On an inspiring historic figure and site that still have much to teach us.
Given that an especial emphasis of my Hall of American Inspiration will be to highlight folks who have been unjustly forgotten or elided from our national narratives, it might seem strange that my next nominee was the first American woman (and only the sixth American period) to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1931). But despite that prestigious international recognition, I believe that Jane Addams (1860-1935) is indeed greatly under-rembered in our collective memories and identity, and that her life and work remain as necessary and inspiring in our 21st century moment as they were in her turn of the 20th century one.
Like her contemporary John Dewey (who certainly will have his own plaque in the Hall), Addams emblematizes the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive movement, in many ways but most overtly in the striking breadth and depth of her pursuits and passions and achievements. She won the Nobel first and foremost for her efforts on behalf of international peace, work she began during the early years of World War I (including stints as both the national chairperson of the Women’s Peace Party and the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), continued even after the United States had entered that war (which required no small measure of courage, since it was during World War I that the kinds of criticisms of and attacks on anti-war activists with which we are now very familiar truly began), and expanded throughout the subsequent decades. But Addams was just as active on the homefront, and for a wide variety of causes, from women’s suffrage and politics (she helped found the Progressive Party in 1912) to the needs of American children (including the dangers of child labor and the benefits of playgrounds and early education) and the development of the discipline of sociology (for which Addams did at least as much as any other American philosopher and teacher).
But what makes Addams truly inspirational is, to my mind, one unique and amazing American place: Hull House. Addams and her life partner Ellen Gates Starr co-founded Hull in Chicago in 1889 as the first “settlement house,” a space in which Americans of different levels of class, education, and opportunity could live together and come to know and understand (and hopefully influence) each other more fully. Within a few years, and for many decades thereafter, Hull’s identity and role had greatly expanded; it came to include, among many other things, adult education courses (some of the very first predecessors of modern night school), a kindergarten (in an era, as per the Dewey post, when they were not at all common), a public kitchen, a library, performance and exhibition spaces for art, drama, and music, and (at the height of Hull’s expansion and influence) a playground and summer camp. Despite, or rather alongside, this breadth of services, Hull and Addams likewise became centrally focused on its neighborhood’s and city’s large and growing immigrant communities; many of its courses and spaces were dedicated to the needs of these newest Americans, and, in an era defined by anti-immigrant sentiment both legal (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act) and otherwise (such as the pervasive hostilities toward the Jewish immigrants who comprised much of the waves of the 1880s), Hull and Addams were entirely and genuinely inclusive and welcoming.
Addams’ memoir of Hull, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), is, like the era’s Progressive moment overall, not without its moments of condescension or paternalism toward some of these less well-educated and prosperous fellow Americans. What’s striking, however, is not the presence of such moments—they make Addams human—but rather how fully, and in how many ways, Addams was able to transcend any and all of the weaknesses that can divide and limit us, and in that transcending become and model the most truly inspiring kind of American life and identity.
Last nominee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Someone you’d nominate for the Hall?
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