Hull-House and Women's Studies: Parallel Approaches for First- and Second-Wave Feminists

By Strobel, Margaret | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Hull-House and Women's Studies: Parallel Approaches for First- and Second-Wave Feminists


Strobel, Margaret, Women's Studies Quarterly


Women's studies arose out of the movement of second-wave feminism in the 1960s. Its passion drew on activism, its research questions emerged out of that activist engagement, and many of its practitioners saw women's studies as the academic arm of the women's movement. As a participant in the founding of women's studies who now runs the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, I am struck by parallels between the work of first-wave feminists at HullHouse, an internationally famous settlement house founded in 1889 in Chicago, and second-wave feminists in women's studies. Key principles for both efforts involved lessening the distance (and power difference) between the researcher and the researched, creating new knowledge out of one's own experiences and observations, and linking theory and practice in the application of new knowledge to promote social change.

Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) founded Hull-House on the near west side of Chicago, a neighborhood teeming with new immigrants and all the concomitant urban problems: congestion, crowded and unsafe tenement housing, poverty, infectious disease and malnutrition, and exploitative labor conditions. Under Addams's leadership, Hull-House attracted many talented women, some of whom went on to national and international fame.' For example, Alice Hamilton (1869-1970), a pioneer in the field of industrial toxicology, became the first female professor at Harvard University with an appointment at the Harvard Medical School. Julia Lathrop (1858-1932), who as a Hull-House resident assessed the effectiveness of local charitable institutions, went on to head the Children's Bureau in Washington. Hull-House residents supported striking workers; created the first Chicago public playground and public baths; started Chicago's first women's basketball team; offered classes in citizenship, English, music, drama, art, and literature; provided information on birth control and venereal disease; challenged the local ward boss; and counseled immigrants with legal problems.2 How did they go about this work?

They sought in some ways to minimize differences between themselves and their neighbors. According to the settlement house philosophy, those wishing to help solve the neighborhood's problems were to settle-reside-in the neighborhood and share its congestion, bad odors, and exposure to disease. Upwards of seventy "residents" lived and worked in what grew to be the thirteen-building complex of Hull-House; others, nonresidents, also offered programs. Addams was adamant that Hull-House activities were not philanthropy, with the word's connotations of the rich conveying goodies to the poor, but rather "the duties of good citizenship" (Addams, "Objective Value" 45). Hull-House residents paid room and board for the privilege of living at Hull-House and initiating and running programs. Some, like Addams herself, had an inheritance. Others earned a living elsewhere and administered Hull-House activities in their spare time. Enella Benedict (1858-1942), for example, taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the morning and ran the HullHouse art program in the afternoon. Florence Kelley's (1859-1932) employment in the early 1890s as a special agent to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics gave her close contact with garment workers and enabled her to observe exploitative industrial working conditions.3

Jane Addams articulated a notion of the reciprocity of individuals across social classes. In Twenty Years at Hull-House, she notes that the settlement "was soberly opened on the theory that the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal; and that as the social expression is essentially a reciprocal relation, it gives a form of expression that has peculiar value" (80). Moreover, she saw herself and young women like her-first-generation female college graduates-as rescued from stifled lives by the opportunity to live and work at the settlement, to engage their talents and intellects in meaningful activity. …

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