Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy

Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy

Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy

Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy


Jane Addams was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Now Citizen, Louise W. Knight's masterful biography, reveals Addams's early development as a political activist and social philosopher. In this book we observe a powerful mind grappling with the radical ideas of her age, most notably the ever-changing meanings of democracy.

Citizen covers the first half of Addams's life, from 1860 to 1899. Knight recounts how Addams, a child of a wealthy family in rural northern Illinois, longed for a life of larger purpose. She broadened her horizons through education, reading, and travel, and, after receiving an inheritance upon her father's death, moved to Chicago in 1889 to co-found Hull House, the city's first settlement house. Citizen shows vividly what the settlement house actually was- a neighborhood center for education and social gatherings- and describes how Addams learned of the abject working conditions in American factories, the unchecked power wielded by employers, the impact of corrupt local politics on city services, and the intolerable limits placed on women by their lack of voting rights. These experiences, Knight makes clear, transformed Addams. Always a believer in democracy as an abstraction, Addams came to understand that this national ideal was also a life philosophy and a mandate for civic activism by all.

As her story unfolds, Knight astutely captures the enigmatic Addams's compassionate personality as well as her flawed human side. Written in a strong narrative voice, Citizen is an insightful portrait of the formative years of a great American leader.
"Knight's decision to focus on Addams's early years is a stroke of genius. We know a great deal about Jane Addams the public figure. We know relatively little about how she made the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. In Knight's book, Jane Addams comes to life.... Citizen is written neither to make money nor to gain academic tenure; it is a gift, meant to enlighten and improve. Jane Addams would have understood."- Alan Wolfe, New York Times Book Review

"My only complaint about the book is that there wasn't more of it.... Knight honors Addams as an American original."- Kathleen Dalton, Chicago Tribune


Early in my research for this book, I came across a passage in Jane Addams's writings that has remained one of my favorites. “"W"e are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences,” she wrote, “since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life.” Addams was thinking like a biographer, I mused; she was interested in how life changes people. But I knew she was also speaking personally. What choices did she make, I wondered, and what did she learn that was of such profound moral consequence?

This book attempts to answer those questions. It tells of the formative years of a person who began life, as most people do, unknown and who became one of America's most accomplished social reformers. Addams's subsequent fame, her reputation as the country's “most admired woman,” and her numerous accomplishments—as a leader in immigrant and labor relations, as an advocate for children, low-income people, civil liberties, and peace, and as a 1931 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize—compel our interest in her youth and young adulthood. We want to know more about her.

Sharp contrasts abound. She began life as a child from a small town, yet, driven by her sense of moral responsibility and hunger for adventure, she became a pioneer in urban reform, co-founding Hull House, the first settlement house in Chicago and one of the first in the United States. She was a dreamy book reader who dwelt happily in her imagination when young, yet she became an activist citizen, someone who applied ideas to life and who worked cooperatively with others, not alone. Two other facts of her childhood could have been limiting yet were overcome. Although she was a girl with big dreams who doubted that she, being female, could fulfill them, she achieved more than she could have dreamed. And although she was the daughter of a superior-minded, morally absolutist, Victorian upper-middle-class family, she developed into one of America's foremost social democrats and into one of its most pragmatic ethicists. Addressing all these stories, this book covers Jane Addams's early life from her birth in 1860 to 1898, the years of her becoming.

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