Maternal Rhetoric in Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull-House

By Ostman, Heather | Philological Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Maternal Rhetoric in Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull-House


Ostman, Heather, Philological Quarterly


When Jane Addams (1860-1935) wrote Twenty Years at Hull-House in 1910, she understood autobiographies were deliberate constructions in the sense that an author depicts her identity and events in the text to shape the reader's perception: "It has ... been hard to determine what incidents and experiences should be selected for recital, and I have found that I might give an accurate report of each isolated event and yet give a totally misleading impression of the whole, solely by the selection of the incidents." (1) Addams suggests that the inclusion--or exclusion--of certain events might misrepresent her life, which appears to be partly her intention. But Twenty Years at Hull-House, like autobiographies of other social activists of her time and ours, extended her social advocacy, which for Addams included welfare, education reform, peace activism, women's rights, workers' rights, and the settlement house. She promoted this advocacy with the careful metaphor and rhetoric of motherhood: she compared herself to a mother, building on her popular national reputation as "The Mother of Social Work," and she infused the text with maternal language and imagery. (2) Such a choice makes strategic sense, even though Addams was not a biological mother. At the turn of the century, no conventional social role existed for a woman like her: an unmarried woman who lived with like-minded colleagues in the Chicago slums so that she might improve the lives of the poor and improve society overall. The "misleading impression of the whole" is her figurative motherhood, obscuring her transgressions of middleclass expectations of gender and her critique of the limits placed upon women of her day. But maternal metaphors and rhetoric also function on a deeper level in the text. Addams uses these persuasive tools to cast a mold for transforming society. They enable her to model through the autobiographical self a shift from individualized, male-centered power to interdependency and mutuality--in short, a redistribution of power for a more just society.

Twenty Years at Hull-House was not the first autobiography to advance radical social change. On the contrary, the text is part of a long-standing social activist literary tradition that includes narratives of former slaves, such as Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), Harriet Jacob (1813-1897), and Sojourner Truth (179?-1883), who advocated abolition within the pages of their autobiographies, in addition to the many women during Addams's lifetime who wrote autobiographies in service of their reformist causes: suffragists Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), Addams's colleague Florence Kelley (1859-1932), anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940), contraceptive advocate Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells, labor activist Mother Jones (1843-1930), among others. Though Addams takes her place among the ranks of women activist autobiographers, the task of writing such a text was not without its challenges and special considerations, particularly as she negotiated the depictions of herself as a woman reformist. Her awareness and concern over striking the balance between the inclusion of events and the risk of writing a "totally misleading impression of the whole" speak to her sensitivity to her reading audience and her understanding of how to use rhetorical devices.

Addams's sensitivity is evident in the success of her first autobiography. Twenty Years at Hull-House was first published serially in The American Magazine and one chapter was published in McClure's Magazine---both large-circulation publications--before coming out as a book. Portions were also published in the Ladies Home Journal, which had a tremendous circulation at the turn of the century. (3) Biographer Katherine Joslin describes the anticipation of her readers as they awaited each issue of The American Magazine featuring the autobiography: "Readers followed the story in serial form, anxious for new installments--her awkward childhood in Illinois, her relationship with her politically savvy father, her female education at Rockford Female Seminary, and her neurasthenic discomfort with leisure class travel. …

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