Addams, Jane

Once commonly described as a social worker and a cofounder of the settlement house Hull House, Jane Addams ( 1860–1935 ) is now more accurately understood as a public intellectual, political theorist and activist, author, lecturer, and leader of the settlement house movement. The first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931, Addams was a major figure in the politics of her era, an astute theorist about civil society in a democracy, and a visionary advocate for what democratic government could become when all adult citizens could contribute to political debate and vote.

Addams's ideas on politics and government were shaped by three central experiences. The first was growing up in the small town of Cedarville, Illinois, with a father who, in addition to being a successful agricultural businessman, was a state senator. John Huy Addams ( 1822–1881 ) served as a legislator for fourteen years and inspired his daughter's childhood interest in politics.

The second experience resulted from her decision in 1889 to live on Chicago's near West Side, in a highly industrialized, densely populated, mostly immigrant district of working people. She and a friend, Ellen Gates Starr, moved there in order to found Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the United States. A settlement house was a neighborhood community center open to all, with cultural, educational, social, arts, athletic, and civic activities. People from outside the neighborhood, often college educated, lived at a settlement house because they sought connection with the working classes. Living at Hull House, Addams was compelled to learn about and think about the place of working people, especially working women, in a democracy, and this became the defining interest of her political and intellectual life.

The third was her decision to live in Chicago at all. The nation's second-largest city, Chicago was also crowded with immigrants (75 percent of its population was either foreign born or the children of those who were foreign born). Chicago in the 1890s was a boom and bust town. The depression from 1893 to 1897 brought the rapidly industrializing city to its knees and aroused citizens to organize to clean up a corrupt city government. Addams first observed and then joined a surge of political activism that transformed her from a wistful outsider who thought her lack of a vote barred her from politics to a fully engaged activist: she lobbied the state legislature to ban child labor, campaigned to unseat her ward's corrupt alderman, was hired by the reformed city government as her ward's garbage inspector, and served on a mayoral commission.

Jane Addams (1860–1935), political activist and leader of the settlement house movement.

Jane Addams (1860–1935), political activist and leader of the settlement house movement.

Although as president Theodore Roosevelt supported state laws banning child labor, he refused to endorse a federal ban. He also supported proposed federal legislation Addams opposed that would have barred illiterate immigrants from admission to the United States. Nonetheless, their political friendship blossomed in 1912, when he ran as the Progressive Party's presidential candidate. Addams seconded his nomination at the party convention and became a party leader. She served as a member of the Cook County and Illinois Progressive Party committees, was one of four women named to the National Progressive Committee, and for many years was the only woman member of the party's nine-member executive committee. Roosevelt was seriously considering naming her to his cabinet if he was elected. If he had not lost to the Democratic Party nominee Woodrow Wilson ( 1856–1924 ), and if she had accepted the post, she, and not her friend Frances Perkins, would have been the first woman to serve as secretary of a federal department.

Addams's thinking about politics was always distilled through her passion for the fulfillment of human potential for all citizens. She believed that a democratic government was one of the only two means available (education being the other) to develop “human nature in scope and power and happiness” ( Knight 2010, 100 ). This belief, which she set forth in her book about government, Newer Ideals of Peace, compelled her to oppose all forms of prejudice in government policies, to support using government to remove obstacles—including the lack of the vote—blocking women's paths, and to attempt to persuade democratic governments to embrace the ideals of working people, which she described as including food and shelter for families, security for old age and a “larger opportunity” for their children ( Addams 1907, 138 ).

Addams's engagement in politics is better known than her ideas about public administration, a field in which she engaged briefly but observed for much longer. While most of her progressive colleagues criticized municipal governments for being riddled with partydriven corruption and amateur employees, Addams criticized the municipal reformers themselves, especially for their old-fashioned faith in eighteenth-century ideas about public administration, including their distrust of “the people” and their preference for elite control. In her 1905 essay on the problems of municipal administration, she called for public administrators to develop a real knowledge of the people and to develop administrative machinery that would rely on “the efficiency of the popular will” ( Addams 1905, 426–27 ).

Although unable to vote for president until she was fifty-six years old, when Illinois gave women the presidential vote, Addams spent much of her adult life engaged in the political world as an activist and intellectual, as well as a brief period as a government employee. No American woman of her day was more politically engaged or more interested in issues of governance than Jane Addams.

SEE ALSO Leadership and Women ; Progressive Movement, 1890–1920 ; Progressive Movements in American History ; Progressive Reform in American History ; Social Movements .


Addams. Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. New York: Macmillan, 1902.

Addams, Jane. “Problems of Municipal Administration.” American Journal of Sociology 10, no. 4 (1905): 425–44.

Addams, Jane. Newer Ideals of Peace. New York: Macmillan, 1907. Knight, Louise W. Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Knight, Louise W. Jane Addams: Spirit in Action. New York: Norton, 2010.

Nackenoff, Carol. “New Politics for New Selves: Jane Addams's Legacy for Democratic Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century.” In Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy, edited by Marilyn Fischer, Carol Nackenoff, and Wendy Chmielewski, 119–42. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Stivers, Camilla. “A Civic Machinery for Democratic Expression: Jane Addams on Public Administration.” In Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy, edited by Marilyn Fischer, Carol Nackenoff, and Wendy Chmielewski, 87–97. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Louise W. Knight
Independent Scholar