US Political Thought

A View of Jane Addams's Hull House as a Feminist Initiative


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1. Aspects of Jane Addams's biography. Jane Addams came from a prosperous family that lived in the small town of Cedarville, Illinois. According to one of her biographers, she “ was well-aware of her status as part of the first generation of college women,” and “felt a special obligation to get the best education possible and then to demonstrate through her use of it that women were worthy of the best” (2). Yet she spent seven years after her graduation searching for a worthwhile way of life. The career paths open to women were quite few at the time. She was not orthodox enough to become a missionary. She rejected the idea of becoming a teacher, seeing it as a “routine and bureaucratic profession” (2). She avoided marriage her whole life because, to the college women of her time, marriage could not be combined with a career, and she was determined to have a career.

Her father’s death the year after her graduation left her financially independent, and she traveled to Europe twice. On the second sojourn there, she visited Toynbee Hall, one of the world’s first settlement houses, felt inspired by it, and vowed to establish a similar house in Chicago upon her return.

Her life, then, was a testament both to her imagination and to her determination to break out of the cage of domestic irrelevancy which she felt middle-class women of her time were often locked into. Undoubtedly her portrayal, in “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” of the college girl who “evinces a disposition to fulfill” the ideal sentiments of social solidarity and obligation that her parents and culture encouraged her to believe in, only to find that they did not seriously mean what they said, and who therefore “loses something vital out of her life” (119-120) was a threat she knew from her own experience and that of her women friends. It is also notable that Addams uses the experience of girls to epitomize that of youth in general, reversing the norm of using universalizing the experience of men and boys.

Thus the settlement house provided a socially acceptable, if novel, way for educated women to dedicate their lives, wholly or partly, to social and political reform.

2. The settlement house as a socialized domestic sphere. What made the settlement house an acceptable site for women’s activism was that it was, literally and figuratively, a home. Yet it almost completely inverted the traditional patriarchal doctrine that a woman’s place was in the home. The settlement house was not a domestic sphere shut up in its own privacy. On the contrary, it treated society itself as the “domestic sphere,” beginning with the neighborhood and reaching outward, and it enabled settlement activists (who were primarily women) to reinvent social reform as the expression of an expanded sense of familial love and care, of familial conviviality, of neighborliness, and of household management.

3. From moral education to a moral life. Addams reinterpreted women’s traditional responsibility for moral education. She insisted that moral education had to lead to a moral life. This led her to stress, not the “eternal truths” of Christian doctrine but the lived reality of Christ’s life as a model for others. She rejected the notion of piety divorced from practice and offered a largely secular account of Christianity as “The impulse to share the lives of the poor, the desire to make social service . . .” This lived solidarity was the basis of the “true democracy of the early Church” (123).

4. Hull-House was a woman-centered institution. Unlike the patriarchal home, it was largely governed by women, though men were certainly involved as well. Women were liberated from subservience in it. It gave women a wide range of opportunities to gain experience in public life. Hull-House not only pioneered the socialization of functions previously entrusted entirely to the family, such as by establishing a nursery, a day-care center, a kindergarten, a well-baby clinic; its residents also included such women social scientists as Florence Kelley and Alice Hamilton who documented the dangerous working conditions, unhealthy living conditions, exploitation of child labor, and other problems of Chicago. Florence Kelley, for example, became Chief Factory Inspector for Illinois as a result of her work exposing the health hazards of tenement house manufacture.

Hull-House was also woman-centered in providing a socially acceptable alternative to marriage, enabling women to cultivate deep and often lifelong friendships as alternatives to the companionship of marriage.

5. The rejection of “propaganda”. [Note: this comes from a section of Twenty Years at Hull House not included in the reader.] Addams’ rejection of “political and social propaganda” can also be seen as an expression of her feminism, even if a problematic one. In her account of economic discussions at Hull-House, there seem to be two overriding reasons for her dislike of abstract political theories. First of all, she suggests that such theorizing is often disconnected from practical activity and even lacking in any positive vision of change applicable in present conditions. Bearing in mind that abstract theorizing was still a practice nearly monopolized by men (though there were important exceptions, from Harriet Martineau and Margaret Fuller to ...), it is quite interesting that she inverts the privilege usually accorded theory over practice by asking whether it is the case “that the abstract minds at length yield to the inevitable or at least grow less ardent in their propaganda, while the concrete minds, dealing constantly with daily affairs, in the end demonstrate the reality of abstract notions?” (193). (The “inevitable” being the persistence of that which the abstract theory condemned.)

Second, she is particularly critical of socialism for its rigid economic determinism and of socialists for repudiating “similarity of aim and social sympathy” as tests of fellowship. Abstract political theories thus impede social learning by their inflexibility, and their adherents unnecessarily divide people from one another by refusing to accept shared sentiments as a valid indication of solidarity. But this is a criticism of the patriarchal claim for the superiority of masculinized rationality over feelings.

6. A feminist social science: Like most other Progressives, Addams believed that science could guide social reform by discovering how urban industrial society could be rationally reorganized for the public good. However, unlike those who conceived of this in technocratic terms, she recognized that scientific inquiry was inevitably based upon definite social values. She and the women scientists of Hull House (such as Dr. Alice Hamilton and Florence Kelley) grounded their scientific practice in concern for and engagement with the lives of the working poor of Chicago. As Addams put it, settlement house social science entailed “a scientific patience in the accumulation of facts and the steady holding of . . .[one’s] sympathies as one of the best instruments for that accumulation” (126). In this formulation she anticipated Sandra Harding’s contemporary feminist influenced philosophy of science, according to which scientific understanding is enhanced, and biases overcome, by the inclusion of the perspectives of socially disadvantaged and marginalized groups.