The Given Life and the Chosen Life


Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy

by Louise W. Knight

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 582 pp., $35.00 hardcover


Reviewed by Rima Lunin Schultz


Jane Addams was one of the most influential public intellectuals in the United States during the progressive era of 1890 through 1920. In Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Addams postulated a new morality that acknowledged the evolutionary nature of ethics: “We are passing from an age of individualism to one of association,” she said. “Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in industrial relations.” Addams—more than any other woman in the United States—engaged with both the male and female political cultures as a theoretician of democracy and as a political activist. Hers was an authoritative voice at the intersection of the great movements for social justice, peace, and women’s rights. Such intellectual heavyweights as John Dewey, Richard T. Ely, William James, Henry Demarest Lloyd, W. E. B. Du Bois, and William Dean Howells considered her books worth reading and her ideas valuable. At the height of the progressive movement Addams wielded influence and, yes, power. Progressive politicians wanted her endorsement, as did advocates for a wide array of causes.

Addams’s achievement is the more dramatic because her rise to national prominence was so rapid—arguably within five years of the establishment of the Hull-House settlement—and so unconventional for a woman of her era. Achieving her status without pulpit, professorship, or government position, before women could vote and at a time of intense class conflict, Addams became the quintessential citizen. Her vision of a democratically controlled state, which regulated the behavior of private interests and arbitrated social conflicts, resonated with ever-widening and overlapping circles of reformers.

Addams, interestingly, has had few scholarly biographers. There have been many children’s and young adult books and some popular biographies, but few have accepted the challenge of discovering how an unknown young woman from a small Midwest town, the graduate of a relatively obscure women’s seminary, became such an important national figure. This may be changing, however, with the publication of Louise Knight’s Citizen on the heels of Victoria Brown’s The Education of Jane Addams (2004) and Katherine Joslin’s A Writer’s Life (2004). American Heroine: The Life and Times of Jane Addams (1973) by Allen F. Davis, Addams’s first scholarly biography, is still the only one that covers Addams’s entire life. Knight and Brown focus on her first four decades and Joslin on her writing career.

One of the problems facing biographers of Addams, which Knight acknowledges, is that for a writer, Addams “wrote very little about herself.” Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes (1910) has posed problems for historians, who have struggled to distinguish the historical from Addams’s constructed or recollected life. Much has been written about the fictive nature of autobiography, yet it’s a genre that is tantalizing and seductive. Knight is aware of its traps, yet she, like other Addams biographers, relies on Twenty Years.


Jane Addams scholars are used to disagreeing about pretty basic things. This is not surprising, since her autobiography omits so many of the important events and people in her life. For example, she never mentions her stepmother, Anna Haldeman Addams, even though Anna was really the only mother Jane ever knew; her mother, Sarah Addams, died when Jane was two and a half. Anna married John Addams, Jane’s father, when Jane was eight. In addition to leaving out much of her family history, Addams hardly mentions Ellen Gates Starr, her intimate friend and the cofounder of Hull-House, or Mary Rozet Smith, Addams’s life partner, whose loving support and financial contributions were essential both to the settlement and to Addams herself.

At age fifty, Addams obviously wrote Twenty Years for purposes other than providing an accurate autobiography or even an institutional history of Hull-House. Why did she write so much about Abraham Lincoln and Leo Tolstoy, and so little about Starr, Smith, and the other women and men who were her closest allies? Addams herself was the first to place her autobiography in a cautionary wrapping. In her preface, she admits that she has lost perspective:

[T]he people with whom I have long journeyed have become so intimate a part of my lot that they cannot be written of either in praise or blame; the public movements and causes with which I am still identified have become so endeared, some of them through their very struggles and failures, that it is difficult to discuss them.”


Later, she admits that like many autobiographers,

I have found that I might give an accurate report of each isolated event and yet give a totally misleading impression of the whole, solely by the selection of the incidents.


Reader and biographer, beware of turning to Twenty Years for the facts!

Jane Addams left such an indelible mark that historical research can more accurately reconstruct her life and times than reliance on her autobiographical writings. During her lifetime and thereafter, Addams was a person of considerable public interest. Before the new social history of the 1970s and the explosion of research in the field of women’s history, she was one of the few American women who was mentioned in history books about the Progressive Era—however incompletely. Russell B. Nye’s old standard, Midwestern Progressive Politics (1959), includes Addams, yet fails to discuss the suffrage question. Now, we know far more. We understand, for example, that Addams and Starr organized hundreds of volunteers among the reform-minded clubwomen of Chicago who assisted with the settlement’s clubs, classes, and activities. Women workers participated in Addams’s successful statewide campaign against sweatshops. Although in Twenty Years, Addams hardly suggests the existence of these female networks, her life cannot be told accurately without understanding her connection to the progressive movement, the rise of organized middle-class and working-class women, and the formation of a women’s political culture.

The biographer must construct a life-and-times that neither trivializes personality and agency nor disregards the larger historical context. It is a difficult balancing act. Did Addams’s rejection of individualist, absolutist, benevolent ethics in favor of cooperation, justice, and pragmatism grow out of her relationship with her father? Or did it evolve out of her experiences in the Hull-House neighborhood, with women and men reformers, and in the context of the emerging woman’s movement? Addams herself says that the experience of living in an immigrant neighborhood reshaped her ideas about the working class and about herself. Her ideas about sociological knowledge explicitly affirm the connection between thinking and doing. While Knight dutifully recounts the historical context in which Addams emerged, her passion lies in exploring Addams’s personal choices, as Addams discusses them in her autobiographical writings. Knight wants to hear Addams’s voice.

Knight divides her book into two parts: “The Given Life” and “The Chosen Life.” Thus she makes visible to the reader her major theme: Jane Addams made choices in her life to obtain an experience of the world different from the one she inherited. Her father, a successful businessman and state senator, was the major influence in her life. After her mother’s death, she was raised by him, busy as he was, and her older sisters. His remarriage brought new opportunities as well as tensions into the family. A bright and serious girl, Jane was a dreamer, sometimes plagued by fears of death and abandonment, as well as a prodigious reader who devoured as much as she could of the books in her father’s library. She imbibed, as well, her father’s idealism and admiration for great male heroes. A deeply religious man, he was nevertheless independent-minded in his approach to doctrine. He believed in society’s perfectability and in government’s moral responsibility to aid the weak—lessons he taught the young Jane. Hers was a conventional household in terms of gender roles, and Jane learned to bake bread, sew, and do chores. Her stepmother opposed the emerging women’s rights movement, while her father supported married women’s right to property and to the vote. Ambitious, Jane had hoped to attend Smith College, but instead attended the nearby Rockford Female Seminary. Upon graduation, “Addams clung stubbornly to her original plan to gain a B.A. and an M.D.,” even though she knew such plans put her “on a collision course with her duty and desire to be an obedient daughter.”


Where did she get her ambition and the daring that eventually enabled her to rebel against her family? Knight identifies one source of Addams’ transformation as her adolescent reading habits. Knight writes

In her day-to-day existence she [Addams] was trained in the obedient, self-effacing feminine ideal; in her large imaginary life, she dwelt mostly among defiant, proud male heroes. In these years she formed grand dreams—and she did her best to ignore her doubts about her right to dream them.


Knight does not question Addams’s assertions, in Twenty Years, about the importance for her political development of her father’s heroes Mazzini and Lincoln, and of her father himself, as a political figure of at least local stature.

Knight also believes that Addams’s suffragism can be traced to this time, although because of her parents’ disagreement about the issue, the Addams’s household was hardly a hotbed of women’s rights activism. Suffragists’ speeches were published in the New York Tribune, “where Jane Addams could easily have read them,” Knight suggests. She can’t corroborate this speculation, and admits, “There is almost no evidence of just what Jane Addams thought of the women’s rights movement in high school.” Knight goes on to offer a “single clue” that Addams was following the progress of the women’s rights movement “appreciatively”: when Addams was in her seventies, she made the “intriguing statement” that “the woman she most admired was Lucy Stone (Blackwell), a reformer whose last regular public appearances took place when Addams was in her teens.” However, Addams offered that information about Stone only in response to a survey in which she was asked whom she thought were the twelve greatest American women, and I see no reason to believe her admiration for Stone went back to the 1870s.

Continuing her search for the sources of Addams’s democratic, communitarian politics, Knight says that:

[Jane] met two more heroes—metaphorically, of course—in the pages of the leading literary publication of the day and a symbol of sophistication, the Atlantic Monthly. Every month Anna’s subscription brought a crisp new magazine to the house full of news, literature, and essays to feed a curious mind. . . but what drew Jane Addams’s interest in these years were two long series of articles, each about a famous male radical social reformer . . .Robert Owen . . .[and] John Brown.”


Knight adds, “

Jane Addams was not put off by the more radical tenets of these men’s ideas. She was intrigued. She found Robert Owen’s vision for cooperation ‘thrilling’ and John Brown’s passion for direct action, though presumably not his violence, inspiring.


 As evidence of the lasting influence of Owen, Knight cites an anecdote from Twenty Years. However, I believe Addams brings up Owen and other supporters of the cooperative movement not because they were her adolescent heroes, but because she wishes to connect herself and Hull-House generally with their ideals, as she describes the settlement’s mostly failed attempts at cooperation. There is no confirmation that the teenaged Addams actually read the articles about Owen and Brown. In fact, in her diary, Addams noted her favorite book: Little Women. She admired Laurie, the male hero.

Knight’s evidence for Addams’s lifelong enthusiasm for Brown comes from a letter Addams wrote to Mary Rozet Smith in 1904, from New York:

We see John Brown’s farm and the flag flying over his grave. I have always had a secret sympathy with his impatience and his determination that something should ... happen . . . I suppose the first martyrs of economic slavery will come from the city. If it depends on impatience I might be the one.


In Democracy and Social Ethics (1964) historian Anne Firor Scott uses this quote to make the point that Addams and other Hull-House residents were radicalized by their experience of living in Chicago’s nineteenth ward—but Knight links the 1904 letter to an earlier period in Addams’s life, before she learned of the workers’ desperation.

Knight believes the source of Addams’s illnesses and paralysis of will between 1881 and 1889 was her angst over her father’s refusal to send her to Smith College. Instead, he insisted that she attend Rockford Seminary. The sixteen-year old Addams felt “greatly disappointed” and experienced debilitating resentment. Her father’s unexpected and premature death in August 1881, only a few months after she graduated from Rockford, “aborted” her chance to rebel and then, later, to develop a mature relationship with him.

Of course, autobiographical works, especially Addams’s, are open to multiple interpretations. I believe that chronology, the requirements for entrance to Smith (which Addams did not meet), and John Addams’s support for tutors to prepare his daughter to attend Smith weaken Knight’s argument.

Knight argues that in writing her famous essay about the Pullman strike, “A Modern Lear,” Addams was finally able to work out her unresolved feelings about her father:

Writing the speech had focused her mind and helped her complete an intellectual revolution that had long been brewing. Cordelia, the daughter who defied her father, was the key. Able to identify fully with her, Addams was able to identify fully with the oppressed workers and to see that the ethic of benevolence, whether in its filial, philanthropic, or industrial form, was out-of-date.

Having gained a new perspective as one of the oppressed, Addams came to see power everywhere. In “A Modern Lear” she equates the power of the employer with the power of a king, calls the benevolent philanthropist powerful, and describes the father as a dictator. She who had been raised to trust power now saw power’s cruel, unjust side.


One of my reasons for rejecting this interpretation of “A Modern Lear” goes back to Louise deKoven Bowen, an audience member at Addams’s first reading of “A Modern Lear” at the Chicago Woman’s Club. The talk ignited something inside Bowen that transformed her from a rather conventional, wealthy, philanthropic volunteer into a Hull-House social activist. She eventually became a leading figure in the coalition to reform the courts and create a juvenile justice system. Bowen remembered how impressed she was that Addams could be sympathetic both to Pullman and to the workers. Frustrating ideologues on the left and the right, Addams contended that the conflict was negotiable. The Addams who could write such an essay was not angry with her father, nor with Pullman. She was unconstrained by any ideas her father might have had about womanhood. She felt empowered to invest virtually her entire inheritance in the wildly experimental Hull-House settlement.

Addams became involved in the social crisis as a member of the newly formed Civic Federation, a group of prominent business, labor, and reform leaders. However, it was not the federation that provided Addams with the opportunity to become a full citizen. Her stature in the world of reform politics was so substantial by the fall of 1893, when the organizing council of the federation coalesced, that it would have been unthinkable not to have her on board. Although the federation provided a new political structure for Addams, and may well have encouraged her to think optimistically about challenging her neighborhood’s ward boss, Hull-House had already become a political center of the reform counterculture. Addams did not function as a neophyte in the federation, but as a leader willing to take responsibility. She was the only member of the arbitration committee who actually functioned: she alone studied the conditions, and met with the representatives of the strikers and with Eugene V. Debs. The strikers trusted her, and she was able to get them to agree to sit down with the company representatives—although she experienced only intransigence from Pullman and the representatives of the company.


Addams opposed the narrow, eighteenth-century version of democracy that focused on the political system and voting. She believed the act of settling in the immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side demonstrated a new kind of social citizenship desperately needed if democracy were to survive in an industrial society. From the moment that she resolved to start the settlement house with her friend Ellen Starr, she enthusiastically engaged in a wide range of civic and reform activities. She became a leading figure in the social settlement movement nationwide, encouraged all sorts of political forums and groups at Hull-House, and created the space for women’s engagement in labor organization and political action. The final chapters of Citizen show Addams at ease with her role as one of the key citizens of Chicago and are particularly evocative of the reform world of her time.

Addams spent the final 35 years of her life testing the boundaries of citizenship in the United States. By word and deed she questioned traditional concepts of patriotism and nationalism: she defended anarchists, spoke out for the civil rights of African Americans, supported the ACLU, opposed militarism and war, and fought against restrictive immigration quotas and illegal deportations of aliens. For these acts J. Edgar Hoover investigated her and placed her on his list of subversives. She received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931, and by the time of her death four years later, she had regained a portion of her former public stature. I wish Citizen had included some consideration of Addams’s citizenship under fire.

Historians now describe Addams appropriately as a pioneer sociologist and a founder of American pragmatism, no longer wrongly classifying her as a social worker (although her work certainly contributed to the development of the field of social work). Scholars are finally catching up to John Dewey, who credited Addams “with the paradigm shift from thinking of democracy only as a political system to thinking of it as a way of life.”


Rima Lunin Schultz is the former assistant director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the editor, with Adele Hast, of Women Building Chicago: A Biographical Dictionary (2001) and has written the introduction to the reprint of Hull-House Maps & Papers (1895), forthcoming in 2006. She is the editor of Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull-House and Its Neighborhoods, 1889-1963, an educational and scholarly website at the University of Illinois at Chicago



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