Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Addams, Jane (1860–1935)
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Addams, Jane (1860–1935)

Addams, Jane (1860–1935)

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Jane Addams was born on 6 September 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois to parents Sarah Weber Addams and John Huy Addams. Although she lost her mother very early on, her father, siblings, and later on, her stepmother Anna Hostetter Haldeman all worked to fill the void in the life of this motherless child. Initially, the Addams family was solidly middle class. However, her father’s second marriage increased the family’s social class standing and they quickly moved into higher society. Addams had goals to attend Smith College in Massachusetts, but she attended Rockford Female Seminary in Illinois instead, acceding to her father’s plans for her future. Jane was disenchanted with the religious foundations of the seminary, but graduated with a BA in 1881.

Suffering from nervous strain, a protracted illness, and the loss of her father, Addams sought to find some meaning for her life. This struggle set her on the path to what was to become a long career. Dissatisfied with the role of a young socialite, she decided to travel to Europe where she began to consider the problems of the poor. It was during her second trip to Europe that she discovered what would give her life meaning and become her life’s work, the settlement movement. The settlement movement in England was based on the idea of connecting universities with the poor. This provided impoverished communities with trained leaders who would work and live in the neighborhoods they served. It was hoped that such an arrangement would mitigate social problems in urban areas by increasing education and cultural awareness.

Using the Toynbee Hall model, Adams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr created their own social settlement, Hull-House, in Chicago. After some consideration, the women altered their original conception of their settlement, particularly in terms of religion. Rather than relying solely on the Christian ethic, Hull-House incorporated democratic ideals that would allow for the full participation of all community members. Addams hoped that such a model would serve to facilitate similar changes in the larger society as well. Hull-House gave Addams the opportunity to speak out for herself and on behalf of other oppressed groups. She believed that reasonable individuals would learn from Hull-House and apply its principles on a larger scale. For Addams, Hull-House would function both locally and nationally and, indeed, Addams became the head of the settlement movement in the United States. With the help of women such as Mary Rozet Smith, Mary Keyser, Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley, and others, Addams put her social philosophy into practice and contributed to the labor movement, educational reform, the international peace movement, and women’s rights.

Although not formally trained in sociology, Addams self-identified as a sociologist, and was a member of the American Sociological Society from its inception. She published in the American Journal of Sociology and worked closely with the sociology and philosophy faculty at the University of Chicago, who, at least for a time, also recognized her work as sociological. In addition, she toured the United States lecturing at universities and various social settlements. Until 1914 at the beginning of World War I, Addams was a laudable figure in American culture and history. Her settlement work, research, social thought, and efforts in the women’s suffrage movement made her an American heroine. However, her ideals necessitated a pacifist position on the war which made her the target of academics, politicians, and the American public. Addams became President of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom which was ultimately her downfall; she became a social and intellectual pariah. She suffered greatly from this rejection. In Peace and Bread in Time of War Addams writes: “Solitude has always had its demons, harder to withstand than the snares of the world, and the unnatural desert into which the pacifist was summarily cast out seemed to be peopled with them.” (1922, p. 82) Yet rejection from her colleagues seemed to be even more hurtful: “Every student of our time had become more or less a disciple of pragmatism and its great teachers in the United States had come out for the war and defended their positions with skill and philosophic acumen. There were moments when one longed desperately for reconciliation with one’s friends and fellow citizens ...” (1922, p. 82)

Despite the difficult war years, Addams eventually regained her popularity and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Just prior to receiving this prestigious award, her health began to take a turn for the worse. She suffered from heart problems and, worse, intestinal cancer. Addams died on 21 May 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. The nation mourned for her and seemed to remember only the good. This would not have come as a surprise to Addams, who wrote about this selective tendency in The Long Road of Women’s Memory. “For many years at Hull-House I have at intervals detected in certain old people, when they spoke of their past experiences, a tendency to an idealization, almost to a romanticism suggestive of the ardent dreams and groundless ambitions we have all observed in the young when they recklessly lay their plans for the future.” (1916, p. 3)

Addams’s work is premised upon six ideological assumptions: (1) cultural feminism, a belief in the superiority of feminine values such as peace, productivity, and justice; (2) progressivism, a desire to link social activism with social scientific state reform; (3) social reform Darwinism, the advancement of society through social engineering; (4) philosophic pragmatism, the necessity of linking truth claims to social practice; (5) social gospel Christianity, the work of bridging the gap between social class groups and calling congregations into service among the poor; and (6) the social settlement movement, an attempt to bring conscientious reformers into contact with the lives of those they sought to assist, but were separated from due to social class segregation. Although these assumptions are central to an understanding of Addams and her work, it is also important to consider her major intellectual influences.

Cultural feminism is a major component of Addams’s work at Hull-House specifically and in terms of her pacifism more generally. At Hull-House she surrounded herself with other well-educated and socially conscious women. She believed women to be more capable of cooperation, nurturing, peacefulness, and capacity to care for others. She saw these as qualities essential to the healthy functioning of any society. Further, she believed that the entry of women into the public sphere would keep the United States from war, alleviate social problems such as poverty and crime, and create a greater sense of community and patriotism.

Another social theorist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman , was influential concerning Addams’s views about women. Gilman spent some time with Addams at Hull-House in 1895. They worked together on a publication addressing the issues of working women and also contributed to the women’s peace movement. Although Gilman was somewhat more radical than Addams, both shared the opinion that women’s economic dependence upon men limited their social contributions and thus hindered the advancement of the larger society. In addition, Gilman argued that women’s isolation in the home limited their exposure to fine art and educational methods. Society stagnates as children are left to the care of socially and culturally ignorant women. It was just this type of ignorance that Addams hoped to ameliorate with her work at Hull-House. She understood the importance of helping oppressed groups to become active participants in the world around them. In Women at The Hague Addams writes about the peace movement and the entry of women into the debate as a sign of international social progress: “The recent entrance of women into citizenship coming on so rapidly not only in the nations of Europe and America, but discernable in certain Asiatic nations as well, is doubtless one manifestation of this change, and the so-called radical or progressive element in each nation, whether they like it or not, recognize it as such.” (1915, p. 113)

While pragmatism as a branch of philosophy was initially developed by Charles Peirce and William James , Addams’s “critical pragmatism” was primarily informed by the works of her University of Chicago colleagues, John Dewey , George Herbert Mead , and W. I. Thomas . Further, this understanding was built upon the understanding of a more cooperative Marxism, the Russian experience as told by Leo Tolstoy and Peter Kropotkin, and British social thought including that of Charles Booth, Beatrice Potter Webb, and Sydney Webb.

John Dewey was a valued colleague of Addams. The two held very similar ideas regarding the importance of social science, democracy, and education. In fact, before Dewey accepted the job offer at the University of Chicago, he visited Hull-House. He was quite impressed with the settlement and believed in the applied vision of Addams. Dewey was a frequent guest at Hull-House, serving on its Board, giving lectures, participating in debates, and dining with the residents. Additionally, he helped Addams with the Labor Museum, designed with the idea of celebrating the culture and contributions of Chicago’s many immigrant groups. It was hoped that the museum would help to bridge the gap between the new society and the old. In this way new immigrants would begin to feel more at home in their new society and also pass down their heritage to second and third generations. Both Dewey and Addams recognized the alienation experienced by immigrant groups. Intellectually, they termed this problem, “social disorganization.” However, they recognized the need to ameliorate its consequences and developed social programs to do just that. Theorizing was only one part of the equation for these reformers.

Mead was a close friend of Jane Addams and Hull-House. He supported women’s rights, reviewed Addams’s scholarly work, worked with her on a number of reform projects, and gave a number of lectures at Hull-House relating to Social Darwinism. Mead brought an understanding of the individual to sociology. He and W. I. Thomas developed what is known as the “symbolic interactionist” paradigm. His work was aimed at explaining the impact of social relations upon individual action. Indeed, for Mead, individuals become human only when they can internalize the larger society in terms of values and roles. However, the individual has the potential to internalize national and international values as well, therefore becoming a good global citizen. This ability coupled with social scientific research and democracy has the ability to transform social relationships. Through vocational education and critical thinking, all individuals, regardless of social class or racial/ethnic background, could become participants in the larger society as workers and reflective citizens. Although Mead and Addams differed on their views of pacifism, with Mead justifying conflict to further democracy, they agreed on the importance of women’s rights and higher education.

Like Mead, Thomas also believed individuals to be capable of rational thought and reflexivity, that they are products of social relationships, and further, that they are dynamic agents in the creation of social reality. Additionally, he also identified with a more applied sociology. His studies focused on the more marginal members of society, such as immigrants, deviant women, and African Americans. He advocated complete equality for women and African Americans and argued that education, including vocational education, would enable both groups to enter social life more successfully. For immigrants, Thomas identified the problem as stemming from environmental changes in terms of culture, religion, occupation, and so on. These changes, although at first experienced negatively, could ultimately be opportunities for individual growth and success. However, this could mean the weakening of group ties. Not surprisingly, Thomas was very supportive of the settlement movement and indeed used some of the Hull-House reports in his own studies. He valued Addams as a colleague and friend and even supported her pacifism when others abandoned her.

Although clearly aligned with the pragmatist vision noted above, Addams also owes an intellectual debt to Karl Marx. She agreed with Marx that economic equality was an essential component of a progressive society. However, she believed that commonality and cooperation rather than conflict could be the basis of social change. Stated differently, she argued that groups are more likely to come together over shared interests and that these interests are more likely to foster unity. But she did agree with some of Marx’s views about the importance of labor. She argued that work could contribute to the unification of society.

Addams’s perspectives on labor were enhanced by her reading of Tolstoy and her 1886 visit with him in Russia. Tolstoy argued for a more simple existence based on individual work on the land. This type of life freed individuals from the alienating impact of capitalism – a life that Tolstoy himself cultivated. Having worked the land himself, Tolstoy expected that Addams would also lead a modest life. He criticized her bourgeois ways at every turn, particularly her dress and her ownership of land that was never worked by Addams herself, but by hired help. Addams understood Tolstoy’s position, and respected it. However, she understood the social expectations of the Hull-House neighborhood and knew that they expected her to be a very different type of leader from Tolstoy. She needed to dress well and to be available to meet the needs of her community, which left her unable to fully adopt the peasant lifestyle. While her busy life at Hull-House did not allow her actually to take up the practice of daily bread labor, she did take on the role of an international bread laborer of sorts, traveling to Europe during times of famine and war to assist others in securing both peace and bread. She considered this struggle to be the basic quest of all of humanity, yet that this quest had been perverted by the violence of modern industrial capitalism. But for Addams, it is women who are likely to fight most strongly for the hungry and oppressed in war-torn countries: “As I had felt the young immigrant conscripts caught up into a great world movement, which sent them out to fight, so it seemed to me the millions of American women might be caught up into a great world purpose, that of conservation of life; there might be found an antidote to war in women’s affection and all-embracing pity for helpless children.” (1922, p. 48)

British sociology and Fabianism made a lasting impression on Addams. Charles Booth’s quantitative study of the poor in London was the inspiration for both Hull-House and Hull House Maps and Papers (1895), a sociological investigation of the neighborhoods surrounding Hull-House. The data were collected by the women of Hull-House and utilized by the sociology faculty at the University of Chicago for their studies of urban life. Another follower of Booth, Beatrice Potter Webb, is also linked to Addams and Hull-House. Webb visited Addams in Chicago on two occasions, once in 1893 and again in 1898. Addams also visited Webb and her husband Sydney in 1896, 1915, and again in 1919. The Webbs were active in British political life, particularly regarding the poor.

Scholars of Addams have identified four central themes that are woven throughout the body of her social thought. First, she distrusted formal theory. It was impossible for her to be a dispassionate observer of social life. She felt that academic work and social reform must be carried out within close proximity of its beneficiaries. Stated differently, it is impossible to know what must be done unless one understands the cultural and historical milieu of the people. Furthermore, it is not only the oppressed who benefit from closer contact with the elite. In Twenty Years at Hull-House Addams includes her essay, “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements.” In this essay she argues that to “shut one’s self away from that half of the race life [the poor] is to shut one’s self away from the most vital part of it; it is to live out but half the humanity to which we have been born heir and to use but half our faculties.” (1919, p. 92) Addams took this quite literally, becoming neighbors with those she served. While her social class location and career set her apart from her neighbors, she worked hard to understand the intricacies of their everyday lives.

This relates to a second theme in Addams’s work. Even with the unfortunate relationship with the Progressive Party which supported a platform that denied the rights of both African Americans and women, Addams understood very early on that the goals of the researcher and the researched, the charity worker and her clients might be at odds with one another despite the best intentions of each. This early attempt at multiculturalism is best exemplified in her work, Democracy and Social Ethics (1902). For Addams, recognition of cultural diversity is the first step in creating a more progressive and just society. However, Addams believed that all individuals have the capacity to understand differences and work towards the common good. For that reason it is essential that society focus on making morality an active social endeavor. More specifically, democracy while an ideal, must also become an everyday lived reality or lifestyle.

Thirdly, Addams felt that individuals may be limited by their social location, but that each person is motivated by self-interest and the common good. More specifically, individuals need to give and receive kindness from others. While we have come to expect this kindness as functioning on a solely individual level, we can be taught to understand it as part of the collective as well. Addams sees this as essential for charitable workers. As charitable workers represent larger social organizations, they must respond to their clients as ambassadors of social justice. For Addams, this keeps people connected to the larger society and part of a healthy functioning democratic process. Charitable workers must be taught to relate to the everyday lives of the individuals they serve. Without this understanding, the charitable worker runs the risk of further alienating the individual from the larger society. As for the rich, the poor already expect indifference. But the stingy charitable worker is baffling: “this lady visitor, who pretends to be good to the poor, and certainly does talk as though she were kind-hearted, what does she come for if she does not intend to give them things which are so plainly needed?” (1902, p. 18)

Finally, society must be assessed to identify the discrepancies between its stated values and ideals and individual and group outcomes. For example, the doctrine of individualism no longer makes sense in a society that has become increasingly stratified in terms of social class. Furthermore, as the gap between the rich and the poor increases, the life chances of each group are in a sense predetermined. There exists only a limited possibility that an individual can, by his or her own effort, lift him or herself out of poverty. As individuals try to get ahead they neglect the collective. Instead, we must teach individuals to relate more as equals and to consider the larger social good, develop new sites for collective consciousness-raising such as trade unions, women’s groups, study circles, and finally use this new consciousness to influence the government to act responsibly on behalf of all its citizens, particularly to increase the standard of living for the poor. She argues that this is the more natural state of humanity. This is also true regarding international relations. In Peace and Bread in Time of War Addams writes: “We revolted not only against the cruelty and barbarity of war, but even more against the reversal of human relationships which war implied. We protested against the ‘curbed intelligence' and the ‘thwarted good will,' when both a free mind and unfettered kindliness are so sadly needed in human affairs.” (1922, p. 4)

Although much has been written about Addams’s life and good works, not enough has been written about her social philosophy or her role in shaping the discipline of sociology. During the war years Chicago sociology separated from the more radical Addams, relegating her and the other Hull-House women to the field of social work. While the men considered Hull-House a social experiment of sorts, Addams argued that it was much more. She put her principles into action and created an institution designed to facilitate both community and democracy. She contributed much to the founding of the discipline and also to the study of the impact of industrialization on the lives of the oppressed. She brought a new level of caring and nurturing to the study of social life and recognized the necessity of women’s contributions to such endeavors. Her optimism and stalwart support of peace stands to benefit us as much today as during her own lifetime.


“The Subjective Necessity of Settlements,” in Philanthropy and Social Progress (New York, 1893), pp. 1–26.

“Prefatory Note” and “The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement,” in Hull-House Maps and Papers (Boston, 1895), pp. vii–viii and 183–204.

Democracy and Social Ethics (New York, 1902).

Newer Ideals of Peace (New York, 1907).

The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (New York, 1909).

Twenty Years at Hull-House (New York, 1910).

A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (New York, 1912).

“Recreation as a Public Function in Urban Communities,” American Journal of Sociology 17 (1912): 615–9.

Women at The Hague (New York, 1915).

The Long Road of Women’s Memory (New York, 1916).

Peace and Bread in Time of War (New York, 1922).

Other Relevant Works

A major collection of Addams’s papers is at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania .

Why Women Should Vote (New York, 1912).

“A Modern Devil Baby,” American Journal of Sociology 20 (1914): 117–18.

The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (New York, 1930).

The Excellent Becomes Permanent (New York, 1932).

My Friend Julia Lathrop (New York, 1932).

Jane Addams: A Centennial Reader , ed. (New York, 1960).

The Social Thought of Jane Addams , ed. Christopher Lasch (Indianapolis, 1965).

The Jane Addams Papers, 1860–1960 , 82 microfilm reels (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1984).

Jane Addams on Education , ed. Ellen C. Lagemann (New York, 1985).

The Jane Addams Reader , ed. Jean Bethke Elshtain (New York, 2002).

Jane Addams’s Writings on Peace , 4 vols, ed. Marilyn Fischer and Judy D. Whipps (Bristol, UK, 2003).

The Selected Papers of Jane Addams , vol. 1–, ed. Mary Lynn McCree Bryan, Barbara Bair, and Maree de Angury (Urbana, Ill., 2003–).

Further Reading

Amer Nat Bio, Blackwell Amer Phil, Blackwell Comp Prag, Cambridge Dict Amer Bio, Comp Amer Thought, Dict Amer Bio, Dict Amer Religious Bio, Encyc Amer Bio, Nat Cycl Amer Bio v27, Who Was Who in Amer v1

Bryan, Lynn. The Jane Addams Papers: A Comprehensive Guide (Bloomington, Ind., 1996).

Davis, F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York, 1973).

Deegan, Jo. Race, Hull-House, and the University of Chicago (Westport, Conn., 2002).

Deegan, Jo, Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918 (New Brunswick, 1988).

Deegan, Jo, and Michael Hill, eds. Women and Symbolic Interaction (Boston, 1987).

Elshtain, Bethke. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (New York, 2002).

Fischer, Marilyn. On Addams (Belmont, Cal., 2004).

Joslin, Katherine. Jane Addams: A Writer’s Life (Urbana, Ill., 2004).

Lengermann, Madoo, and Jill Niebrugge-Brandtley. The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830–1930 (Boston, 1998).

Stebner, J. The Women of Hull House (Albany, N.Y., 1997).