Addams, Jane

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
social entrepreneur
Social Justice
Advocate for immigrants, the poor, women and peace, Jane Addams founded the first settlement house in the United States and was also a shrewd businesswoman, expert fundraiser and excellent publicity agent.

Biographical Highlights

Jane Addams was an advocate of immigrants, the poor, women, and peace. Author of numerous articles and books, she founded the first settlement house in the United States. Her best known book, Twenty Years at Hull House, was about the time she spent at the settlement house. She led campaigns against child labor, worked hard for suffrage (women's right to vote), and promoted reform on city, state, and national levels.

The well-known image of Jane Addams is of a "gentle angel of mercy," which is accurate but incomplete.  Addams was also a "shrewd businesswoman, the expert fund raiser" and a skilled agent of publicity.  It was the culmination of these skills that drove Hull House to success and Addams to celebrity status. (Davis 109)  She was head of the Woman's Peace Party, The National Conference of Charities and Corrections, and the Women's League of International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1931, she shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with Nicholas Murray Butler.

Historic Roots

Addams was born September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois. Her mother died when she was two and her father remarried. She came from a large and moderately wealthy family.

A graduate of Rockford College in Illinois, she later enrolled in medical school but dropped out due to health problems. She suffered from numerous ailments throughout her lifetime, and they limited what she could do. Her idleness depressed her; she wanted to be useful and to have a greater purpose in life. She later found that meaning in her life when she founded Hull House.

Addams was of the first generation of college women, and considered herself a feminist. After she dropped out of medical school, she spent a great deal of time taking care of her fellow family members. Her sisters had young children, and she felt an obligation to stay with them and help care for the children. After several European trips, her friend Ellen Starr persuaded Addams to break the family ties and to establish her own life, apart from the family. Addams would not have been able to become the social reformer that she was without breaking away from her family ties and departing from her past.

Jane Addams died May 21, 1935.

Philanthropic Importance

Hull House

Addams founded the first settlement house in the United States, Hull House, in 1889. It was located in Chicago. A settlement house is located in a deprived area of a city, and is a center of social work. The first settlement house in the world was Toynbee Hall in London, established in 1884. The focus of settlement houses is to help new immigrants. Today settlement houses offer the services of counseling, adult education, nurseries, sport, and recreation.

Hull House began in a rundown mansion. The house had the dual purpose: to provide an outlet for the talent and energy of young college graduates and to help individuals trapped by poverty. The educated individuals who lived there expected to learn as well as to give. The concept was to place the educated next to the poor, so that both groups could learn from one another. By 1907, the settlement house included 13 buildings and housed a theater, art gallery, craft shops, classrooms, and a kindergarten. Social workers lived at Hull House. Addams was an advocate of culture and civilization (referring to the highest ideals and best things that man had invented) and wanted to bring these to the immigrants.

Hull House had the support of some of the most powerful religious figures in Chicago, thus demonstrating the religious motivation behind the work of Addams and her peers. Addams became a leader of the settlement house movement and was the spiritual leader of the many ministers involved in the movement.

Social Reform:
Addams was a social reformer. She was an advocate of organized labor and strove to eliminate poverty rather than to comfort the poor. She was not a radical, but rather she sought to find the middle ground in regard to controversial issues. Conservatives saw her as being too radical, while other social reformers and advocates of labor viewed her as being too conservative. Mainly, Addams took the role of mediator and spoke and wrote on the topic of labor, attempting to educate the public. Through her work, she not only worked to improve the condition of immigrants, but also of African Americans. She was not free from prejudice, but did work with blacks and spoke for the equal opportunity for black men and women.

Education Reform:
Addams worked to persuade the city to build a school in the neighborhood surrounding Hull House, and was an active advocate of educational initiatives. She was named one of the reform appointees of the school board by Mayor Dunne in 1905. Addams became chairman of the School Management Committee.

Peace Advocacy:
Her work toward peace was greatly influenced by the writings of Leo Tolstoy. Addams was not active in international politics until the Spanish American War broke out, and then she became an active advocate for peace.

In a speech in St. Louis in 1900, she stated "that it seems so much more magnificent to do battle for the right than to patiently correct the wrong. A war throws back the ideals which the young are nourishing into the mold of those which the old should be outgrowing. We incite their (young men's) ambitions not to irrigate, to make fertile the sanitary, barren plains of the savage, but to fill it with military posts and to collect taxes and tariffs" (Davis, 142).

Not many progressives opposed war. Addams was one of the few who did. Many shunned her for her opinions, especially after World War I broke out. She sought an international justice that would elicit international peace. Since she opposed US involvement in World War I, she was deemed unpatriotic and was considered one of the most dangerous women in America. Women of this time had a difficult time regaining their reputation once they were publicly ridiculed, but Jane Addams was eventually able to do so.

Views on Prostitution:
She wrote a book on prostitution. To many Americans, she became the nation's custodian of sexual purity. In her book, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, Addams asserted that with a steady salary women would not become prostitutes: if the economic needs of women were met, they would not resort to prostitution. Additionally, when women were able to vote, they would not tolerate prostitution.

Addams became involved in Chicago politics initially. She worked to rid the city of corrupt alderman Johnny Powers who failed to recognize the best interests of the immigrants.

Jane Addams supported the Progressive Party in the early 1900s. The party's platform included support for social justice and women's suffrage.

Addams was an advocate of suffrage. She was not as liberal as many of the suffragists, and was more concerned with women's rights and her role in the world. Unlike some other suffragists, she did not view women as being superior to men, rather she saw women as being different and that women had special responsibilities. In Addams' eyes, women should have strong relationships with their families, have the right to an education, and take on a creative role outside the home. Increasingly aware of the corruption in government and politics, Addams felt that women could help lead a moral reform movement if they were able to vote.

Important People Related to this Topic

Jane Addams established Hull House with the help of her classmate Ellen Gates Starr. Mary Rozet Smith, a friend, contributed both her time and money to Hull House. John Dewey, renowned philosopher and psychologist, visited Hull House and was influenced by what he learned there.

Related Publications

Addams' first work was published in Rockford Seminary Magazine. Philanthropy and Social Progress was her first book. Some other publications include: Democracy and Social Ethics, Newer Ideals of Peace, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, Twenty Years at Hull House, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, and On Education.


  • Davis, Allen F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. Oxford University Press: London, 1973.
  • Farrell, John. Beloved Lady: A History of Jane Addams' Ideas on Reform and Peace. The John Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1967.
  • Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. D. Appleton-Century Company: New York, 1935.
  • Oakley, Violet. Cathedral of Compassion; dramatic outline of the life of Jane Addams, 1860-1935. Philadelphia, 1955.
  • Tims, Margaret. Jane Addams of Hull House. George Allen and Unwin Ltd: London, 1961.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.