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Badass Ladies of History: Jane Addams

Jane Addams in a hatWhen our beloved editor suggested I write about a badass lady who reformed mental health, I jumped at the chance to write about Jane Addams.  When I have a job I’m a social worker, and we have Jane Addams to thank for what social work looks like today.  She’s to social work what Freud was to psychotherapy, except less controversial and creepy.  Although she did really love her dad.  Hello, Electra Complex!

Anyway, Addams was born in 1860 in Illinois.  Her family was very wealthy and Addams was interested in working with the poor because, as a voracious reader, she had read a lot about the poor in Charles Dickens books.  She wanted to become a doctor to work with the poor, but she had scoliosis and some mental health problems and she wasn’t able to complete medical school.  In 1887, when Addams was 27 she was going through a major quarter life crisis.  She was just kind of aimless at her stepmother’s house when she read about a new idea called a “settlement house.”  Settlement houses were popular in England, but hadn’t yet made their way to the United States.   Basically they were a means for the rich to live in poor neighborhoods and immerse themselves in the culture of poverty, the idea being that the middle and upper classes would be better able to help the poor.  Settlement houses were mostly interested in social reform – looking at the social structures that were keeping people poor.  They also sought to eliminate the distinction between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor – this is something that people still struggle with today.Jane Addams Young

So Addams went to visit a settlement house with her girlfriend Ellen Gates Starr (Wikipedia keeps calling them “lifelong friends” or “companions.” Whatever. They were in a relationship.)  They were so inspired that Addams used a bunch of money she had inherited from her father to start Hull House in Chicago, the first settlement house in the US.  Hull House was awesome.  It had all kinds of programs including after-school recreational programs at night-school.  These were both revolutionary and neither were in common practice at the time.  Addams was a pioneer in emphasizing that children need after-school programs.  They really got in the mix doing all different work with the people in the neighborhood, including delivering babies when the actual doctors didn’t show up or weren’t around.  You just need a stuck elevator and it would be a Very Special Episode.

Addams was, unsurprisingly, a suffragette.  She was also outspoken against World War 1 and pro-immigrants’ rights – so people called her a socialist and unpatriotic – sound familiar?  Undeterred, Addams kept speaking out and she kept documenting the injustice that the poor, immigrants, and black people were facing in Chicago.  Wikipedia says:

Addams worked with labor as well as other reform groups toward goals including the first juvenile-court law, tenement-house regulation, an eight-hour working day for women, factory inspection, and workers’ compensation. She advocated research aimed at determining the causes of poverty and crime, and supported women’s suffrage. She was a strong advocate of justice for immigrants and blacks, becoming a chartered member of the NAACP. Among the projects that the members of the Hull House opened were the Immigrants’ Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, the first juvenile court in the United States, and a Juvenile Psychopathic Clinic.

Pretty bad-ass right?  Jane Addams definitely didn’t mess around.  I find her so easy to identify with, from the midlife crisis to the innate desire to help the poor.  I think she would be just as bad-ass today.

jane and ellen starr
Jane Addams and Ellen Starr

3 replies on “Badass Ladies of History: Jane Addams”

I also used a book I used in grad school called “From Poor Law to Welfare State” by Walter Trattner. But obviously I can’t link to a text book for people to read further and all the info is on Wikipedia. :)

WOW, thank you for this great history lesson.

Social workers rock. My best work in psychotherapy has been led by social workers. They’ve had the broadest perspective, were more open-minded, and less entrenched in psycho babble when aiding me during my troubled times.

My mother was a psychiatric social worker. She has done wonders, sort of “pro bono” work in our home community of Chinese immigrants. She’s kind of a saint, with all the marriage saving advice she has dispensed. Of course her methods didn’t work on me, her daughter. Can’t practice on family.

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