African-Americans, and the peace movement.   She remains a model for a public intellectual.   In fact, perhaps her most important legacy is as a role model.  While her work focused on helping society adapt to the changes brought about by industrialization, today we are facing changes that are at least as profound as we adapt to the information revolution.   Jane Addams asked important questions of her generation of Americans:  What is the ethic that should drive social change?  How do we find a new common identity as Americans in this new society?  What institutions do we need to shape our communities?  These are questions we need to ask anew. 


“Jane Addams: A Foe of War and Need.” New York Times Obituary, May 22, 1935, retrieved June 12, 2012, from:

Nobel Peace Prize 1931 Award Ceremony Speech, retrieved June 12, 2012, from:

Addams, Jane.  Twenty Years at Hull House, New York: New American Library, 1961.

Knight, Louise W.  Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Schulte, Sarah.  “Jane Addams’ Hull House Closing Doors,”  Retrieved on June 12, 2012, from:

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