Jane Addams, the eighth child of a successful businessman, was born in Cedarville, Illinois on 6th September, 1860. Jane's mother died when she was only three years old but she was deeply influenced by her father who was a Quaker but had supported Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.
According to Harriet Hyman Alonso: "Addams was greatly influenced by her father, who stood out in the community as a great supporter of Abraham. Lincoln and an opponent of slavery and was a God-fearing man who, his daughter claimed, favored Quakerism although regularly attending services in both Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Addams, therefore, was reared in a religious home that valued humanitarianism. As a girl, she expressed sympathy for former slaves and other impoverished people in the community. As many other children whose parents opposed slavery but supported the Civil War, Addams grew up aware of the dilemma between fighting a just war and maintaining moral witness against all violence. These values made her a perfect candidate for a lifetime of work around social justice issues."
Addams graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881. She then attended the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia, but was forced to abandon her studies after undergoing a serious spinal operation. Eleanor J. Stebner, the author of The Women of Hull House (1997), has argued: "For the next seven years, Addams struggled to find her voice and a way to take an active part in the world she encountered."
In 1888, while on a European tour, Addams and Ellen Starr, visited the university settlement, Toynbee Hall in the East End of London. Named after the social reformer, Arnold Toynbee, the settlement was run by Samuel Augustus Barnett, canon of St. Jude's Church. Situated in Commercial Street, Whitechapel, Toynbee Hall was Britain's first university settlement. The idea was to create a place where students from Oxford University and Cambridge University could work among, and improve the lives of the poor during their summer holidays. The settlement also served as a base for Charles Booth and his group of researchers working on the Life and Labour of the People in London.
When Addams and Ellen Starr returned to Chicago in 1889, they decided to start a similar project in Chicago. Helen Culver agreed to rent them Hull House for $60 a month. This large, abandoned mansion had been built by the wealthy businessman, Charles J. Hull, in 1856. Situated in Halstead Street, most of the people living in the area were recently arrived immigrants from Italy and Germany.
Addams and Ellen Starr moved in to Hull House on 18th September, 1889. They began by inviting people living in the area to hear reading of George Eliot's Romola and to look at slides of Florentine art. After talking to the people who visited the house, it soon became clear that the women had a desperate need for a place where they could bring their young children. Addams and Starr decided to start a kindergarten and provide a room where the mothers could sit and talk. Jenny Dow, who lived in an expensive part of Chicago, agreed to come to Hull House to run the nursery school. Within three weeks the kindergarten had enrolled twenty-four children with 70 more on the waiting list.
Other activities soon followed. Addams ran a club for teenage boys. Whereas Ellen Starr provided lessons in cooking and sewing for young girls. Local university teachers and students were also recruited to provide free lectures on a wide variety of different topics.
Inspired by the ideas of William Morris and John Ruskin, the women decided to turn Hull House into an art gallery. While in Europe the two women had collected reproductions of paintings and these were now hung in the various rooms of the house. Ellen Starr organized art classes and exhibitions as well as developing a scheme where people could borrow art reproductions to hang in their own homes.
Italian and German evenings were also organized at Hull House. Local people presented songs, dances, games and food associated with the countries from where they used to live. This was probably the most successful of their early ventures as it provided an opportunity for local people to make their own contribution to the venture. As Addams later recalled, it soon became clear that the object of the settlement program should be to "help the foreign-born conserve and keep whatever of value their past life contained and to bring them into contact with a better class of Americans."
In 1890 Addams and Ellen Gates Starr were joined at Hull House by Julia Lathrop. All three women had been students at Rockford Seminary together in the 1980s. Lathrop, who had been trained as a lawyer by her father, the United States senator, William Lathrop, was an excellent organizer, and took over the day to day running of the settlement.
Addams, Ellen Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop gradually became more involved in the community where they were living. They were shocked by the poor housing, the overcrowding and the poverty that the people were having to endure. Addams wrote to her step-brother that she was "overpowered by the misery and narrow lives" of these people.
In the early days of Hull House, the three women were influenced by the Christian Socialism that had inspired the creation of Toynbee Hall. This was reinforced by the arrival in 1891 of Florence Kelley at Hull House. A member of the Socialist Labor Party, Kelley had considerable experience of political and trade union activity. It was Kelley who was mainly responsible for turning Hull House into a centre of social reform.
The presence of Florence Kelley in Hull House attracted other social reformers to the settlement. This included Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Alice Hamilton, Mary McDowell, Charles Beard, Mary Kenney, Charlotte Perkins, Alzina Stevens and Sophonisba Breckinridge. Working-class women, such as Kenney and Stevens, who had developed an interest in social reform as a result of their trade union work, played an important role in the education of the middle-class residents at Hull House. They in turn influenced the working-class women. As Kenney was later to say, they "gave my life new meaning and hope".
Addams met Mary White Ovington, the founder of the Greenpoint Settlement in Brooklyn. . Ovington remembers Addams telling her: "If you want to be surrounded by second-rate ability, you will dominate your settlement. If you want the best ability, you must allow great liberty of action among your residents."
Florence Kelley and several other women based at Hull House carried out research into the sweating trade in Chicago and this led to the passing of the pioneering Illinois Factory Act (1893). Kelley was recruited by the state's new governor, John Peter Altgeld, as the chief factory inspector, and two other women involved in the research, Alzina Stevens and Mary Kenney, became inspectors in Illinois.
Helen Culver, who owned Hull House, also gave the women other adjacent property. Wealthy people in Chicago contributed money, including Louise Bowen who provided three quarters of a million dollars. This enabled the group to expand its activities. An art gallery was added in 1891, a coffee house and gymnasium in 1893, a club house in 1898 and a theatre in 1899.
In 1903 several women associated with Hull House, including Addams, Mary Kenney, Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley and Sophonisba Breckinridge, were involved in establishing the Women's Trade Union League. Union meetings were often held at Hull House and members of the settlement helped support workers during industrial disputes. This resulted in some wealthy people withdrawing their support for Hull House. One businessman wrote that Hill House had "been so thoroughly unionized that it has lost its usefulness and has become a detriment and harm to the community as a whole."
The Hull House complex was not completed until 1907. The settlement now had thirteen buildings spread over a large city block. There were around 70 people living in Hull House and it cost the settlement over $26,500 to run the house and its programs. Rents and sales raised $12,000 but the rest had to come from donations.
In 1909 Addams was a founder member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. The following year she became the first woman president of the National Conference of Social Work and in 1911 she helped establish the National Federation of Settlements.
A strong supporter of women's suffrage, Addams was vice-president of the National American Women's Suffrage Association (1911-14). Addams controversially supported Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in the 1912 presidential elections. Some of the her friends were highly critical of his aggressive foreign policy and his unwillingness to openly support African American civil rights.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Addams and a group of women pacifists in the United States, began talking about the need to form an organization to help bring it to an end. On the 10th January, 1915, over 3,000 women attended a meeting in the ballroom of the New Willard Hotel in Washington and formed the Woman's Peace Party. Addams was elected chairman and other women involved in the organization included Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Anna Howard Shaw, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Mary Heaton Vorse, Freda Kirchwey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Crystal Eastman, Carrie Chapman Catt, Emily Bach, and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
In April 1915, Arletta Jacobs, a suffragist in Holland, invited members of the Woman's Peace Party to an International Congress of Women in the Hague. Addams was asked to chair the meeting and Alice Hamilton, Mary Heaton Vorse, Julia Lathrop, Leonora O'Reilly, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Grace Abbott and Emily Bach went as delegates from the United States. Others who went to the Hague included Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Emily Hobhouse, (England); Chrystal Macmillan (Scotland) and Rosika Schwimmer (Hungary). Afterwards, Addams, Jacobs, Macmillan, Schwimmer and Balch went to to London, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Rome and Paris to speak with members of the various governments in Europe. During this time they met Edward Grey (13th May), Herbert Asquith (14th May), Gottlieb von Jagow (21st May), Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg (22nd May), Karl von Sturgkh (26th May), Théophile Delcassé (12th June) and Rene Viviani (14th June).
The women were attacked in the press by Theodore Roosevelt who described them as "hysterical pacifists" and called their proposals "both silly and base". Addams was selected for particular criticism. One man wrote in the Rochester Herald, "In the true sense of the word, she is apparently without education. She knows no more of the discipline and methods of modern warfare than she does of its meaning. If the woman conceded by her sisters to be the ablest of her sex, is so readily duped, so little informed, men wonder what degree of intelligence is to be secured by adding the female vote to the electorate."
On the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, Henry Ford, the wealthy American businessman, soon made it clear he opposed the war and supported the decision of the Woman's Peace Party to organize a peace conference in Holland. After the conference Addams, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Paul Kellogg, met with Ford and suggested he should sponsor an international conference in Stockholm to discuss ways that the conflict could be brought to an end. During this period Theodore Roosevelt described Addams as "the most dangerous woman in America."
Henry Ford came up with the idea of sending a boat of pacifists to Europe to see if they could negotiate an agreement that would end the war. He chartered the ship Oskar II, and it sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey on 4th December, 1915. Addams planned to be on the ship but three days before it was due to leave she became seriously ill with tuberculosis of the kidneys. The Ford Peace Ship reached Stockholm in January, 1916, and a conference was organized with representatives from Denmark, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the United States. However, unable to persuade representatives from the warring nations to take part, the conference was unable to negotiate an Armistice.
In 1918 Herbert Hoover recruited Addams to his Department of Food Administration. She toured the country making speeches encouraging the people of America to help conserve and increase production of food. This upset some pacifists who felt that any support of the war effort was morally wrong. However, she was praised by some of her former critics. The editor of the Los Angeles Times wrote: "now she is seeing clearly again, and her service is with the country, with the administration, with the Allies, wholehearted and whole-souled."
Addams was again criticised in April 1919 when she lead the American delegation to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) conference in Zurich. Among the delegates were Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin and Lillian Wald. At the conference Addams was elected president of the WILPF and Balch became secretary-treasurer.
In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as his attorney general. Palmer had previously been associated with the progressive wing of the party and had supported women's suffrage and trade union rights. However, once in power, Palmer's views on civil rights changed dramatically. Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Emma Goldman and 247 other people, were deported to Russia.
In January, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested and held without trial. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but a large number of these suspects, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued to be held without trial. When Palmer announced that the communist revolution was likely to take place on 1st May, mass panic took place. In New York, five elected Socialists were expelled from the legislature.
Addams was appalled by the way people were being persecuted for their political beliefs and in 1920 joined with Roger Baldwin, Norman Thomas, Chrystal Eastman, Paul Kellogg, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Abraham Muste, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Upton Sinclair to form the American Civil Liberties Union.
During her life Addams wrote articles about social problems in a variety of magazines including American Magazine, McClures, Crisis, and Ladies Home Journal. Addams also wrote several books including, Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), Spirit of Youth (1909), Twenty Years at Hull House (1910), A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912), Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922) and The Second Twenty Years at Hull House (1930).
In 1927 Addams joined with John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Floyd Dell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in an effort to prevent the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bertolomeo Vanzetti. Although Webster Thayer, the original judge, was officially criticised for his conduct at the trial, the execution went ahead on 23rd August 1927.
Even when Addams was in her seventies right-wing figures continued to attack her as the "most dangerous woman" in the United States. In 1934 Elizabeth Dilling wrote in her book, The Red Network, that: "Jane Addams has been able to do more probably than any other living woman to popularize pacifism and to introduce radicalism into colleges, settlements, and respectable circles. The influence of her radical proteges, who consider Hull House their home center, reaches out all over the world."
Jane Addams, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, remained president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom until her death on 21st May, 1935.