• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

Title

My American Hero: Jane Addams

Jane Addams built American pluralism and shaped American citizens. She is the hero we need now.

September 9, 2019
 
 

This is Jane Addams week on the blog. I just visited the Hull House Museum in Chicago, examined the replica of the 13-house settlement that Addams and her female compatriots built, thumbed through her two-inch FBI file and marveled at the role that she played in American life.

Addams's era -- the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries -- has remarkable parallels to ours.

Immigration was profoundly changing the ethnic and religious makeup of the nation. A massive economic shift was taking place, as industrialization overtook the agrarian economy.

Great wealth was being made in some quarters and there was devastating poverty in others, creating an ugly income inequality.

Cities grew rapidly and were, for many people, horribly unsanitary and dangerous places to live. Labor conditions were often worse. A communications revolution was underway, with the invention of both the radio and the telephone, and racist hate groups were on the rise.

Into this maelstrom Jane Addams came. In 1889, she started an institution called Hull House on the near west side of Chicago whose initial purpose was to meet the immediate needs of the diverse array of immigrants in the nineteenth ward. She died there nearly a half century later, having built what many consider the best example of democracy in action that America has ever seen.

Walter Isaacson once wrote that Steve Jobs transformed seven industries -- personal computing, animated movies, retail, music, phones, digital publishing and tablets. Jane Addams transformed at least as many areas of American democracy.

She fought for women's suffrage, helped found the NAACP and was a key leader of the ACLU. She recognized the power and possibility of the newly emerging category of adolescence. She wrote articles against lynching and was friends with the famed black feminist Ida B. Wells Barnett.

At a time of religious tensions, she created spaces of interfaith cooperation organized around what she called "the fellowship of the deed."

She stood up for the politically unpopular while still working with politicians, was seen as fair-minded enough by both CEOs and union leaders to mediate labor disputes, and launched investigations into diseases that led to new laws and government agencies which dramatically improved public health.

Hull House leaders -- almost all women -- were pioneers in urban sociology. Their research not only mapped the ethnic makeup of the nineteenth ward of Chicago, it highlighted many of the problems there as well.

They discovered that there were 7,000 school-age children in the ward, but only 3,000 seats in local public schools. So, Hull House organized classes and activities for kids.

There were hundreds of residents in the blocks west of Hull House, but only three bathtubs. So, Hull House built public baths.

Are you getting the picture here?

Virtually every change that Jane Addams advocated for, she built a model of at Hull House. It was a laboratory to discover what worked, and a launching pad to advocate for larger reforms.

Jane Addams didn't just criticize what other people were doing wrong, she built a better order.

You don't believe that women have the intellectual ability to vote? Well, come see how we run things at Hull House.

Think that young people are simply ticking time bombs of trouble waiting to explode? Come see the Boy Scout group and other youth leadership programs at Hull House.

You think that saloons are the only place that people will gather? Come hang out at the coffee shop we built at Hull House.

You feel that arts, culture and education should only be reserved for certain ethnic groups and social classes? Come participate in the book groups, art workshops and college extension courses at Hull House.

You think that diversity requires separation? Come see how tasty the food is at the public kitchen at Hull House, where people from different nations share traditional recipes and prepare delicious meals complete with dishes from all over the world.

All of this might seem obvious now, but it wasn't at the time, and that is part of Jane Addams's achievement. She built a full layer of American democracy that we now take entirely for granted.

Above all, Jane Addams expanded the definition of American democracy, and of American citizenship. She wrote, "The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." Racist movements tried to keep them out, or at least down. Jane Addams looked at them, and American democracy, differently. These people were necessary contributors to American democracy, indeed America wasn't truly a democracy if it would not dignify the identities and invite the contributions of all its varied people.

Hull House was democracy in action. John Dewey visited, often. His daughter later said that these visits profoundly deepened his understanding of the possibility of America, an influence that found its way into Dewey's influential writings.

Another great pragmatist philosopher, William James, once wrote Jane Addams a letter with the line: "The fact is, Madam, that you are not like the rest of us, who seek the truth and try to express it. You inhabit reality; and when you open your mouth truth can't help being uttered."

Jane Addams was clearly willing to critique when she felt the circumstances called for it -- she very publicly opposed World War I -- but she didn't put much stock in being ideologically pure. In the best pragmatist tradition, she did the right thing according to the circumstance and the evidence, always with the twin purpose of helping the most vulnerable people in the here and now, and strengthening American democracy over the long haul.

In other words, she was a builder.

 

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top