Addams’ genius was her ability to fight these expectations. She read Matthew Arnold on trusting one’s own moral judgment, exposed herself to the realities of urban poverty in a tour of Europe, and considered democracy in a new light thanks to the writings of Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini. It remained, however, for John Stuart Mill and Leo Tolstoy to give her the ideas she translated into a life of worth and freedom — by her lights and ultimately that of the world.
Addams said that the newly published English translation of Tolstoy’s My Religion changed her life. She resonated to his sense of moral failure but took heart from his parallel understanding that failing to be a believing Christian need not keep a person from trying to be a morally good person. Tolstoy also introduced her to the idea of nonresistance, presented not as the notion that suffering was exalted “but that you should do good to those who injured you.” Knight writes that in the mid-1880s Addams placed this idea “at the center of her life philosophy.”
Tolstoy’s later book What to Do? additionally influenced Addams. After his first encounter with urban poverty, the great Russian argued that a Christian living in comfort was an economic parasite. He renounced his class status and, with it, material well-being. This profoundly affected Addams. Still, there was, for her, the specific question of what to do with her life. She was not about to take Tolstoy’s example and till the soil. John Stuart Mill offered a practical philosophy, and a solution, in his book The Subjection of Women. He argued that uselessness was soul-destroying and that women should have “complete latitude in choosing their work.” Knight writes that “chains fell away” after Addams read Mill: “She was not required to lead a life of numbing leisure. She could listen to her conscience,” she could act on the world.
Act she did. In 1887 Addams read an article about an experiment in London’s East End: Toynbee Hall, a philanthropic enterprise the founders called a settlement house. Planning to be in Europe with friends, including Ellen Gates Starr, Jane added Toynbee House to her itinerary. Shortly after, she shared with Starr her dream of starting a settlement house in the United States. Starr liked the idea and agreed to join her in Chicago where, together with others, they made history.
The resulting settlement, Hull House, provided “overcultured and isolated” men and women with a way to live a life of sacrifice and service. The service, in Jane’s mind was to “repair the damage done to egalitarian social relations by massive industrialization and … massive immigration.” Knight provides a moving and fascinating account of the building of Hull House. She introduces the several individuals who had particular impact on Addams and the direction of the Hull House work including Florence Kelley. Knight also does a nice job of demonstrating how Addams continued to grow morally and intellectually through observing struggles such as the Pullman Strike and the movement for woman suffrage. Indeed, as a biographical subject Addams is most striking for her continuing personal growth, her willingness to learn from life. This understanding dominates Knight’s understanding of Addams and makes the book compelling.
Halfway through the book Knight shifts her focus from Hull House to social policy and politics. Late in the nineteenth century Addams began to shape a concrete philosophy on the subject of war. In 1903 she joined others in successfully lobbying a child labor law in Illinois, again crossing paths with Florence Kelley. In the same year she committed herself to the work of the Women’s Trade Union League. Critically, in this period she also began writing systematically on the question of war and peace. Knight describes Addams’s Newer Ideals of Peace as “the most intellectually ambitious book she would ever write….a cogent, conceptually bold book.” In August 1912 Addams seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt for president. Many people were, Knight writes, “shocked,” believing that the leader of Hull House should remain nonpartisan and above the fray. Addams did not think TR could win but, as a progressive, hoped the campaign would educate citizens about the issues.
Knight again works the theme of moral and intellectual growth as she describes Addams and the women’s peace movement. She sketches how Addams moved to the left as a peace platform was shaped, the Women’s Peace Party formed, and Addams elected its president. Later, she would lead the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). As the most famous pacifist in the United States, Addams was a frequent target of criticism, sometimes called “the most dangerous woman in America.” When, in 1931, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — the first American woman — Addams donated her prize money to WILPF which, today, is the oldest women’s international peace organization in the world while Hull House is the largest social service agency in Chicago.
Jane Addams, Knight concludes, was a woman who was “continually filled with a holy discontent” about what action to take but who, willing to listen and experiment, shaped her questioning and passions, her spirit, into action.
Editor's Note: Louise Knight spends an hour at C-Span's Book TV program, After Words talking about her book, Jane Addams.
Support SeniorWomen's work by buying at Amazon.com
©2010 Jill Norgren