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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.