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Rebel With a Cause

Jane Addams epitomizes phrase “well-behaved women rarely make history”

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September 16, 2010

Jane Addams: Spirit in Action

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In 1917, the once-beloved Jane Addams delivered a speech at the First Congregational Church in Evanston about her disapproval of World War I. Her words were greeted with silence. A few years later, the FBI considered the legendary founder of Chicago’s Hull House and the field of social work as one of the most dangerous women in America.

In her new book “Jane Addams: Spirit in Action,” Louise W. Knight, visiting scholar in the Northwestern University gender studies program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, counters what she says is the traditional view of Jane Addams as a middle-of-the-road sentimentalist who worked among the poor. In the first full biography of Jane Addams in 40 years, Knight emphasizes that Addams promoted radical ideas for the times, but with artful language.

Hull House, as Addams named it, was America’s best known settlement house, and Addams, an advocate for women, the poor, children and peace, was among the most prominent women of the Progressive Era. The book was written to commemorate Addams’ 150th birthday on Sept. 6.

“Jane Addams held some very unpopular beliefs, which at times, stirred up fierce hostility,” Knight said. “She disapproved of war to solve problems and was considered treasonous for not joining the patriotic clamor around World War I. She also was heavily involved in the campaign to pass child labor laws, which was met with resistance from manufacturers all over the country. Yet she refused to back down from views she believed to be right.”

Andrea Albers spoke with Knight (see Q & A below) about Jane Addams and her new book.

What accounts for the view of Jane Addams as middle of the road?

She didn’t believe in oppositional language, and, as a reformer, she was rhetorically persuasive rather than overtly controversial, which is an unusual approach.

Why did you decide to write the book?

There has never been a full-life feminist biography written on her -- meaning I took the interests of the feminist movement as a framework while writing about her life. I thought it was a missing perspective. Other biographers have mentioned these things, of course, but I made them the central focus.

Throughout my research, I was struck by how she never ran away from what she learned about the obstacles in women’s paths; she faced them. She questioned the world around her. It is the underlying reason she became a feminist.

She is considered the founder of social work. What did she bring to the field?

Working across class lines was daring for someone with her privileged upbringing. She believed a person should not assume she is the expert just because she may be more educated or have more money. Addams applied this philosophy to Hull House, a community center, where people of all backgrounds came to enrich their lives. People often said Addams “worked among the poor,” but she never put it that way.

Why should we celebrate Jane Addams?

Addams was a lifelong learner. Beyond the work she did for women, children and working people, she shows us how to be better citizens in a democracy. We know we need to vote, but we also need to learn about -- and engage in -- the direction of our country. Addams is a really good role model for that.

Topics: People