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A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams

A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams

by Gioia Diliberto

The first biography in twenty-six years of Jane Addams — founder of the Hull-House settlement and winner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize — written with access to hundreds of new family documents.
"Today, Jane Addams is widely recognized as an extraordinary figure in our nation's history, one of a roster of great Americans — Abraham Lincoln


The first biography in twenty-six years of Jane Addams — founder of the Hull-House settlement and winner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize — written with access to hundreds of new family documents.
"Today, Jane Addams is widely recognized as an extraordinary figure in our nation's history, one of a roster of great Americans — Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. among them — who made lasting contributions to social justice. But as with the lives of many iconographic figures, the legend often obscures the real story."
Frequently recognized as one of the most influential women of the century — and considered a heroine by nurses and social workers around the globe — Jane Addams had to struggle long and hard to earn her place in history. Born in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, she lived during pivotal times when women were only beginning to create new roles for themselves (ironically building on the Victorian ideal of women as ministering angels).
Focusing on her metamorphosis from a frail, small-town girl into a woman who inspired hundreds of others to join her movement to serve the poor, A Useful Woman delves into the mysterious ailments and other troubles young Jane faced. Examining for the first time Jane's physical and mental health and the effect of her father's remarriage after her mother's death, biographer Gioia Diliberto directly links Addams's proneness to depression to her inability to conform to the mores of her time. Also, for the first time, she examines in detail Addams's two marriage-like relationships with women.
With hundreds of previously unavailable documents at her disposal, Diliberto has written a fascinating study of one of the most intriguing and important women in history, concentrating on her difficult formative years with compelling — and groundbreaking — results.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Alex Kotlowitz author of The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here Gioia Diliberto's A Useful Woman is both trenchant and sobering. A masterful storyteller, Diliberto introduces us to a Jane Addams who seems, well, so human, someone who struggled with her personal life as she battled the powers-that-be of the day. The gift of this book, though, is that Addams was indeed an American hero whose perspective on social inequities seems so relevant a century later.

Geraldine Ferraro former member of Congress A Useful Woman was not only an interesting read but was thought-provoking on a number of levels. Jane Addams was an exceptional woman who was torn between her desire to make a difference for others and the constraints that society forced on her as woman by the period in which she lived. That she overcame the latter with remarkable success is a fascinating story.

Studs Terkel author of The Good War and My American Century Here is not the mythic Jane Addams, but one of vulnerable flesh. A portrait of a woman of the late nineteenth century busting through the Victorian corset to become the social pioneer of the twentieth. An excellent study.

Blanche Wiesen Cook author of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes I and II, and Distinguished Professor at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY The early life of Jane Addams is a vivid and captivating read filled with new information. Everyone interested in women's history, a future of decency and justice, will be inspired by Gioia Diliberto's biography.

Reeve Lindbergh author of Under a Wing In Gioia Diliberto's charming and honest account of her life, work, and spirit, the formidable Jane Addams is restored to us as a real person: a fascinating, vulnerable, intelligent, funny, and above all, deeply principled human being.

The Barnes & Noble Review
Haven't we've heard this story before? A woman is born in an age when women's roles are severely constricted, but this heroic woman grows up to fight those constraints and make her mark in the world against all odds. Why, yes, I do believe we have heard such a tale, but surely we've not read so detailed and compassionate an account of what factors go into creating such a woman — and what kind of toll such ambition can take — as the one offered by Gioia Diliberto in A Useful Woman.

The woman in question here is Jane Addams, known for her socially progressive views and activism and for founding Hull House, a settlement house for immigrants and the urban poor, in Chicago. Much has been written about this famous 19th-century woman and hero, as Diliberto acknowledges in her prologue. But instead of writing a more traditional biography, Diliberto has chosen to focus on Addams's early life, specifically on her transition from girl to woman, and to explore the ways in which such a woman developed.

Born to pioneer parents in Illinois in 1860, Jane was a sickly child whose family doted on her. She surprised them all by surviving childhood and adolescence and becoming a strong-willed young woman who usually got her way. In this she was influenced and encouraged by her father, John Addams, a man of superior intellect and moral strength who was a prosperous mill owner and later a state senator.

After high school, Jane wanted more than marriage, motherhood, and domestic duty, so she petitioned her father to let her go to Smith College. One of just a handful of women'scollegesto open in the late 1860s and '70s, Smith was too far away for her father to consent. That he allowed her to attend college at all (at Rockford Female Seminary, in Illinois) was remarkable; a heated national debate was raging regarding the value of a woman's education. Many educated people (mostly men) believed that girls were unfit to "follow the same intellectual regime as boys." One noted Harvard professor believed that "brain activity by women 'diverted' to their heads vital blood they needed for menstruation."

Jane did not abandon her dream, however; her intention was to transfer to Smith at some point and then continue on to medical school. But her father never consented, and when he died suddenly at age 59, Jane could not bring herself to go against his wishes.

She did eventually enroll at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia but found herself unexcited by medicine. Disappointed with her chosen vocation, torn by her ambitions and society's expectations, and still grieving over her father's death, Jane fell into a state of nervous exhaustion, a condition which would plague her for eight years, until she went to Europe in 1888 and witnessed scenes of urban poverty there that finally set her on her true path.

The distress that Jane felt as a young woman was not uncommon among her peers at the time; educated and literate, they found their ambitions and intellects thwarted by the restraints of the times. Such illnesses — commonly diagnosed as hysteria or neurasthenia at the time, they would probably be called depression now — only served to strengthen the argument against women's college education. Education only made them high-strung and nervous, the theory went, and was a poor start for prospective wives and mothers.

Diliberto focuses on Addams's illness, as well as her "romantic friendships" with two women, Ellen Starr and Mary Smith, and her difficult relationship with her stepmother, Ann Haldeman. (Part of the impetus for this project was the discovery, several years ago, of a trove of Addams's personal letters and diaries.) But Diliberto's real strength as a biographer lies in her ability to set her subject's life within a social and historical context while never letting that context take over or dwarf her subject. Side trips into the background of Jane's doctor, Silas Weir Mitchell, or the history of women's colleges are interesting and informative, but we return to the main story before it is lost.

Jane Addams refused to do what society expected of women in her time: She never married, and she spent most of her adult life in the political sphere, a place where women were not welcomed. Yet the career she chose for herself was that of nurturer and helper; her aims were morally virtuous and humane. In seeking to raise the urban poor out of squalor and hopelessness, she simply took the traditional woman's place in the home and raised it to a societal level. Because of Addams, it became acceptable for women to take up social causes. Although she crossed boundaries where other women feared to tread, Addams still faced certain personal and professional obstacles and limitations. It appears she never had a romantic relationship with a man, and though her close relations to two women friends indicate that she was probably a lesbian, she certainly was not allowed to live openly as one. And the career restrictions placed on women at the time were so severe that even someone so strong and willful as Jane Addams spent eight years in an identity crisis, worrying that she might never find anything she could do, that she would die a useless old woman. Happily, A Useful Woman reminds us that her fears proved baseless.

Gail Jaitin

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From this account of her first 39 years, it would appear that pioneering social reformer Jane Addams might have as easily become a chronic invalid as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which she received in 1931. Diliberto, author of previous biographies of Hadley Hemingway and of debutante Brenda Frazer, situates Addams's dedication to the poor firmly within the context of late-Victorian virtuous womanhood. Drawing upon previously untapped personal papers, Diliberto reveals the enormous toll exacted on Addams by her attempt to reconcile the conflicting claims of her own ambitions and her duty, as she saw it, to her family. Only when she founded the Hull House Settlement to serve Chicago's inner-city immigrants, an enterprise that was both socially useful and under her own control, did she gain a measure of health. She was sustained as well by her deep emotional attachments to other women, especially Mary Rozet Smith, with whom Addams lived in what she called a "marriage" for more than 30 years. While acknowledging the implicit sexual content of Addams's friendships with women and documenting the passionate language of her correspondence with Smith, Diliberto is unable to determine if these feelings ever found overt sexual expression, though she is inclined to doubt it. Diliberto makes more of Addams's psychological difficulties than of the objective obstacles she overcame and does not quite account for her extraordinary success. Nevertheless, this accessible book holds revealing insights for both general readers and specialists. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Jane Addams (1860-1935), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, founded Hull House settlement in 1889 to offer services such as day care, language classes, vocational training, and recreational activities to immigrants in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Hull House--one of the first settlements of its kind in North America--also provided idle and powerless but educated upper-class women like Addams with a welcome opportunity to engage in meaningful work. Personal correspondence that was unavailable to previous biographers informs Diliberto's analysis of Addams's formative years. Highlights include Addams's girlhood impressions of her father's friend and colleague, Abraham Lincoln; her visit to Toynbee Hall settlement house in London, a key inspiration for Hull House; and a meeting with Leo Tolstoy at his estate in Russia. Diliberto, a freelance writer, is the author of well-received biographies of Hadley Richardson Hemingway and Brenda Frazier. Recommended for all collections.--Kim Baxter, New Jersey Inst. of Technology, Newark Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Inspiring and well-written, A Useful Woman brings a sympathetic version of Jane Addams to life. But it leaves us with large, unanswered questions about her historical significance...Diliberto tells this stirring story with incisive verve; her book reads like a novel. Yet her very inventiveness raises problems that threaten its integrity as a work of non-fiction. In an age in which Edmund Morris invents characters to enrich his study of an otherwise vacuous Ronald Reagan, Diliberto improvises details to create dramatic effects. Practically every particular about Florence Kelley—a central figure to Hull House in the 1890s—ranges from wrong to partly wrong...At its best A Useful Woman restores those unauthorized events, but its own lyrical mode makes it less useful a book than we might hope for.
The Women's Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
A lively and thorough account of Jane Addams's early influences, hampered only by the aloofness of the subject herself. Using family documents unavailable to previous biographers, Diliberto (Hadley, 1992; Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier, 1987) reconstructs Addams's early years and traces the transformation of a depressed, emaciated invalid into an energetic, busy woman. Diliberto weaves her tale seamlessly, while expertly interspersing regional history, psychological and political theories, and historical characters throughout. Jane was born to a pious and industrious Illinois couple, but her early life was plagued by illness and tragedy. Diliberto reveals Addams's steadfast devotion to her family, whose claims on her threatened to tear her away from her larger calling. Founding Hull House settlement in 1889 freed Addams of purposelessness and depression, and turned her into a national and international star of social reform. As she became more independent, Addams turned to her friends for love and support, particularly to Ellen Starr, her partner in founding Hull House, and Mary Rozet Smith, her delivering love. Diliberto is a bit overzealous in downplaying the possibility of sexual relations between these devoted friends. She likens Jane and Ellen to newlyweds on their first night in Hull House yet insists they had separate bedrooms, where, she emphasizes, they dressed separately. Addams's sexuality remains somewhat of a mystery, in part because she destroyed most of Mary's letters to her. Addams, known for her emotional reserve, was enigmatic in many ways. We get a sense of her feistiness and dedication through her actions (becoming garbage inspector for her neighborhood),yet she rarely leaps off the page. Instead, Addams shines through as a consummate do-gooder: a successful speaker and fundraiser, a loyal sibling, a progressive theorist, an understated feminist, and an excessively self-sacrificing caregiver. A sympathetic biography of a woman who would have wanted above all to be remembered for being useful. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Product Details

Publication date:
Lisa Drew Bks.
Product dimensions:
0.81(w) x 6.14(h) x 9.21(d)

Read an Excerpt


In 1883, after her first nervous collapse, Jane Addams thought she was "a failure in every sense." She was a pretty, high-strung twenty-three-year-old with no one to love and nothing to do, living with her stepmother in rural Illinois. Within three decades, she was the most famous woman in America. In a burst of courage and will, she triumphed over the invalidism that ruined the lives of vast numbers of Victorian women and transformed herself into an international celebrity. She founded Hull-House, the immensely successful Chicago settlement, worked tirelessly to rid the nation of the worst abuses of industrialization, and wrote best-selling books that became bibles of reform during the progressive era. Though her ardent pacifism caused her popularity to plummet during World War I, the pendulum began to swing back in the thirties and in 1931, four years before her death, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, Jane Addams is widely recognized as an extraordinary figure in our nation's history, one of a roster of great Americans — Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. among them — who made lasting contributions to social justice. But as with the lives of many iconographic figures, the legend often obscures the real story. That has been particularly true of Jane Addams's early years, when she underwent a remarkable metamorphosis from a frail, small-town girl to one of the most famous women of her era. New family documents, most of which were unavailable to previous biographers, reveal for the first time the story of her difficult girlhood in a troubled Victorian family on the near frontier. They also illuminate the major struggle of her young adulthood — the conflict between her internal drive to power and the stultifying demands of her parents (the dreaded "family claims," which she later wrote about movingly). This conflict manifested itself in a series of physical ailments that tormented her for years.

The idea of writing about Jane Addams occurred to me soon after moving to Chicago with my family in 1991. As a way of introducing myself to Chicago history, I read Twenty Years at Hull-House, Jane's autobiography, and was deeply attracted to the story of the settlement's founding. But as I got deeper into the archive of Jane's papers (housed at the University of Illinois in Chicago, a few miles from my home), what most intrigued me was the material about her early years, particularly letters to and from those closest to her. Not only were these documents fresh (most of them were discovered after the last biography of Jane, Allen F. Davis's excellent American Heroine, was published in 1973), but they fit into my chief interests as a biographer — the shaping of personality and ambition, how fate plays on character, the delineation of women's lives.

They offered a chance to rescue Jane Addams from her pedestal as a saintly reformer and bring her to life as never before. What's more, they provided a window into a lost world of one-room schools and typhoid epidemics, of grand tours, romantic friendships, and "separate spheres" for the sexes. Yet, the key issues illuminated in this historical context — the struggle to overcome depression during a period of great social change, the battle for power within families, the difficulties of women in convincing the medical establishment to recognize their physical problems — are highly relevant today.

Jane Addams grew up at a time when women had little status in public life, when submissive marriage or retiring spinsterhood was their only option. The aching dissatisfaction that Jane and her friends felt was a forerunner of "the problem that has no name," which Betty Friedan addressed in her classic 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan argued that women's core problem was the "stunting or evasion of growth" that is perpetuated by the cultural ideal of women as solely sexual and domestic beings. The women of Jane's generation suffered from virtually the same malady, the suffocating demands of a womanly ideal, which required them to be pious, pure, and docile, and which dissolved their talents into "genteel nothingness."

Against terrible odds, Jane found a way to be useful to society. At the same time, she became the world's pioneer in assimilating immigrants into middle-class life. As she readily acknowledged, she founded Hull-House as much to save herself as the poor. (She called her twin motives "the subjective necessity and the objective value" of settlement work.) Even as a child she had ambition, a charismatic personality, and a strong sense of moral duty. But living in a slum on Halsted Street transformed her into a reformer. Throughout her adult life, she worked tirelessly to abolish child labor, sweatshops, tenements, unsafe factories, filthy streets, and corrupt politicians. Though not a particularly original thinker, she was acutely sensitive to the currents of thought flowing around her, and she was a gifted speaker and writer. She traveled the country preaching a "social gospel" demanding justice for all, and she wrote several books that helped set the liberal agenda for the twentieth century.

Jane's career would not have been possible without the bolstering support of close female companions. Like many achieving women of the day, she never slept with a man. The two abiding loves of her life were women — first Ellen Gates Starr, the volatile young teacher with whom she founded Hull-House, and, later, Mary Rozet Smith, a beautiful aristocrat to whom she considered herself married. Jane's letters to and from Ellen Starr and Mary Smith offer a rare chance to look inside romantic friendship, an essentially pre-Freudian phenomenon that has been lost to the modern era.

Much has been written about Jane Addams, Hull-House, the settlement movement, and nineteenth-century womanhood. I am greatly indebted to the leading authorities on Jane Addams, Allen F. Davis and Mary Lynn Bryan, editor of the Jane Addams Papers Project. I'd also like to thank the scholars Blanche Wiesen Cook, Nancy F. Cott, Lillian Faderman, Joan D. Hedrick, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Helen Horowitz, Donald Miller, David Nasaw, Anne Firor Scott, Barbara Sicherman, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, whose work has helped me understand how Jane's life fits into the broad themes and sociopolitical contexts of the period.

This book spans thirty-nine years, from 1860, the year of Jane's birth, during the presidential campaign of her father's friend Abraham Lincoln, to 1899, when she entered the national stage through her widely read articles in journals such as Outlook and The Atlantic Monthly — at the time the only national communications media.

My contribution, I hope, is to capture something of the tone and texture of Jane Addams's early life, to give a sense of what she was like as a woman. To that end, I have relied as much as possible on primary sources — letters, newspaper articles, diaries, appointment books, and calendars. Over the years, Jane's life has been obscured by myth and sentimentality and her own extreme reticence. She was silent about many things a biographer wants to know, and she destroyed some material that might have been helpful. Yet, a portrait emerges of a fiercely determined, ambitious, complicated woman — one who, for all her flaws, was unfailingly dedicated to improving American life.

Jane's coming of age occurred against a backdrop of a rapidly changing America, a time when Gilded Age splendor clashed with urban misery. Between her birth and the end of the century, when Hull-House was founded, industrial capitalism came of age. Five transcontinental railroads were built; a national economy was created; the Western frontier was settled and America's boundaries defined. Doubts were first being raised about organized religion, yet many people still retained a powerful commitment to moral duty. Jane was a transitional figure embodying both the purity and innocence of the Victorian angel and the bold independence of the Gibson Girl. In her hopes, conflicts, frailties, and achievements, she speaks directly to modern women.

Today, more than a half century after her death, Jane Addams's place in American history is assured. Her belief that the world is improvable is at the heart of what's best in the American character. Though she has been criticized by some historians for helping to lay the foundation of an overblown welfare system, her ideas of justice and social work, formed in an earlier era when government paid scant attention to the poor, are at the center of today's fierce debate over the underclass. Many people who work with the unfortunate still think settlement-type programs are the best way to cope with urban problems. Jane's career is an extraordinary record of accomplishment and courage, of great odds overcome. And it is a symbol of one of the most important themes of America's second century — the emergence of women into the public arena.

At heart, Jane Addams's early life is a story about the yearning for useful work and the yearning for love; about the tensions between femininity and ambition, family and self; about the meaning of duty and the importance of independence. It is the story of nineteenth-century American women. To a remarkable extent, their struggles and dreams were the same as our own.

Copyright © 1999 by Gioia Diliberto

Meet the Author

Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier, as well as the critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, based on the life of Virginie Gautreau. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.

Brief Biography

Chicago, Illinois
Date of Birth:
June 7, 1950
Place of Birth:
Washington, D.C.
B.A., DePauw University, 1972; M.A., University of Maryland, 1974

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