Jane Addams (1860-1935), renowned during her lifetime, was a central figure in 19th and 20th century American political and social history. Best known for co-founding Chicago’s Hull-House social settlement in 1889, by 1905 Addams’ eloquent arguments for social reform made her one of the most influential women in America and a leader of the Progressive movement. A prolific writer and intellectual, Jane Addams was a popular speaker, commentator, and author, publishing eleven books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from woman suffrage, child labor, immigration, peace, and democracy.
By 1901, Jane Addams had already accomplished enough to ensure her fame. Hull-House, her pioneering settlement in Chicago, had been open for eleven years, expanding its offerings and influence. Addams, one of the best-known proponents of social work and social welfare, spoke to groups around the nation on ethics, social work, and labor reform. But if anything, Addams’ accomplishments in the 20th century were more far-ranging and far-reaching. In the second half of her life she became an internationally known figure, a political activist, and a player in politics in Washington and beyond. She led the fight for peace, both in the United States with the Woman’s Peace Party, and as head of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Facing criticism for her stance against American entry into World War I and conscription, Addams built a global network of women to try to mediate a just peace, developing the ideals upon which the League of Nations and later the United Nations were founded. Addams, who presided over the first six International Congresses of Women, was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Addams was also an outspoken supporter of woman suffrage, serving as a vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She fought for improved child labor laws with the National Child Labor Committee. She was an active member of the Progressive Party’s National Committee, as well as many Chicago-based county and city committees, and she supported the presidential candidacies of Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette, Jr. She defended the rights of immigrants and African-Americans, championing the causes of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and Abraham Isaak, and was among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. A prolific speaker and writer, Addams’ works include Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912), The Long Road of Women’s Memory (1916), Peace and Bread in Times of War (1922), and The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932).
At her death in 1935, the New York Times waxed:
Miss Addams has been called ‘the greatest woman in the world,’ the ‘mother of social service,’ ‘the greatest woman internationalist’ and the ‘first citizen of Chicago.’ With her idealism, serene, unafraid, militant, was always paramount. Devoted to the cause of social and political reform, to the betterment of the economic condition of the masses, to world peace and to internationalism, Miss Addams’s influence was world-wide. She was, perhaps, the world’s best-known and best-loved woman. (May 22, 1935)