Jane Addams and the Social Claim

By Elshtain, Jean Bethke | The Public Interest, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Jane Addams and the Social Claim


Elshtain, Jean Bethke, The Public Interest


MOST Americans of middle age or older have heard of Jane Addams. Didn't she have something to do with immigrants and social work? "She was a socialist, right?" queried an academic friend when I told her I was at long last writing my "Jane Addams book." This vague sense of familiarity, absent any specific knowledge of who she was or what she did, is understandable. Not only do Americans study far less history now than they once did, but Jane Addams fell from public consciousness rather quickly following her death on May 21, 1935, at the age of 74. Statues of her never quite got off the ground. Planned memorials faltered.

That this is so is remarkable. She was at her death America's best known and most widely hailed woman. Some went so far as to compare her to her hero, Abraham Lincoln. The mourning at her death was international. She had been in the public consciousness for over four decades when she died: first, as the extraordinary young founder of Hull-House, the settlement house par excellence, and, second, as a nationally recognized advocate for fair treatment of America's immigrant communities. She wrote complex works of social theory--such as Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) and her best-selling autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House, which has never gone out of print--but also popular works, including a column in The Ladies Home Journal, which in her era included serious social commentary. She had access to presidents and prime ministers even as she regularly supped with Hull-House residents and other members of the 19th-ward immigrant community. Her pacifist activities tarnished her reputation during World War I, but, by her death, her reputation had been largely restored.

Addams' fall from public grace during World War I, due to her opposition to the war, is far too complex a tale to tell here. Suffice it to say that she not only opposed Woodrow Wilson's determination to enter the war, but saw Versailles as a blighted peace that set the stage for future conflict. The anti-immigrant assaults and hysteria of that period shook her deeply. The fact that these were fueled and legitimated by the highest reaches of the United States government diminished her faith in the state as a reliable instrument for social good. After the war, she worked with Herbert Hoover in bringing food relief to the starving and malnourished in war-torn Europe. She developed a strong admiration for Hoover, which led her to twice vote for him for president. Earlier, Addams had been a Bull Mooser and had seconded Theodore Roosevelt's nomination for president on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. She had voted for Wilson in 1916 only to be disappointed and chagrined by his policies. She had also voted for Eugene Debs in 1920. Clearly, she cannot be ideologically cast in any simple way.

The reasons for Jane Addams' cultural eclipse are complex. New Deal-era welfare programs controlled and administered by the federal government soon supplanted the settlement-house movement Jane Addams had pioneered and altered settlement activities so that they no longer conformed to her capacious vision. Jane Addams thought of those who came and went at the Hull-House settlement as citizens, or citizens-in-becoming, not as clients. After the New Deal, the names of settlements like Hull-House were retained, but the model was transformed radically. Then the fight against Nazism, followed by a long cold war struggle against Soviet-style tyranny, made Jane Addams' pacifism seem naive at best. Now is a propitious moment to rethink her legacy. The Gold War is over. The shortcomings of the welfare state are visible to Right and Left alike. What does Jane Addams offer as an alternative? Is there anything in her life and thought worth reconsidering?

The critics

The answer is yes, but one has to wade through a good bit of incomprehension and outright hostility. During her lifetime, much of the hostility came from the far Right, although she was attacked by the Marxist and socialist Left as well. …

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