Jane Addams

Good morning, it’s May 21st, 2020.

On this date in 1935, the world lost a humanitarian, author, educator, philosopher, social worker, champion of children’s and women’s rights, and peace advocate extraordinaire. That list only begins to describe Jane Addams, whose dedication to bettering society prompted high praise from all corners. In its obituary that appeared 85 years ago tomorrow, the New York Times described Addams as “perhaps the world’s best-known and best-loved woman” — this at a time when Eleanor Roosevelt was drawing deep admiration far and wide.

Jane Addams was born in 1860, the youngest of eight children. But four of those siblings did not live into adulthood, their mother would die when Jane was just 2, and health issues would shadow the baby of the family from her tender years onward. Those challenges notwithstanding, Addams was in fact blessed. Her father, a state legislator and friend of Abraham Lincoln, was prosperous. She did not want for education or lack material comforts. And her appetite as a reader exposed this bright and conscientious young woman to the ideas and ideals of Dickens and Tolstoy, Comte and Mill.

Inspired to be useful in a world that needed all the help it could get, Addams enrolled in medical school briefly before finding the first of her many callings while visiting Toynbee Hall in London. Toynbee was a “settlement house,” founded as a place where the well-off lived amid and aided the poor, to the mutual benefit of all. Inspired by this model, Addams and a friend opened Hull House in Chicago, which would grow from a single building to 13 and offer classes, childcare and others forms of support to the needy, especially new immigrants. In the broadest sense, this community stitched itself into the larger fabric of the neighborhood. As the Times noted, “So disturbed was [Addams] by the condition of the streets in the [19th] ward that she obtained the post of garbage inspector, which she filled with her characteristic successful thoroughness for three years, until, as she later explained, a politician coveted it for one of his henchmen.”

Addams would live at Hull House for the rest of her life, but an ever-widening mission drew her far afield. She fought to end child labor, battled for women’s suffrage and other rights, and lectured throughout the country on the causes that earned her a fitting sobriquet: She was dubbed “the mother of social service,” often recast today as “the mother of social work.” But flowing like an underground stream beneath these commitments was a belief that alleviating poverty and suffering missed a larger point. Better, she was convinced, to end the one source of so much misery in the world: warfare.

There was a lofty rationale behind her conviction that this goal was achievable. As one reviewer wrote of Addams’ 1907 book, “Newer Ideals of Peace”: “She sees a slow, powerful emergence of forces from below — the poor, the despised, workers, women, ethnic and racial communities, oppressed groups at home and abroad — that would invent moral substitutes for war and gradually shape a just, peaceful, and varied social order.”

Image result for jane addamsRidiculed as naïve, Addams insisted her blueprint for those “moral substitutes for war” was a vast advancement over “the older dovelike” template of passivity in the face of aggression and injustice. In the book, she argued that extended contact with the poor leads to magnanimity and a “self-surrender to these new ideals.” This evangelist of active pacifism predicted that even the German kaiser, if exposed to his people in this way, “would no more be passive than St. Paul was after his conversion. He would regard the four million men shut up in barracks, fed in idleness by toiling peasants, as an actual wrong and oppression.”

She ended her 1907 treatise by predicting a moment when “peace is no longer an abstract dogma but has become a rising tide of moral enthusiasm slowly engulfing all pride of conquest and making war impossible.”

Just seven years later, the “War to End All Wars” would challenge that belief on a grand and horrific scale. Not surprisingly, Addams held fast to her convictions and opposed America’s entry into the conflict. But she found an outlet for her humanitarian impulses by assisting the food relief efforts in Europe that Herbert Hoover spearheaded.

Though her prescience had been faulty in 1907, it proved dead-on following the armistice. As her Nobel biography notes, Addams “was critical of the peace treaty that was forced on Germany in 1919, maintaining that it was so humiliating that it would lead to a German war of revenge.”

Jane Addams would not live to see that eventuality. Her involvement in international peace efforts would continue through the 1920s and beyond, but failing health made that work increasingly difficult. Sadly, on the day her peace prize was announced, Addams was in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the next step in her ineluctable decline. As a result, she was not in Oslo on Dec. 10, 1931. We have no acceptance speech from which to quote, or accounts of her day in the sun.

I suspect Jane Addams wouldn’t have enjoyed any fuss being made over her. The task she saw before us all was just too great, and the stakes too high. She had written of being “constantly haunted by a state of colossal maladjustment” in the world, seeing in the aftermath of the Great War “dragon’s teeth of future misery … being sown.” Still, Addams’ tenuous hope was underpinned by a tensile strength. At the end of “Peace and Bread in Time of War” – her book on the Hoover relief mission – she quotes a fellow advocate, the novelist and social critic H.G. Wells:

“I believe so firmly in this great World at Peace that lies so close to our own, ready to come into being as our wills turn toward it. … I must go about this present world of disorder and darkness like an exile doing such feeble things as I can toward the world of my desire, now hopefully, now bitterly, as the moods may happen before I die.”

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