Jane Addams: No Easy Heroine

By Bush, Malcolm | Free Inquiry, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Jane Addams: No Easy Heroine


Bush, Malcolm, Free Inquiry


More than one hundred years ago, Jane Addams (1860--1935) took up residence in a "fine old house" on Halsted Street in Chicago, convinced that. It would be a good thing to rent a house in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs were found." The house, which was surrounded by the teeming slums of recent European immigrants, was Hull House, the site of her great experiment.

Jane Addams will be remembered for a myriad of achievements that sprang from Hull House. Some memorialists will be tempted to justify current social and political campaigns by her words and actions. Others might succumb to the temptation of canonizing Addams, lingering over images of the preservation of ethnic culture, saving the city waif, standing up to city corruption, and rolling up her sleeves to tackle everything from garbage collection to negotiating settlement of strikes. But those who do that risk the scorn of her ghost, for this lady would not in her life and does not in memory fit into easy categories.

Jane Addams was a self-declared urban missionary, splendidly middle class, living on rents from her properties in the country to bring moral and intellectual uplift to the city slums, along with clean water and good drains. She was not above quiet amusement at the more peculiar customs of recent immigrants. Even more devastating for those who would wrap her in the odor of sanctity, she consciously resisted formal creeds of any kind, and said and did things that would annoy just about every part of the current political spectrum. Addams was the original secular humanist, rejecting Christianity and socialism alike as formal beliefs though she took inspiration from both.

"My creed," she said, "is everyone be sincere and don't fuss." The inspiration she took from her reading of the life of the early Christians was humanitarian. Jesus, she insisted, had no set of truths labeled "religious. " "His teaching had no dogma to mark it off from truth and action in general." Man himself was the organ and the object of revelation. References to God made her distinctly uncomfortable. Writing about another philanthropist she said, "She does everything for other people for the love of God, and that I do not like."

She dealt with political creeds in the same way--steering clear of them to

concentrate on political realities. While she fought the corruption that devastated poor neighborhoods, she was adept at pulling political strings. Not for nothing was she the daughter of a state senator who himself was a correspondent of Abraham Lincoln. It was not that she ignored socialism; she formally rejected it. Political theorists of any stripe were welcome at the Hull House debating clubs but the more purist the debates the more uncomfortable Jane Addams felt. "I saw nowhere a more devoted effort to relieve that heavy [economic] pressure," she wrote, "than the socialists were making, and I should have been glad to have had the comradeship of that gallant company had they not firmly insisted that fellowship depends upon identity of creed."

It was partly that Jane Addams was by instinct a mediator. While she was an ardent champion of safer conditions, she played the momentous Pullman strike straight down the middle, approving the strikers' goals but not their methods. It was partly that she doubted the effectiveness of the theorists. "Abstract minds . . . grow less ardent in their propaganda while the concrete minds, dealing constantly with daily affairs, in the end demonstrate the reality of abstract notions."

Her conscious search for a rhetoric to describe her place between theory and action was also a consequence of the discomfort she felt at the difference between her economic security and her neighbors' poverty. Her critics also noticed the peculiarity of her position. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, had particularly harsh words about settlement houses. …

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