Jane Addams may not be a name you recognize, but at her death in 1935, she served as one of America’s most famous and influential women, mainly for establishing Hull House, a community center prototype. She also was the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Raised in middle-class comfort, Addams first saw poverty at age 6, when her father, an Illinois senator and friend of Abraham Lincoln, took her along on an errand in a poor neighborhood. She remembered asking why people lived in such terrible, cramped quarters. Told they didn’t have the money to live better, she vowed to build “a large house right in the midst of horrid little houses like these,” so that children could play.
That’s exactly what she did. In 1889, Addams and a friend bought an old mansion in the slums and fashioned it into a community hub.
At the time, most Chicago residents were immigrants. Hull House offered English tutoring and job training, and within two years drew 2,000 people a week to its doors.
Addams’ characteristics give a clue to how she did it:
- Practicality. She got things done. Her operation provided child care, hot lunches and social clubs, later expanding to include an art gallery, swimming pool, library, gym, theater group and music school.
- High principles. Addams pushed for laws to improve factory conditions. When a group of manufacturers offered her $50,000 to use for philanthropy, she realized it was a bribe and declined the offer.
- Innovation. Much of Addams’ work became the basis for new laws on child labor, juvenile justice, unemployment insurance and elder care.
- Bravery. Addams was reviled in some quarters because she backed unpopular causes: not only peace, but also women’s equality and a decent standard of living. She advocated for public parks, protective services for children, and better sanitation, working conditions and wages. When she died, 6,000 people came to her funeral and the U.S. interior secretary hailed her as the “truest American,” with “none braver.”