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Jane Addams

February 25, 2020

by Sarah A. Morgan Smith

Jane Addams. 1930. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-37768.

The theme of this year’s Teaching American History Saturday webinars is American Minds. Prominent scholars will discuss individuals who made significant social, cultural, or political contributions to the American identity. On 7 March 2020, join panelists Chris Burkett (Ashland University), Jennifer Keene (Chapman University), and Mack Mariani (Xavier University) to explore the life, ideas, letters, and impact of Jane Addams.

Below, you’ll find selected passages from each of the readings to be discussed — we hope these will inspire you to read more in each text in order to better understand Addams’s work.

Woman’s Conscience and Social Amelioration, Jane Addams, 1908

We have been accustomed for many generations to think of woman’s place as being entirely within the walls of her own household. It is impossible to imagine the time when her duty there shall be ended or to forecast any social change which shall ever release her from that paramount obligation. There is no doubt, however, that many women today are failing properly to discharge their duties to their own families and households simply because they fail to see that as the city develops it is necessary that woman shall extend her sense of responsibility to many things outside of her own home if only in order to preserve the home in its entirety.

One could illustrate in many ways; a woman’s simplest duty, one would say is to keep her house clean and wholesome and to feed her children properly. Yet if she lives in a tenement house, as so many of my neighbors do, she can not fulfill these simple obligations by her own efforts because she is utterly dependent upon the city administration for the conditions which render decent living possible. Her basement will not be dry, her stairways will not be fireproof, her house will not be provided with sufficient windows to give her light and air nor will it be equipped with sanitary plumbing unless the public works department shall send inspectors who constantly insist that these elementary decencies be provided. These same women who now live in tenements, when they lived in the [village?] swept their own dooryards and either fed the refuse of the table to a flock of chickens or allowed it innocently to decay in the open air and sunshine; now, however, if the street is not cleaned by the City authorities no amount of private sweeping will keep the tenant free from grime. If the garbage is not properly collected and destroyed she may see her children sicken and die of diseases from which she alone is powerless to shield them, although her tenderness and devotion are unbounded. She cannot get clean milk for her children, she cannot provide them with fruit which is untainted unless the milk has been properly taken care of by the City Health Department and the stale fruit, which is so often placed upon sale in the tenement districts shall have been promptly destroyed in the interest of public health. The Italian women who live near Hull House when they were at home secured pure milk for their children because they themselves milked the goat, but now in order to secure uninfected milk they are dependent on the services of a dozen intermediary people, gathering fruit from the garden is one thing, buying it from open stalls is quite another. In short, if woman will <would> keep on with her old business of caring for her house and rearing of children, she will have to have some conscience in regard to public affairs lying quite outside of her immediate household. …Women are pushed outside of the home in order that they may preserve the home.

On The Shame of the Cities, chapter 7,” George Washington Plunkitt, 1905

I’ve been readin’ a book by Lincoln Steffens on ‘The Shame of the Cities’. Steffens means well but, like all reformers, he don’t know how to make distinctions. He can’t see no difference between honest graft and dishonest graft and, consequent, he gets things all mixed up. There’s the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin’ their eyes wide open. The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time. See the distinction? For instance, I ain’t no looter. The looter hogs it. I never hogged. I made my pile in politics, but, at the same time, I served the organization and got more big improvements for New York City than any other livin’ man. And I never monkeyed with the penal code.

…A big city like New York or Philadelphia or Chicago might be compared to a sort of Garden of Eden, from a political point of view. It’s an orchard full of beautiful apple trees. One of them has got a big sign on it, marked: “Penal Code Tree—Poison.” The other trees have lots of apples on them for all. Yet the fools go to the Penal Code Tree. Why? For the reason, I guess, that a cranky child refuses to eat good food and chews up a box of matches with relish. I never had any temptation to touch the Penal Code Tree. The other apples are good enough for me, and 0 Lord! how many of them there are in a big city!

Twenty Years at Hull House, ch. 8, Jane Addams, 1912

With all of the efforts made by modern society to nurture and educate the young, how stupid it is to permit the mothers of young children to spend themselves in the coarser work of the world! It is curiously inconsistent that with the emphasis which this generation has placed upon the mother and upon the prolongation of infancy, we constantly allow the waste of this most precious material. I cannot recall without indignation a recent experience. I was detained late one evening in an office building by a = prolonged committee meeting of the Board of Education. As I came out at eleven o’clock, I met in the corridor of the fourteenth floor a woman whom I knew, on her knees scrubbing the marble tiling. As she straightened up to greet me, she seemed so wet from her feet up to her chin, that I hastily inquired the cause. Her reply was that she left home at five o’clock every night and had no opportunity for six hours to nurse her baby. Her mother’s milk mingled with the very water with which she scrubbed the floors until she should return at midnight, heated and exhausted, to feed her screaming child with what remained within her breasts.


To learn more about Jane Addams’s life and legacy, please join us for the American Minds Webinar

11am, Saturday, 7 March 2020.

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