Saint Jane: The Life and Reform Work of Jane Addams

by Holley Snaith

“Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself.”  

Jane Addams 

Jane Addams has been called the Mother of Social Work. An innate servant with a vision, she opened her heart and the doors of Hull-House in Chicago to those identified by society as outcasts. Jane was also fervent in her fight against the issues created by urbanization and industrialization and passionately strove for a world of peace and equality. The little girl from the small village of Cedarville, Illinois became an invincible force during the American Progressive Era and would go down in history as Saint Jane. 

Jane Addams pictured in the late 1890s.
(Photo: Swarthmore College Peace Collection)

Jane was born the eighth of nine children on September 6, 1860. Her father was a state senator immersed in local politics; her mother died after the birth of her ninth child when Jane was two. Young Jane was an outcast, unable to play with other children because of a congenital spinal defect. This disability marked the conception of her desire to help those who were also viewed as marginalized.

An intelligent young woman, Jane graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Rockford Female Seminary in 1881. She dreamed of furthering her studies and focusing on medicine, but she was forced to leave school early because of her poor health. Contemplating what was next, Jane spent the next couple of years traveling across Europe with her friend, Ellen Gates Starr. During one pivotal trip to London, she and Ellen paid a visit to a settlement house called Toynbee Hall. Seeing Toynbee Hall confirmed for Addams what her heart was moving her to do: open a similar settlement house in an area of Chicago with a high percentage of immigrants struggling to acclimate. Less than two years later, Hull-House opened. Within that first year, around 2,000 people a week were coming through those doors.  

From the onset, Jane was hands-on when it came to the daily operations at Hull-House. She actively fundraised, attended societal functions and spoke on the changes that needed to be made in Chicago neighborhoods, and then returned to Hull-House to care for the children and the sick. Within a couple of years, Hull-House had grown to host so many that a kitchen, gym, swimming pool, coffee house, art studio, library, and more were added to the premises. Jane worked to appeal to other women who were proponents of reform and enlisted their help. The list of responsibilities ranged from offering job training to running a daycare for the children of working mothers. 

Jane Addams reading to a group of children at Hull-House.
(Photo: Jane Addams Memorial Collection)

Jane’s work went far beyond the walls of Hull-House. As an ardent progressive, she pushed for the creation of a juvenile court system, advocated for protective labor legislation for women, and backed laws that would improve sanitation in urban areas, even going as far as serving as the official garbage inspector at the Nineteenth Ward.

The term “New Woman,” invented by writer Sarah Grand to describe women striving for both independence and sweeping change in legislation, adequately described Jane. Before the women’s suffrage movement began to take full effect in the U.S., she was vocalizing her belief that women should vote and strive to get involved in the political sphere. Jane herself served as the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, and then invested her time in the National American Women’s Suffrage Association as an officer and columnist. In 1910, Yale University made Jane Addams the first female to receive an honorary degree from the esteemed Ivy League school.

Never one to follow the status quo, Jane’s personal life was vastly different from that of the women who grew up in her social class. She never married nor had children, and historians have speculated that she and Ellen Gates Starr were romantically involved. Eventually, their association ended and Jane entered a relationship with philanthropist and advocate, Mary Rozet Smith. Their partnership lasted over 30 years, ending with Smith’s death in 1934. 

Jane Addams and longtime partner, Mary Rozet Smith, around 1923.
(Photo: The History Chicks)

Although she was not shy in expressing her beliefs, Jane was first and foremost a proponent of peace, a reflection of her deep Christian upbringing. She wrote books on peace, gave lectures at universities, and even traveled to The Hague in 1913 to celebrate the building of the Peace Palace. Fervently against the U.S. entering World War I, Jane accepted the invitation to serve as chairwoman of the Women’s Peace Party, and later as the president of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 

The press attacked her and the Daughters of the American Revolution found themselves disenchanted by her strong opposition to the war, going so far as to expel her from the organization. Not discouraged, she joined forces with Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief to distribute food and necessities to women and children living in enemy countries. After the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, Jane proclaimed that one day Germany would seek revenge; she would not live to see her premonition come true.

Jane Addams (right) marches for peace during the First World War
(Photo: Jane Addams Peace Association)

In 1926, Jane suffered a heart attack that sidelined much of her activist work, but even in declining health, she continued the fight for reform and peace. She was honored to receive the news that she would be the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 1931, though she was unable to make the ceremony in Oslo. 

On May 21, 1935, the stalwart woman who earned the nickname Saint Jane passed away after a brief cancer battle. Her funeral service took place at Hull-House, the product of her great vision. 

Jane Addams blazed a path for female social reformers during the Progressive Era. She could have easily opted to settle into a comfortable, economically prosperous life in Chicago, but instead, she thrust all of her energy and attention into helping those less fortunate and advocating for a world of equality, justice, and peace. The legacy of Saint Jane lives on.


Recommended Reading

“About Jane Addams”: https://www.hullhousemuseum.org/about-jane-addams

“The Jane Addams Papers Project”: https://janeaddams.ramapo.edu/

Podcast: “The History Chicks: Jane Addams Part 1”: http://thehistorychicks.com/episode-111-jane-addams-part-1/Part 2: http://thehistorychicks.com/episode-112-jane-addams-part-2/


About the Author

Holley Snaith is a writer and historian who specializes in 20th century U.S. history. Her passion for history began in high school when she completed her senior project on Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the March of Dimes and interned at Roosevelt’s Little White House in Georgia. After graduating with a B.A. in History from the University of Florida, Holley moved to New York and began an internship with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum. Next, she embarked upon a historical restoration project in partnership with the National Park Service at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, and served as program assistant to the Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Program at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. 

Holley has also worked for the Richard Nixon Foundation in California. There, she conducted research and created an exhibit on Pat Nixon at the University of Southern California, as well as managed donor relations. As a freelance writer and historian, Holley continues to write articles on inspirational historical figures and has been published in American Heritage Magazine. She holds an M.S.A. in Public Administration from the University of West Florida. 

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