Printable Version
Jane Addams: Champion for the Working Poor Next
Digital History ID 3131


Jane Addams was the daughter of one of Illinois' richest men. Instead of leading a life of leisure, however, she dedicated her life to aiding the urban poor. A friend of labor, a proponent of women's suffrage, a foe of city bosses, and an opponent of war, she struggled to make the ideal of civic equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence a reality. Instead of offering charity, she sought to assimilate the immigrant poor into American society and became a pioneer social worker.

Born in 1860, Addams was just two years old when her mother died. Suffering a severe curvature of her spine, she was coddled by her family. Her Quaker-born father, a banker, mill owner, and Republican politician, sent her to Europe twice and to college at Rockford Female Seminary. But like many other members of America's first generation of college-educated women, she felt deeply torn about what to do with her life. “A woman,” she wrote, "was practically faced with an alternative of marriage or a career." She could enter teaching, or medicine, or missionary work, or else she could marry and devote her life to homemaking.

She enrolled at Philadelphia's Women's Medical College, but suffered a nervous collapse after her father's sudden death. For eight years she suffered excruciating back pain, nervous prostration, and serious depression. She turned to Philadelphia's leading physician, Dr. S. Wier Mitchell, for help. He prescribed rest cure as treatment, confining her to bed and forbidding all visitors and activities. As he told another patient: "Live as domestic a life as possible. Have but two hours of intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live."

Addams spent most of her 30s adrift, undergoing repeated rest cures. Then, suddenly she found her mission in life while on a trip to England. She was shocked by the squalor of London's East End slums. In response, she and a friend, Ellen Starr, decided to set up an institution to uplift America's urban poor.

In 1889, they moved into Hull House, a decaying mansion in one of Chicago's most destitute neighborhoods, and provided social services to the city's poor. Hull House offered classes that taught cooking, hygiene, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Hull House also provided child care and a kindergarten and built the first playground in Chicago. Each week 9,000 people, mostly immigrants from 28 different countries, came to the mansion. Her example helped inspire more than 400 other settlement houses around the country.

From Hull House, Addams tirelessly campaigned for an end to sweat shops and a ban on child labor. She convinced many professors at the University of Chicago to produce empirical, social scientific data. She advocated an eight-hour work day and legal protections for immigrants. Addams called for compulsory education, woman suffrage, and improved sanitation. She also sought to organize unions for female workers; to establish a state bureau to inspect factories; and to create the nation's first juvenile court. In effect, she helped create the career of the social worker.

Addams was a key architect of what we would come to call the welfare state. She tirelessly campaigned to end sweatshops and tenement housing, end corrupt boss rule, ban child labor, provide legal protections for immigrants, and establish juvenile courts.

Her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull House, was a best-seller when it appeared in 1910. But in 1915, public opinion began to turn against her when she founded the Women's Peace Party, an international organization dedicated to waging "a women's war” against World War I. Elected president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919, she opposed the peace treaty ending the war as vindictive. In 1931, four years before her death, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.



Copyright 2021 Digital History