Academic journal article Social Work

Jane Addams and Social Reform: A Role Model for the 1990s

Academic journal article Social Work

Jane Addams and Social Reform: A Role Model for the 1990s

Article excerpt

Social work has a long history of attempting to enhance the social functioning of people by focusing on social conditions or on the individual (Boehm, 1959). At the turn of the 20th century, the American settlement house movement and the charitable organization society (COS) movement came together to form the profession of social work. In the forefront was Jane Addams, who helped create the social reforms that developed during the Progressive Era of 1890 to 1915. As Addams discovered, social movements force the issues of poverty and injustice into society's consciousness.

Today, poverty and injustice are just as problematic. There is much that social workers can do to take leadership roles in the social reforms of the 1990s. One possibility is to understand better the settlement house and social reform movements. The settlement house movement drew heavily on the cultural values of "personal service" by housing settlement workers in the poor neighborhoods in which they provided services. At the same time, by promoting social and economic research and tying investigation to reform and knowledge to action, social workers helped construct a new paradigm of social welfare based on specially trained professionals with the skills and knowledge to offer effective social services in a newly industrializing society. This article examines Addams's work in both areas to provide a role model for social workers today who are facing the immense issues of poverty and injustice.


Addams captured the dreams, ideals, imagination, and sometimes hatred of many people in the United States. As a social reformer and organizer, Addams is almost unparalleled. She was a founder of Hull-House, one of the first American settlement houses; an organizer and mediator of labor unions; a peacemaker; and a visionary who helped create the welfare state. She was an early feminist (Chambers, 1986) who understood the importance of women's relationships and connectedness in the life cycle. Addams promoted cultural differences rather than the fashionable "melting pot" idea.

Addams wrote 10 books and more than 200 articles; gave hundreds of speeches, including 18 papers at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (NCCC) from 1897 to 1933; and was elected NCCC's first female president in 1910. During her lifetime, Addams was awarded honorary degrees from 13 universities, including the first honorary degree awarded to a woman by Yale University. Addams is the only social worker who was ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aspects of Addams's personal life influenced the development of her work. These influences can be traced from her earliest beginnings.

Childhood and Adolescence

Laura Jane Addams, the youngest of five children, was born in 1860 in northern, rural Illinois. Her parents, who had a strong Quaker influence, had moved to Illinois from Pennsylvania. When Addams was two years old, her mother died in childbirth, and an older sister became her mother figure. Her father remarried in 1868 to a woman who had two sons.

John Addams was a respected state senator who called Abraham Lincoln a friend. He was a successful businessman who invested in railroads and banking and encouraged Addams to follow her interests and challenge her intellect under his watchful eye (Levine, 1971). (Trattner, 1989, noted that more than 40 percent of women residents of settlement houses had fathers who were active in politics.)

Addams wanted to attend Smith College, but her father's theory of education was to attend a school near home "to be followed by travel abroad in lieu of the wider advantages which an eastern college is supposed to afford" (Addams, 1910, p. 46). Throughout her four years at Rockford Seminary, Addams was an outstanding student with a keen interest in writing. Her intellectual development was challenged and nurtured. Although the college tended to push young women in the direction of missionary work, Addams graduated as valedictorian with a clear purpose in mind: to study medicine and work among poor people (Lane, 1963). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.