Jane Addams (1860-1935) is best known for her outstanding achievements in social work, notably the establishment of Hull-House in Chicago, Illinois, according to the Hull-House Museum. She and her colleagues launched impressive, innovative social reform movements from Hull-House in an era where poverty and urban blight were rampant.
But Jane Addams did much more. In a world accustomed to war, her profound belief that human beings should be able to settle differences without violence motivated Jane Addams to advocate for peace nationally and internationally.
Her opposition against WWI put her in the crosshairs of controversy. Just as she was undaunted by factory owners who opposed her advocacy for workers’ rights, Jane Addams was not deterred by accusations of sedition for her public opposition to the war in newspapers of the time preserved in the Jane Addams Digital Edition.
Her peace efforts would later be recognized on the international stage. In 1931, Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. According to the Jane Addams Papers Project , she was the first U.S. woman to receive this prestigious honor.
Jane Addams Exemplified Servant Leadership
A notable example of servant leadership, Jane was adept at organizing, motivating and soliciting benefactors to support her efforts. Hull-House grew from a single residential building to several buildings and programs throughout Chicago, and it inspired other communities to create similar projects. Her success and leadership live on, not only in the good she accomplished in her life but in the inspiring social reforms she and her group created.
Jane’s accomplishments sprang from a strong, determined spirit. She suffered from weak health from childhood with the “disability of a curved spine,” according to her autobiography.
She was born in Cedarville, Illinois, one of nine children, and graduated as a top student from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881. Her family was financially comfortable, and her father was a friend of Abraham Lincoln.
Her social status could have led Jane Addams in a much different direction, but the greater good of community and humankind was her focus from childhood. From the age of six, Jane Addams felt the weight of the world on her shoulders and meant to carry it.
Already aware of the urban poor’s conditions in Chicago, Jane saw more poverty on a trip to London, England in 1888, accompanied by her friend Ellen Gates Starr, according to the Social Welfare History Project. In England, they visited Toynbee Hall, a visionary settlement house established in 1884 in the Whitechapel slum of London’s East End. Toynbee Hall’s timeline for the time of Jane’s visit reports that volunteers lived in Toynbee Hall “to experience first hand the effects of poverty and … develop the practical solutions that would actively improve the lives of those living in the slums.”
After their visit to England, Jane and Ellen established Hull-House in a rundown area of Chicago. Inspired by the Toynbee Hall London model, Jane, Ellen and their fellow reformers lived at Hull-House. Over time, they established important, lasting social programs that began from successful early efforts such as a kindergarten for local children, educational programs for adults, and a club for teenage boys. This work was the beginning of the settlement house movement in America, a concept which continues today according to Lutheran Settlement House.
Jane Addams worked hard for the improvement of working conditions for both adults and children, according to Jane Addams Digital Edition. Child labor contributed to the cycle of poverty by denying children meaningful access to education and a stable home environment, while dismal labor conditions contributed to children’s poor health.
Little help was available from the law and Jane sought to remedy that gap. According to the Social Welfare History Project, she was instrumental in organizing the National Child Labor Committee in 1904, which strenuously lobbied for passage of the first federal child labor law, the Keating-Owens Act of 1916. Although this law was overturned in 1918, the efforts behind it laid the groundwork for the Fair Labor Standards Act that would eventually follow in 1938, a posthumous legacy to Jane Addams and her colleagues’ resolve to reform unfair work practices and child labor exploitation.
Jane Launched an International Crusade for Peace
Jane possessed a limitless fervor for reform and the improvement of civilized life. She took up the cause for peace and became a powerful activist, ultimately earning the Nobel Prize for Peace. The Nobel Prize website describes Jane Addams’ efforts for peace and her achievements, saying:
“Jane Addams created opportunities or seized those offered to her to advance the cause. In 1906 she gave a course of lectures at the University of Wisconsin summer session which she published the next year as a book, Newer Ideals of Peace.
“She spoke for peace in 1913 at a ceremony commemorating the building of the Peace Palace at The Hague and in the next two years, as a lecturer sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation, spoke against America’s entry into the First World War. In January, 1915, she accepted the chairmanship of the Women’s Peace Party, an American organization, and four months later the presidency of the International Congress of Women convened at The Hague.”
In addition to the activities for which she was commended by the Nobel Prize committee, Jane Adams pursued an exhausting itinerary of public speeches, travel and writing. She spoke with government leaders and citizens of multiple countries on the subject of peace.
In 1922, she published an autobiographical reflection of the years of her peace activism relating to the world war, Peace and Bread in the Time of War. This work is a fascinating revelation of the breadth and depth of the peace movement.
Her brilliant intellect was recognized and valued worldwide. In fact, Jane Addams had the ear of no less than an American President. Herbert Hoover tapped her for her assistance for providing relief to women and children in warring nations, according to the Social Welfare Library Project.
Jane Addams’ vision for a better society is as relevant today as it was a century ago. Her dedication and talented servant leadership offer inspiration for many people.