Jane Addams (1860-1935) was a peace activist and a leader of the settlement house movement in America. As one of the most distinguished of the first generation of college-educated women, she rejected marriage and motherhood in favor of a lifetime commitment to the poor and social reform. Inspired by English reformers who intentionally resided in lower-class slums, Addams, along with a college friend, Ellen Starr, moved in 1889 into an old mansion in an immigrant neighborhood of Chicago. Hull-House remained Addams’s home for the rest of her life and became the center of an experiment in philanthropy, political action and social science research.

Jane Addams: Early Life & Education

Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois on September 6, 1860 to Sarah Adams (Weber) and John Huy Adams. She was the eighth of nine children and was born with a spinal defect that hampered her early physical growth before it was rectified by surgery. Her father was a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s who served in the Civil War and remained active in politics, though he was a miller by trade.

Young Addams graduated as valedictorian of Rockford Female Seminary at age 17 in 1881. (She formally received her Bachelor’s degree when the seminary became the Rockford College for Women the following year.) Her study of medicine was interrupted by ill health, and it wasn’t until a trip to Europe at age 27 with friend Ellen G. Starr that she visited a settlement house and realized her life’s mission of creating a settlement home in Chicago.

Jane Addams and Hull House

In 1889, Addams and Starr leased the home of Charles Hull in Chicago. The two moved in and began their work of setting up Hull-House with the following mission: “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.”

Addams responded to the needs of the community by establishing a nursery, dispensary, kindergarten, playground, gymnasium and cooperative housing for young working women. As an experiment in group living, Hull-House attracted male and female reformers dedicated to social service. Addams always insisted that she learned as much from the neighborhood’s residents as she taught them.

Jane Addams Political Life

Having quickly found that the needs of the neighborhood could not be met unless city and state laws were reformed, Addams challenged both boss rule in the immigrant neighborhood of Hull-House and indifference to the needs of the poor in the state legislature. She was appointed to Chicago’s Board of Education in 1905 and helped found the Chicago school of Civics and Philanthropy before becoming the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections.

Addams and other Hull-House residents sponsored legislation to abolish child labor, establish juvenile courts, limit the hours of working women, recognize labor unions, make school attendance compulsory and ensure safe working conditions in factories. The Progressive party adopted many of these reforms as part of its platform in 1912. At the party’s national convention, Addams seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for president and campaigned actively on his behalf. She advocated for women’s suffrage because she believed that women’s votes would provide the margin necessary to pass social legislation she favored.

Addams publicized Hull-House and the causes she believed in by lecturing and writing. In her autobiography, 20 Years at Hull-House (1910), she argued that society should both respect the values and traditions of immigrants and help the newcomers adjust to American institutions. A new social ethic was needed, she said, to stem social conflict and address the problems of urban life and industrial capitalism. Although tolerant of other ideas and social philosophies, Addams believed in Christian morality and the virtue of learning by doing.

Jane Addams Anti-War Views

Because Addams was convinced that war sapped the reform impulse, encouraged political repression and benefited only munitions makers, she opposed World War I. She unsuccessfully tried to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to call a conference to mediate a negotiated end to hostilities.

During the war she spoke throughout the country in favor of increased food production to aid the starving in Europe. After the armistice she helped found the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, serving as president from 1919 until her death in 1935.

Vilified during World War I for her opposition to American involvement, a decade later, Addams had become a national heroine and Chicago’s leading citizen. In 1931, her long involvement in international efforts to end war was recognized when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Jane Addams Death

Addams had a heart attack in 1926 and remained unwell for the rest of her life. She died of cancer on May 21, 1935. Thousands of people attended her funeral in the courtyard of Hull-House. She is buried in her family’s plot in Cedarville Cemetery in Cedarvillle, Illionis.

Allen F. Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (1973); Daniel Levine, Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition (1973).