The Nancy Grace of Her Time?

Jane Addams was controversial and independent-minded.

Jane Addams

The Chicago social reformer Jane Addams is safely ensconced in the pantheon of liberal heroes, and for good reason. She had a hand in almost every early-20th century progressive cause, from suffrage to the labor movement. She co-founded the ACLU and the NAACP, helped lead the Progressive Party, and became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. As every schoolchild once knew, she also founded Hull House, one of the most influential social-service organizations in American history. When Addams died, the Chicago City Council issued a proclamation declaring her “the greatest woman who ever lived.” The British labor leader John Burns went so far as to call Addams the first saint America had produced.

Saints often fade into history because their legacies are settled. But Addams’ image as a pro forma progressive belies a more complicated reality. In connection with a burst of attention that coincides with the 150th anniversary of her birth, Addams has a real claim to be reconsidered not as a dutifully respected progressive but, rather, an independent thinker and doer who was neither universally adored nor chained to liberal orthodoxy. In short, she was interesting.

November also marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Addams’ autobiography Twenty Years at Hull-House, which Signet is reissuing in celebration. Addams wrote many books; this one is especially lively, thoughtful, funny, and jam-packed with gritty anecdotes from its author’s decades working among Chicago’s poor and working-class. The book is a great American page-turner. Once a staple of high school syllabi, it deserves the contemporary adult readership Signet is enticing with its reissue. (The Chicago History Museum will also celebrate with a symposium on Nov. 13.)

Addams will always be best known for Hull House, now a museum on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, which just reopened after an $800,000 renovation. When it opened on Halsted Street on Chicago’s west side in 1889, the avowedly nonreligious settlement house served as a one-stop shop for the neighborhood’s needs, from the brutally physical to intellectual stimulation and social pleasures. In its early years, mostly Irish and German immigrants took part in its programs, then Russian Jews, Greeks, and Italians, and in later years African-Americans and Mexicans. As Jean Bethke Elshtain points out in her perceptive 2002 book Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy, “If you were a resident, it would not be at all unusual to move over the course of a day from reading George Eliot, to debating Karl Marx, to washing newborns, to readying the dead for burial, to nursing the sick, to minding the children.”

We prefer our heroes when they’ve risked it all in pursuit of a cause we now all agree is noble: anti-slavery, say, or suffrage. So it’s nicest to remember Addams for her social work. But in the run-up to World War I, radical pacifism became her primary passion. This turned her into an enemy of the right, and eventually even many of her old friends on the left. At various times she was called a socialist, a communist, and an anarchist. In a speech at Carnegie Hall in 1915, Addams observed that soldiers already fighting in Europe were plied with alcohol before charging onto the battlefield. As independent scholar Louise W. Knight, points out in her sympathetic new biography, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, the speech made Addams a punching bag for hawkish editorial writers. Journalist Richard Harding Davis dashed off a letter to the New York Times calling her a “complacent and self-satisfied woman.” Another New York paper called her “a silly, vain impertinent old maid, who may have done good charity work at Hull-House, Chicago, but is now meddling with matters far beyond her capacity.” When the United States finally stepped into the war, many of Addams’ pacifist sisters in arms deserted the cause. She was booed in public and followed by an agent from the Justice Department. At the headquarters of the Women’s Peace Party, Addams wrote, “the door was often befouled in hideous ways.”

Meanwhile, Addams’ pacifist period must be squared with her past as something of a moderate. “My temperament and habit had always kept me in rather the middle of the road,” Addams wrote, looking back in 1922. “In politics and social reform I had been for the ‘best possible.’ ” It’s that pragmatist attitude that has contributed to her recent rediscovery as a philosopher on par with her friends John Dewey and William James. Her moderation also means there’s plenty about her that merits respect from contemporary conservatives.

Though Addams had long-term romantic relationships with several women and never bore children, she revered motherhood. In an evocative scene in Twenty Years at Hull-House, she writes of coming upon a washerwoman with unused breast milk streaming down her dress. “With all of the efforts made by modern society to nurture and educate the young, how stupid it is to permit the mothers of young children to spend themselves in the coarser work of the world!” she wrote. “It is curiously inconsistent that with the emphasis which this generation has placed upon the mother and upon the prolongation of infancy, we constantly allow the waste of this most precious material.” She also emphasized the importance of two-parent families, lamenting the “wretched delusion that a woman can both support and nurture her children.”

Addams also steadfastly refused to romanticize the poor. Her book includes a litany of stories about the coarsening effects of poverty: This is not the noble impoverishment of “The Little Match Girl” or “La Boheme.” In Addams’ clear-eyed observations, many immigrants beat their families, drink heavily, and waste away. The ballyhooed academic term “the culture of poverty” (now back in vogue, as the New York Times reported recently) was coined after her time, but her work displays her belief in the concept.

Despite this, after her death, Addams’ name would be sullied by conservative critics like World magazine editor Marvin Olasky, whose influential 1992 book The Tragedy of American Compassionfingered Hull House as a model for the supposedly bloated New Deal and Great Society programs that superseded it in the 1930s and 1960s. In fact, Addams didn’t agitate for the overthrow of capitalism. She asked for the meaningful deployment of state resources. In one haunting passage in her book, she writes about a German immigrant with three wayward daughters who clawed her way up from toiling as a laundress to working her own farm outside the city: “She did not need charity for she had an immense capacity for hard work, but she sadly needed the service of the State’s attorney office, enforcing the laws designed for the protection of such girls as her daughters.” No charity, only justice: It’s practically Nancy Grace-ian.

It takes nothing away from Addams’ progressive bona fides to conclude that her views on peace, poverty and womanhood weren’t as tidy as we assume today. But maybe that makes her all the more a modern kind of saint. As she once told a “rough-looking” heckler during a speech in Chicago, “while I did not intend to be subsidized by millionaires, neither did I propose to be bullied by workingmen.” That would be a fine motto for independents everywhere.

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