Thinking of Jane by Barbara Bair

I recently visited Seattle, where my twenty-something niece is a grad student, teacher, and research scientist specializing in water and climate change.  I’m exceedingly proud of her, and of her friends who are also talented young women entering careers in natural resources and public policy.  Seeing their leadership abilities and keenness for their work, their commitment to foster their own abilities and make a difference, I thought of the positive impact of Title IX.  I also thought how similar they are to Jane Addams’s generation of educated progressive women. 

As she graduated from college and entered her twenties, Jane Addams went through traumas unique to her. She was stunned by grief in the sudden death of her father, and by surprise with the assassination of the president of the United States by the brother of one of her closest friends. After leaving the close-knit community of Rockford Seminary, she suffered depression while she searched for a path in life for herself that would have real purpose.  She first aspired to join the ranks of female physicians that were carving out professional lives for themselves, thanks to opportunities for education in separate-sex medical schools.  But family responsibilities and time traveling in Europe, combined with observation of benevolent associations dealing with the poor in East-coast cities and experiments in cross-class social change in London, turned her ambitions in a different direction: to community organizing, public policy, economics and the political sphere. 

In the next decades, Addams would be at the heart of social reform in the United States, and with the coming of World War I, a moral force of international stature. She and her colleagues would be principal advocates of remedies for urban poverty and wage discrimination. They would lead the way in factory safety, education, public health and sanitation, child labor, women’s rights and maternal and infant welfare.  Addams would help found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as the head of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she would become the second woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

What would Addams think of contemporary politics, of a historic presidential campaign that involved Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and of the challenges we face in our world today?  I think she would have liked Secretary of State Clinton’s December 14, 2009 speech at Georgetown on human rights.  On twinning acceptance of a Peace Prize with escalation of military involvement in Afghanistan, she would have been more ambivalent.  There is no doubt, in any case, as to the continued relevance of her experience and her causes, or to just how long the road to social justice, economic equity, women’s opportunities or peace can be.


Barbara Bair is a public historian in Washington, D.C.  She is the author of Though Justice Sleeps: African Americans 1880-1900, and the co-editor, with Mary Lynn McCree Bryan and Maree de Angury, of The Selected Papers of Jane Addams (University of Illinois Press), volumes one and two.  Volume three, on Hull-House, is in progress.

About michael

Marketing & Sales Manager since 2012