Jane Addams

A Progressive Pioneer

There is a saying that behind every successful man is a woman. Well sometimes behind a successful woman there is also a woman. This was the case with renowned philanthropist, women’s rights advocate and pacifist Jane Addams. Although the majority of historians ignore or gloss over this fact, and at the time she would not have identified herself as such, the term didn’t gain popularity until the 1960’s and 70’s, Jane Addams was a lesbian and attributed much of her success to the love and support that she received from the two women in her life; Ellen Starr and Mary Rozet Smith.

Born into a wealthy family, on September 6, 1860, Jane’s early life was one of relative ease, however, because of her father’s work she was exposed to the realities that not everybody’s life was as easy. Her father was a successful businessman, politician and close friend of Abraham Lincoln. Having lost her mother at the age of two, and not growing close to her step mother when her father remarried, her father served as Jane’s primary role model. Jane adored her father. However, because of a spine defect she was sickly, and felt ashamed to walk next to her father in town believing that her defect showed him to poor advantage. Because of this, she often stayed to the sidelines.

Despite her poor health, Jane attended Rockford Women’s Seminary. Unlike when her older sisters attended and took “finishing” classes to prepare them for a domestic life, Jane was able to take classes in science and math. Her education was modeled after the classes offered at men’s colleges of the time. It was also while in college that Jane underwent spinal surgery, which was able to correct much of her defect, although it would continue to plague her through her adult years.

Even with the added difficulties of her surgery, Jane graduated as Valedictorian in 1881. What should have been a joyous year for Jane, turned tragic when her beloved father died in August. Depressed and despondent, Jane floundered not knowing what she wanted to do with her life.

She enrolled in medical school, but dropped out after only a brief amount of time because her health did not permit her to continue her studies. Not willing to get married, Jane travelled to Europe to attend finishing school, as there were no other options open to her. It was at this time that the beginnings of Jane’s future work started to form in her mind.

Addams quickly became of the mind that finishing school was a waste of time. That there had to be something better, something more beneficial that unmarried ladies from wealthy families could do with their time. It was with Ellen Starr that Jane shared these beliefs.

Addams had met Starr at the Rockford Women’s Seminary and they had quickly became close friends. Addams was known throughout her life for her detached and impersonal correspondence with colleagues and friends, however the letters between Starr and herself were animated and spoke of missing each other’s company and a desire to work together to create something for the greater good. It was on one of Jane’s later trips, in 1888 that Ellen joined her and it was together that they toured the famous Toynbee Settlement Hall in London. Toynbee was a settlement in which aid and education was offered to London’s poorest residents and was run by the students of Oxford. This visit would become the catalyst for all that was to come.

Both Addams and Starr saw in Toynbee Hall a reproducible enterprise. However, instead of a place where ladies would drop in to volunteer for a few hours and then return home to their family’s mansions, Jane envisioned a place where these ladies could live separately from their families. Where they could not only help the poor, but get to know them and learn from them.

Upon their return to Chicago, using money she had inherited after her father’s death, Addams and Starr leased the Hull Mansion at the corner of Halsted and Polk. Originally this mansion had been built on the outskirts of town. However, over time it had been converted into a warehouse as a poor immigrant population took over the surrounding area. Both Addams and Starr moved into the mansion and began renovations. Thus the Hull House was born, and with it a brand new approach to social reform.

Hull House opened its doors to the public in 1889 offering basic medical care and child care, but most importantly a place where the poor could come and describe their troubles without their complaints falling on deaf ears. Jane and Ellen made speeches about the needs of the poor and convinced wealthy families to not only donate money, but send their daughters to stay and work at Hull House before marriage.

Within two years, more than 2000 people came through the doors of Hull House every week. There were kindergarten classes – which was unique because the value of kindergarten had not yet caught on, so even the wealthiest of families rarely sent their children to kindergarten – clubs for older children, and classes for adults at night, which was effectively the first night-school in America.

Over the years, as Hull House grew, they added on an art gallery and studio, a public kitchen, swimming pool, coffee shop, gymnasium, library, music school, a boarding club for girls and finally an employment bureau and labor museum. Hull House quickly became a model for other settlements across the United States. Its offerings for the poor communities was unprecedented and it provided one of the first stepping stones for women into the public sphere of professional work. Even today, the majority of jobs held in social reform occupations are held by women.

Unfortunately, as Hull House flourished, Jane and Ellen’s almost fifteen year relationship dimmed, and Ellen began taking trips to Europe to study. Despite the distance that had grown between them personally, Starr was still invested and involved in Hull House. She brought back the skills she had learned in Europe and taught book binding. She also taught art history and introduced classical works of fiction breaking through the belief that art and culture were reserved for the upper classes.

It was also on these trips that Ellen began to more fully investigate her religious beliefs. Whether it was Ellen’s renewed religion that pushed Jane away (Jane was not overly religious, and often got offended when people would try to assign a religious affiliation to Hull House), or whether Jane pushing Ellen away caused her new religious zeal is unknown. What is known, is that their relationship changed, and their shared room at Hull House became two rooms.

Another possible cause of this change was the appearance of a young woman named Mary Rozet Smith at Hull House. Everybody loved Mary’s easy going nature and kindness. Both Jane and Ellen were instantly enamored of her and welcomed her presence. Much like Jane’s early correspondence with Ellen, Jane’s letters to Mary were full of life. At first Jane would use the pronoun ‘we’ to indicate that she was writing for both herself and Ellen. Then slowly ‘we’ became ‘I’ and Jane would send Ellen’s best wishes, and then eventually Jane stopped mentioning Ellen at all.

By this time Ellen and Jane’s intimate relationship was over, and when Mary moved into Jane’s room at Hull House, Jane told Ellen openly in a letter.

Unlike Ellen Starr, Mary Rozet Smith did not provide Jane with intellectual stimulation or deep discourse on politics. Smith was known instead for her warm and caring disposition and her contributions to Hull House were mainly monetary based. What Jane found in Mary was a person that accepted her unconditionally, defects and all, and for a woman who had been plagued her entire life with low self-worth, Mary’s love and encouragement were invaluable.

Despite her own feelings, Jane despaired that the match was not mutually beneficial for Mary. So when one of the male volunteers at Hull House, who had taken a liking to Mary, travelled to Europe to rendezvous with Mary and her family, Jane wrote to Mary urging her to accept his courtship, which would lead to a traditional life for her. Mary, however, ignored the letter’s advice and returned to Jane in Chicago.

They remained by each other’s sides, travelling and working together. In their personal correspondence they referred to each other as if they were married and even bought a house together. Mary took care of travel plans, made sure nieces and nephews received birthday cards and constantly looked after Jane’s health.

It was with Mary by her side that Jane’s influence reached across the United States and into the world. She travelled far and wide giving lectures. She wrote papers and several books. She was named to the board of trustees to the National Child Labor Committee and was one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 1905, Jane joined Chicago’s Board of Education and was later made chairman of the School Management committee.

In 1908, she helped found the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and in the following year the National Conference of Charities and Corrections named her president, the first time a woman had held that post.

In 1910, Jane accumulated another first when she was the first woman to ever be awarded an honorary degree from Yale University.

Jane stood up for not only the poor but also women specifically. She spoke about the need for women’s suffrage because tenement, child labor and sanitation laws greatly affected a woman’s life, therefore women should have a say in them. She served as the vice-president of the National Women Suffrage Association from 1911–1914. Jane did studies on midwifery, drug use, milk supplies and sanitation in Chicago’s poor sections. Her investigation into sanitation even led so far that she accepted the post of garbage inspector of the nineteenth ward.

In 1912, Jane campaigned for the Progressive Party helping to get Theodore Roosevelt elected president, only to speak out against his decision to enter the United States into WWI years later. A lifelong pacifist, Jane had spoken at the commemoration of the new Peace Palace at the Hauge in 1913 and in 1915 she accepted the chairmanship of the Women’s Peace Party and the presidency of the International Congress of Women at The Hague.

Jane received harsh criticism because of her vociferous opposition to the war, however, hate mail didn’t stop her development of Hull House, and it didn’t stop her desire to work for peace. When the International Congress formed the International League for Peace and Freedom, Jane was nominated president and served in that capacity until 1929, when she became honorary president until her death.

Despite her opposition to the war itself, Jane directed her humanitarian efforts to those left in need because of the fighting. Serving as assistant to Herbert Hoover, she worked to ensure that women and children of the warring nations had adequate food and supplies. At the conclusion of the war, public opinion swayed back to Jane, and she once more was recognized as one of America’s greatest women.

In 1926, Jane was admitted to the hospital with a heart attack. This proved to be the blow that finally slowed her down and she was in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life. On December 10, 1931, Jane became the second woman in history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However instead of travelling to Oslo to accept her award, she was in a hospital in Baltimore.

Despite her continuing sickness and frailty, Jane outlived Mary who died of pneumonia in March of 1934. After more than forty years together, Jane was absolutely devastated. In a letter to her nephew, Jane admitted that it was only the memory of all that Mary had done for her that kept Jane from cowardly allowing herself to slip into death as well. However, Jane didn’t outlive Mary for long, passing away in May of 1935 at the age of 74. Jane Addam’s funeral was held in the courtyard of Hull House and was attended by thousands of people, many of whom she had personally helped.

With the exception of a handful of historians, Jane Addams’ personal relationships and sexuality is ignored. In Addams’ time, a lesbian lifestyle was seen as perverse and anybody who would openly engage in such behavior was reproached and seen as a degenerate. However, the amazing advancements in social reform, and all of the good that Addams was able to accomplish, did not match society’s picture of a lesbian. Therefore, that part of “America’s Greatest Woman” was swept under the rug and ignored so that America could continue to applaud her, despite the fact that Jane did little to hide the relationships.

The ironic thing is that the very part of her success that people refused to acknowledge, is the part that gave her the strength and courage to accomplish all that she did. Today this stigma is slowly being overcome and more and more people are not only accepting, but acknowledging, that the story of Jane Addams is incomplete without the full inclusion of Ellen Starr and Mary Rozet Smith.
*Originally appeared in Business Heroine Magazine