Jane Addams is often referred to as the “Mother of Social Work” as she dedicated most of her life to serving the poor and advancing the rights of women and children in the United States. Jane was born to John and Sarah Addams on September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois. She was one of eight children, of which, only four survived into their adulthood.
Jane’s family owned and operated two successful businesses, a flour mill and a wood mill. Due to the success of these mills, Jane’s parents were able to engage in their passions with John’s being politics and Sarah’s helping the poor. Jane idolized her father for the man that he was but was also influenced by the legacy her mother left behind, of relieving the suffering of those who were less fortunate. John Addams became a legislator for the state of Illinois and was known to be a good friend of Abraham Lincoln. It was said, that the only time Jane ever saw her father cry was when he learned that Abraham Lincoln had died.
Sarah Addams died when Jane was only two years old. Jane was raised in large part by her older sister Mary. Her father was often out of town serving in the Legislature and he relied heavily on Mary to oversee the affairs at home. This continued until Jane was eight years old at which time John remarried Anna Haldeman. Anna brought two children of her own to the family one of which attended school in Europe and the other, George was around the same age as Jane. They attended school together and became very close friends.
Jane was an avid reader as a child. At an early age she read many of the intellectual classics of her time. She was especially interested in Latin and English literature. Jane decided as a teenager that she wanted to go to college and learn the skills necessary to become a doctor and she would dedicate her expertise to helping the poor and afflicted.
At the request of her father, Jane attended Rockford Seminary for her secondary education despite her strong desire to attend Smith College in Massachusetts where she would be able to earn a degree. Jane was an exceptional student who was an especially gifted speaker. While at Rockford she continually tried to persuade Rockford administration to become a college and offer degrees to students upon their successful completion of their education. Jane organized a group of students to support this cause during her final year at Rockford. Jane graduated Valedictorian of her class and delivered her commencement address in Greek to demonstrate the intellectual aptitude of women at that time. Although she was not awarded with a degree when she graduated from Rockford Seminary, that next year Rockford became a college and Jane was granted a degree.
Shortly after Jane graduated from Rockford her father died. This was a devastating blow to Jane as he was the most influential person in her life. This event caused Jane to really focus on what she wanted to accomplish in life and really motivated her to attend medical school. During the Fall of 1881 Jane left Cedarville for Philadelphia to attend the Women’s Medical College. Jane performed well at medical school and received much praise from her professors and classmates for doing so. However, due to her poor health at that time Jane was forced to withdraw from medical school.
Jane returned to Cedarville and lived and was cared for by her stepmother, Anna. After her health was restored, Jane and Anna decided to take a tour of Europe. It was during these travels that Jane became immensely preoccupied with the poor and less fortunate. Jane returned to Europe in 1888 with her good friend, Ellen Starr. While there, they learned of Toynbee Hall which was one of the first settlement houses. It was established to give help and improve the lives of the poor. This experience helped Jane solidify her purpose and mission in life. She and Ellen returned to the United States with plans to establish a settlement house for the poor people of Chicago.
In 1889, Jane and her friends were able to secure a large two-story building from Mr. Charles Hull. They did not purchase the building but rented it. He allowed them to remodel the building as they saw fit. They decided to call the place Hull House in honor of Mr. Hull for working with them to accommodate what they wanted to accomplish.
Hull House opened for services September of 1889. Hull House provided a variety of services and activities for the community. These included literature reading groups for young women, a kindergarten and groups that focused on music, painting, art, sports and social relationships. Hull House also provided services to those needing food, shelter and referral information to other services in the community.
Hull House wasn’t only a location where people could participate in activities and receive services. It became the epicenter for social outreach programs and social action groups who targeted children’s rights and women’s suffrage. One such group was instrumental in the passage of legislation to prevent the employment of children in sweatshops in the area. Still another addressed garbage collection problems in the surrounding neighborhoods. Jane also initiated a program which they called “Jane’s Club” that provided boarding for women and their children when they fell on hard times and helped to get them back on their own. The success of Hull House spread across the United States and became the model for years to come by which services were provided to the poor and needy.
Jane went on to become quite active politically and was known for her zeal about humanitarian issues. She accomplished many other achievements in her life including an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1909 which was the first ever offered to a woman by Yale. Jane wrote several books of which most notable was Twenty Years at Hull House in 1910. Jane Addams became a living symbol of social welfare and social justice. For her extraordinary contributions to society, Jane became the first North American woman awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931. Jane Addams died on May 21, 1935 at the age of 74.
Jane Addams life’s work exemplified that of a person who truly devoted her life to serving others. There are countless people living today who have benefited from the blessings of Jane’s work and influential example. She should be counted as one of the greatest humanitarians of all time for what she was able to accomplish in behalf of the poor and afflicted and her contributions to the field of Social Work.