Jane Addams, Alice Austen, and Virginia Woolf

Mary Rozet Smith and Jane Addams.

This blog is a short exploration into the realm of female love and partnership within the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Jane Addams and Alice Austen, two women of notable character during this era, provided the main case studies for this research

This blog examines the success of these women and how female love was essential in their ability to develop as independent voices in the politics of society. The female relationships of both Jane Addams and Alice Austen were what allowed for them to have a “room of one’s own,” an otherwise unlikely reality if Addams and Austen had submitted to the conventional expectation of a heterosexual marriage and family.

Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois, on September 6, 1860. Alice Austen was born less than one thousand miles away in Staten Island, New York, on March 17, 1866. Though these women most likely never met within their lifetime, they shared common life choices that carried them both beyond the confines of their home. Addams was of the first graduating class at the Rockford Seminary College, in which she spoke as valedictorian during their 1881 graduation ceremony. She was also well traveled, having gone with her stepmother to Europe after college and again in 1888. It was in Europe that Addams would become inspired by the London settlement house, Toynbee Hall. Alice Austen was a traveler herself. She and her own mother journeyed to Europe in 1893, as well as traveling within the States.

Jane Addams was a major figure in the reform movements of child labor, peace, women’s suffrage, and immigration that shook society during the turn of the twentieth century. Austen, though a lesser-known figure of history, was integral to the professionalization and documentary discipline of one of the newest inventions, the camera. Alice Austen had a mechanic’s mind and so when given this new instrument experimentation was only natural. One of these experiments was the use of a trigger system to allow her to get in the photo while simultaneously taking the picture. Using a thread attached to the camera, Austen could pull on it from her position in front of the lens to capture an image. Today, that seems like quite an easy feat, but the camera in the 1880s was a very new product and so the idea that one could be both the subject and photographer was certainly innovative. Austen also added another element to her work through the manipulation of the camera, in which she communicated her questioning reality of gender and sexuality.

Briefly, it is important to note that the lives of Addams and Austen do not represent all women of the time frame because elements of social class, race, and varying educational levels rendered their experiences quite distinct from say women of color and poverty. In terms of the wealthy family though, men were the income providers, so in focusing exclusively on the position of class for the women of these families it becomes again a man’s story; if not for the male’s wealth the female dependents would never have been able to do such and such. Though true that wealth provided the opportunity, it did not, however, require anything of the woman to act on those opportunities; that was all her own.

Where then in this society could women be themselves? The answer is with other women.

Portrait of Mary Rozet Smith at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

For over thirty-five years Jane Addams maintained a special relationship with a woman named, Mary Rozet Smith. Their relationship does not fit within the parameters of modern ideas of sexuality because terms like “lesbian” or “gay” did not yet exist. Their correspondence of nearly four decades provided an opportunity to understand their bond for what it was, one based on love. The choice to live together and remain unmarried was meaningful given the pressure society held for marriage and children. A 1915 Kentucky newspaper, The Courier Journal, lamented the loss of future George Washingtons, Jeffersons, Lincolns, and Edisons when women like Jane Addams remained celibate. The writer concluded that though the “cocksuredness of the consciously intellectual woman,” might give her the impression that “ no mere man whom she might become the mother could serve the world as she can serve it. But she is bound to admit that but for their mothers there would have been no Jane Addams or Susan B. Anthony!” This article echoed the many concerns society had for women that were voluntarily unmarried and childless, which was often considered a consequence of their education. Women’s value was dependent on the child they bore, and more specifically the male child they would raise as upstanding citizens, or the future George Washington.

So how then might a connection exist between the female world and Virginia Woolf’s concept of “a room of one’s own?” Virginia Woolf theorized the very life a woman of talent would lead if born with the same brilliance as Shakespeare himself. Woolf named this woman as Shakespeare’s fictive sister, Judith, and placed her within the same household and therefore same potential as Shakespeare.

Judith’s stages of life went as followed: denied schooling, beaten by her father for rejecting marriage to a wood-stapler, laughed at the theater door for her desire to act, but pitiable enough for the theater manager to take her in and grow not her skill with words but a child in her. No outlet, no space, and no room to write or release the overwhelming nature of her mind, Judith killed herself. Woolf contended that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Though for the purpose of this essay, the phrase, “to write fiction,” can be substituted with other disciplines of art, science, and social thought while still remaining applicable to Woolf’s argument. If written as a checklist, a check could be placed in the box next to “have money” since both Addams and Austen were born financially comfortable. It becomes more complicated when considering “a room of her own.”

Jane Addams’ room was not just a room, but instead an entire house, known as Hull House. It was here, on 800 South Halsted Street, Chicago, Illinois, that Addams wrote. She wrote letters, books, speeches, indictments against child labor, recommendations on peace, and much more. Her rooms became rooms for other women, many female college graduates like herself, that faced the similar predicament of what to do after graduating, unable to choose both a family and career. It was in these rooms, Florence Kelley, Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and other Hull House residents researched and published, Hull House Maps and Papers. This was an important early analysis on the sociological relations between income and nationality in the diverse but poverty-stricken-immigrant neighborhood of Chicago. It was in these rooms also that Addams housed a nursery for immigrant working families, a dance space, summer school, health facility, reading room, and temporary residence for young women.

Addams also had what Judith was never allowed, acknowledgment for the thoughts of her mind. Mary Rozet Smith provided a “room,” or a place of recognition for Addams to write to and express her own gift for words. Addams could write knowing it would be read and replied to. On June 11th, 1909, Addams rejoiced upon receiving Smith’s letter and responded back, “Your letter this morning cheered me mightily — not exactly because it was so cheerful as because I was overjoyed to get a word from you…”

A portrait of Alice Austen, 1892.

From her own room, the dark room, Alice Austen developed thousands of photographs she had taken while abroad or from habitual visits to New York City. Around twenty-six years of age, Alice Austen took what today would be termed a “selfie.” Dressed in a ruffled, wide, scooped neck gown, Alice Austen reclined slightly against a backdrop of ferns and other foliage. She appeared at once part of and at odds with her surroundings. Her clean, pale, elbow length gloves conflicted with the rough and shadowy greenery behind her. Austen maintained a composed or even stern expression as she directed her gaze at the camera. Without context, this photo may seem a nice portrait of a young lady enjoying her surroundings. Though knowing some of her story, several theories were drawn. The most immediate subject of interest when seeing the image was Austen’s evening dress, which seemed to glare out awkwardly and yet proudly from the surrounding shrubbery. The leaves almost served as a natural curtain or symbolized a feeling of not quite fitting into the social order of society, which was often perceived as natural. The juxtaposition of the literal stuff of nature, leaves and trees and dirt, beside a societal idea of natural, a corseted dress, posed a comedic and yet insightful critique to what truly defined “natural.”

A portrait of Gertrude Tate at Clear Comfort, Alice Austen’s Staten Island home, 1892.

Following this line of thought, societal perception of “natural” might also be challenged when considering this photo in relation to one quite similar of Gertrude Tate. Taken in the same year, 1892, Gertrude Tate rested in front of the familiar backdrop of leaves and foliage. Tate also wore a long pale gown and stared straight at the camera. Alone, these photos may seem like portraits, but together they appeared more significant. The long gowns, no longer seemed like evening costumes but instead wedding dresses. Austen appeared to have played on the expectations of the viewers with the use of the gowns as implications of marriage. Austen forced the question of why was marriage a natural assumption when seeing a gown, and how would this be any less natural then if two women were married?

It could be argued that comparing Virginia Woolf’s story of Judith cannot be fairly matched to the story of Jane Addams and Alice Austen. There is a gap of over three hundred years between Judith’s fictive sixteenth century life and Addams and Austen’s nineteenth century reality. The fact, however, that Judith’s struggles as a woman were of equal concern over three hundred years later attested to a much more rooted problem in society. Virginia Woolf published her book in 1929, a time in which she herself could not enter an academic library unless accompanied by a man. The ability for women like Jane Addams and Alice Austen to not only exist, but also live up to a potential unfathomable less than half a century before indicated progress.

The avenues women could succeed in were still regulated though. It was only under the auspices of motherhood or female morality that women could justify their presence outside the home. The newspapers of the day held a particular interest in rationalizing the role of these “spinsters” or “old maids,” in the public sphere. Women, themselves, wielded their identity as mothers and wives to validate their direct action and organizing for work in child labor reform or temperance. The Oakland Tribune featured a mother who argued the “most splendid mothers in our land today are old maids. Jane Addams is one.” Even unmarried and in a same-sex relationship Jane Addams was still a woman and therefore a mother. It is interesting to consider Jane Addams’ identity as both a mother and a woman who never had children. Addams relied on her identity as a mother for all children in order to be of political action and yet her very “spinsterhood,” conversely, was what enabled Addams to be this universal mother figure. Whether Addams was celibate or not makes no difference nor is it really anyone’s business, but rather it was her love and commitment to be with another woman that provided “room” for her to then grow beyond those four walls.

Sources:  Mary Rozet Smith and Jane Addams photograph, 1896, Swarthmore Peace Collection. Accessed October 4, 2018; “Addams, Jane (1860-1935).” Jane Addams Digital Edition. Accessed March 11, 2018; Addams, Jane. “Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith, June 11, 1909.” Jane Addams Digital Edition. Accessed April 5, 2018. ; Austen, Alice. Alice Austen Portrait. Alice Austen House. Accessed March 14, 2018. ; Austen, Alice. Gertrude Tate Portrait. Alice Austen House. Accessed March 10, 2018. ; Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 1929. Accessed March 20, 2018; Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 1, no. 1 (1975): 1-29; “Here’s Praise for Spinsters: Club Member and Mother Says Mothers Are Not Above Criticism.” The Oakland Tribune. December 9, 1914; Gover, C. Jane. The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn of the Century America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988; Freedman, Estelle B. “Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America: Behavior, Ideology, and Politics.” Reviews in American History 10, no. 4 (1982): 196-215; “A Dozen Women.” The Courier-Journal. September 10, 1915.

Emma Lucier-Keller is an Editorial Assistant for the Jane Addams Papers Project. Lucier-Keller is double majoring in History and American Studies with a minor in Women and Gender Studies, and will graduate Spring of 2019.