This Wednesday’s Woman of the Week is inspired by a documentary I watched in class about famous social workers throughout American history. One person in particular stood out to me – Jane Addams. While I had read about her in my high school history classes, I never knew the extent to which she dedicated her life to helping those around her, eventually becoming the first American woman to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Her Wikipedia page of accomplishments is longer than most other page’s I’ve seen, but for this article today I want to focus on her accomplishments at the Hull House.
Addams was born in 1860 to a wealthy family in Cedarville, Illinois, and grew up living the life of a typical upper middle-class girl. But as a young adult, Addams felt extremely dissatisfied with society’s path for a woman of her status, and she wanted to do something more useful and impactful with her life. In 1887 she took a trip to London, where she first saw the notion of a Settlement House called Toynbee Hall.
The concept Settlement Houses center around wealthy citizens living in the middle of extremely poor areas and continuing their life as they normally would, slowly integrating the two classes and helping the citizens in a poor area slowly rise out of poverty. Addams described Toynbee Hall as “a community of University men who live there, have their recreation clubs and society all among the poor people, yet, in the same style in which they would live in their own circle. It is so free of ‘professional doing good,’ so unaffectedly sincere and so productive of good results in its classes and libraries that it seems perfectly ideal.”
On her return from London in 1889, Addams established and moved into the first American Settlement House, the Hull House, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. Within the first week she created a kindergarten, and over time the area’s transformation was incredible.
At its peak, the Hull House had provided the neighborhood with “a night school for adults, kindergarten classes, clubs for older children, a public kitchen, an art gallery, a coffeehouse, a gym, a girls’ club, a bathhouse, a book bindery, a music school, a drama group, and a library”. Over 25 women in need of shelter eventually lived in the Hull House with Addams, and over 2,000 people used its services on a weekly basis.
The Hull house closed in 1935 following Addams’ death, and her name continues on in the history books, but her story deserves to be remembered beyond the classroom. It’s unthinkable to imagine a wealthy, upper-class woman or man in 2013 moving to the slums of Chicago, New York, or anywhere else and devoting the rest of their lives to improving it. Addams not only defied the stereotypes for females of her class and time, but she accomplished what she came here to do, which was to make the world a better place. And for this reason, she is a role model for me and thousands of other people in the field of Social Work.
For more information, visit Adaams’ Wikipedia page: