Notes on Jane Addams, “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements”

from Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)

Speaking of a meeting of settlement house activists at a conference on “Philanthropy and Social Progress” (1892): where could be found “a group of people more genuinely interested in social development or more sincerely convinced that they had found a clew by which the conditions in crowded cities might be understood and the agencies for social betterment developed”?

For most of them, it was a “‘life work’” though “an instinctive dread of expending all our energy in vows of constancy” kept them from using the term (114).

From the lecture she delivered there:

The subjective necessity for settlement house life derives principally from three sources: “first, the desire to interpret democracy in social terms; secondly, the impulse beating at the very source of our lives, urging us to aid in the race progress; and thirdly, the Christian movement toward humanitarianism” (125). Prior to this summary, she elaborates on each of these motives:

Social democracy: A movement based upon the “genuine emotion” of “universal brotherhood” among “educated young people” eager “to give tangible expression to the democratic ideal” (115-116).

“if in a democratic country nothing can be permanently achieved save through the masses of the people, . . .[then] it is difficult to see how the notion of a higher civic life can be fostered save through common intercourse” (116). The blessings of “refinement and cultivation” must be made permanent, and will remain “precarious and uncertain” until secured for all.

Human solidarity: “Nothing so deadens the sympathies and shrivels the power of enjoyment, as the persistent keeping away from the great opportunities for helpfulness and a continual ignoring of the starvation struggle which makes up the life of at least half the race. To shut one’s self away from that half of the race life is to shut one’s self away from the most vital part of it” (116-117).

Thus helpfulness and making one’s life significant, indeed human, go hand in hand.

“civilization has placed you apart, . . .[and] you resent your position with a sudden sense of snobbery.” Addams then discusses the many moments in which feelings of solidarity and brotherhood overcome all differences, and she draws a curious and interesting analogy to “the tales of children” about “how many times . . . they have lived before” (117-118). The self is (has itself been) others.

The ethical and generational conflicts of educated women as emblematic: (Here the experience of girls epitomizes that of youth in general, a reversal of the male norm): “young girls suffer and grow sensibly lowered in vitality in the first years after they leave school. In our attempt to give a girl pleasure and freedom from care we succeed, for the most part, in making her pitifully miserable” (118). She suffers a “waste of herself,” a denial of the “heritage of noble obligation.”

“We intimate that social obligation begins at a fixed date, forgetting that it begins with birth itself” (118).

“Parents are often inconsistent.” They cultivate “altruistic tendencies” in their children and “deliberately expose their daughters to knowledge of the distress in the world”, but then object strenuously when the daughters, returned from college, “evinces a disposition to fulfill” these sentiments of solidarity and obligation. As a result, “The girl loses something vital out of her life to which she is entitled. She is restricted and unhappy” (119-120). This is reminiscent of Martineau, drawing on aspects of both the denial of a moral life and the disempowering nature of “indulgence.”

“Huxley declares that the sense of uselessness is the severest shock which the human system can sustain, and that if persistently sustained, it results in atrophy of function” (120).

The root intention in the establishment of the settlement house: “This young life . . . seems to me as pitiful as the other great mass of destitute lives. One is supplementary to the other, and some method of communication can surely be devised” (121). “It is not philanthropy nor benevolence, but a thing fuller and wider than either of these” (121).

Christian renaissance: “The impulse to share the lives of the poor, the desire to make social service, irrespective of propaganda, express the spirit of Christ. . . . His teaching had no dogma to mark it off from truth and action in general. He himself called it a revelation --- a life. . . .The [early] Christians . . . [believed] that this revelation, to be retained and made manifest, must be put into terms of action . . .[based on] a command to love all men, with a certain joyous simplicity” (122). Thus the “true democracy of the early Church (123).

Today, young people inspired by this message “resent the assumption that Christianity is a set of ideas which belong to the religious consciousness, whatever that may be” (123-124).

“The Settlement, then, is an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city.” Addams goes on to enumerate some of its premises: