Jane Addams: Spirit in Action

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In this landmark biography, Jane Addams becomes America's most admired and most hated woman—and wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jane Addams (1860-1935) was a leading statesperson in an era when few imagined such possibilities for women. In this fresh interpretation, the first full biography of Addams in nearly forty years, Louise W. Knight shows Addams's boldness, creativity, and tenacity as she sought ways to put the ideals of democracy into action. Starting in Chicago as a ...

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Jane Addams: Spirit in Action

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In this landmark biography, Jane Addams becomes America's most admired and most hated woman—and wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jane Addams (1860-1935) was a leading statesperson in an era when few imagined such possibilities for women. In this fresh interpretation, the first full biography of Addams in nearly forty years, Louise W. Knight shows Addams's boldness, creativity, and tenacity as she sought ways to put the ideals of democracy into action. Starting in Chicago as a co-founder of the nation's first settlement house, Hull House—a community center where people of all classes and ethnicities could gather—Addams became a grassroots organizer and a partner of trade unionists, women, immigrants, and African Americans seeking social justice. In time she emerged as a progressive political force; an advocate for women's suffrage; an advisor to presidents; a co-founder of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP; and a leader for international peace. Written as a fast-paced narrative, Jane Addams traces how one woman worked with others to make a difference in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Jane Addams (1860-1935) was one of the leading figures of the Progressive era. This "pragmatic visionary," as Knight calls her, is best known as the creator of Hull House, a model settlement house offering training, shelter, and culture for Chicago's poor. Addams also involved herself in a long list of Progressive campaigns. Her rhetorical skills as both speaker and writer made her internationally recognized as a supporter of civil rights, woman suffrage, and labor reform. Using brief quotes and contextual details, Knight (Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy) describes her subject's journey from a Victorian upbringing that stressed family duty through her practice of lofty "benevolence" as a young woman to the confidence to unhesitatingly risk her substantial reputation advocating pacifism during WWI. Her continuing peace activities earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, but antagonized many longstanding supporters. In this well-supported and appealing portrait of an iconic American, Knight emphasizes Addams's struggle to redefine Victorian womanhood and claim her right to "possess authority in the public realm" and "exercise authority" as a lobbying feminist who helped women acquire the right to vote. 32 illus. (Sept.)
Gloria Steinem
“Jane Addams lives in these pages. So does her work and wisdom on such ongoing concerns as immigration, the intertwined restrictions of sex and race, striving for peace in a nation at war, and acting locally while thinking globally. Thanks to Louise Knight, we can meet an experienced organizer and a friend we need right now.”
Courtney E. Martin
“As the granddaughter of a Hull House teacher, I read this beautiful biography with a sort of intimate awe. This biography is a gift to my generation, a call for us to be as courageous and visionary in our own time as Jane Addams was in hers.”
Vivian Gornick
“This book is as fine an introduction to the life and thought of Jane Addams as one is ever likely to read. Her internal growth as a world-class democrat, coupled with the many public causes with which she interacted, is so beautifully laid out that the reader sees vividly why Addams was, is, and remains an iconic figure in American history.”
James McGrath Morris
“Louise W. Knight’s masterful biography of Jane Addams not only brings to life this remarkable crusader for peace and justice but serves as an eloquent reminder of the ideals for which she stood. Addams may be gone but with the publication of this spiritually imbued biography her dreams will live again and her life can be a model for yet another generation. To commemorate the 150th birthday of this icon of American decency and fairness, Knight’s biography is a book that begs to be given as a present to others.”
Douglas Brinkley
“Only superlatives like excellent and elegant can do justice to Louise W. Knight’s fine Jane Addams. Whether Addams was grass-roots organizing, founding Hull House, or fighting for women’s suffrage, she was always an indefatigable warrior. If there was any real fairness in this troubled world Addams would have won three Nobel Peace Prizes instead of one. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal
Knight's second full-length work on Addams (1860–1935), after Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, is a well-researched study notable for covering Addams's entire life, her early influences, and the many roles she played as a public figure, rather than focusing only on her career as founder of Hull House, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and activist. Addams wore many hats. She was the founder of the country's first settlement house, offering education, entertainment, and advocacy to less fortunate Chicagoans; she wrote books on moral ethics in American society; and she headed organizations advocating for suffrage, peace, and social justice. Knight has organized Addams's disparate interests into chapters that describe the woman herself: "Dreamer," "Activist," "Political Ethicist," "Politician," "Dissenter," and "Ambassador." The author seamlessly traces Addams's early influences, moral beliefs, and the career path of a woman who had the ear of Presidents and the nation alike. VERDICT While less narrowly in-depth than her first book, this work would nonetheless be a wonderful supplement to any college course on women's history or the history of the early 20th century. Enthusiasts of the history of the Progressive Era will be equally pleased. Recommended.—Laura Ruttum, NYPL
The Barnes & Noble Review

As Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago's Hull House, lay in her bed recovering from surgery in the spring of 1916, she received a visit from Theodore Roosevelt. Addams had campaigned for Roosevelt and his Progressive Party in 1912. Now Roosevelt had come hat-in-hand to ask Addams to endorse the Republican presidential ticket in the fall election. But Roosevelt wasn't her only electoral suitor. President Woodrow Wilson, also eager for Addams's backing, had sent her sixty long-stemmed American Beauty roses, a wish for a speedy recovery, and also an implicit request for her endorsement.

Who was this woman, who could turn two of the most powerful men in America into political courtiers? Louise W. Knight's riveting new biography, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, rescues this fascinating figure from the twilight of textbooks and polemics to bring her complex career into view. A prominent progressive, Addams was an advisor to no fewer than eight presidents, a bestselling author, and a woman who rejected the strictures of Gilded Age America, becoming along the way one of the most beloved and reviled women in American history.

Knight devotes the first part of the book to Addams's first, transformative journey -- from diligent daughter to creator of the institution that would forever define her. From an early age, Addams (1860-1935) had a desire to "fix the world," finding inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson, abolitionist John Brown, and suffragist Lucy Stone. Though she yearned to study medicine, her father wouldn't hear of it, limiting her education to what was available to students of the Rockford Female Seminary. Like many women of the nineteenth century who had been introduced to the world of ideas, Addams found returning to life under her father's roof small and confining.

When Addams was twenty, her father died unexpectedly, leaving his daughter heartbroken, but now independent -- and wealthy enough to pursue her own interests. She spent the next decade trying to figure out what to do with herself, and in true upper-middle class style, she embarked on two extended trips to Europe. In between galleries and operas, Addams toured Toynbee House, a settlement house by the London docks, which showed her what could be done to help the poor. An idea had begun to crystallize.

Back in Chicago, she found a run-down mansion in the Nineteenth Ward, an immigrant neighborhood home to Germans, Irish, Italians, and French-Canadians. Using her own money and drawing on her network of women friends, she opened Hull House in 1889. "Her large vision," writes Knight, "was to create a place that would nurture universal and democratic fellowship among peoples of all classes. It was a distinctly social, not political, ideal." Although her work was inspired by her Christian faith, Addams made a conscious decision not to proselytize. It was a practical decision -- she wanted all who came through Hull House's doors to feel comfortable -- but also borne of her own disdain for those who insisted there was only one way to be a Christian. By 1901, the Hull House included the mansion, as well as an art gallery, clubhouse, children's building, quarters for working women, and a coffeehouse. Seven thousand people came through its doors each week.

Hull House made Addams famous, giving her the opportunity to put her ideas to work on a larger scale. Good with a pen and a skilled orator, Addams began speaking out on local and national issues. She soon cast aside her disdain for politics, becoming adept at lobbying for concerns close to her heart: accomplishing women's suffrage, abolishing restrictive immigration policies, improving poor working conditions, and achieving equality for African Americans.

What made Addams so effective at promoting her vision was her ability to build coalitions. She abhorred conflict -- a product of her childhood growing up in a testy household -- and could always see both sides to an issue. She also had the rare ability to invoke a sense of responsibility for the greater good without resorting to guilt. Knight, however, resists portraying Addams as a leader of the progressive movement, and rightly so: "[S]he was actually more like a surfer riding the long, splendid wave of political energy that progressives across the country were creating."

By 1917, Addams had become a beloved public figure, but her opposition to American involvement in the Great War turned her into an object of scorn. Addams's pacifism, according to Knight, was a natural extension of her philosophy: "To her a government at war was a government seeking to harm its citizens: it not only required them to kill other human beings and to risk being killed but redirected tax dollars from social programs into military expenses and restricted citizens' right to free speech." Ignoring charges that she had turned traitor, Addams became the guiding force behind a series of women-centric peace groups. In 1931, when she received the Nobel Peace Prize, her reputation had recovered enough that critics again sang her praises.

One of the pleasures of this book is Knight's portrayal of Addams's private life and the web of friendships that sustained her. Knight treats with great care Addams's relationship with Mary Rozet Smith. Committed to each other for four decades, the two women shared a devotion they regarded as being equal to marriage. Knight relies on letters between the women to reveal the contour of their relationship, while declining to speculate on what happened behind closed doors.

Books about people who devote their lives to grand causes can wind up feeling like one long meal, full of fiber but short on flavor, with a side of hagiography. But Knight has resisted the urge to turn Addams into "Saint Jane," revealing instead a complicated woman elated by the small pleasure of talking with a child at Hull House or deeply troubled by the brutal personal attacks prompted by her pacifism. The result is a biography that's not only vital for students of American history, but highly readable, a poignant rendering of the woman and the era she helped to shape.

--Meredith Hindley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393071658
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/6/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 986,684
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Louise W. Knight is a writer and consultant to nonprofits and a former college administrator. The author of Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, she lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2011


    I had never heard of Jane Addams until assigned to read this book for a class. I enjoyed reading about someone so compelled to achieve her dreams. After reading this book I felt that more should learn of Jane Addams and her accomplishments and her leadership to shape America in the early 1900's. It amazes me that I have never learned about someone who has done so much for this country till my junior year in college. I never knew who's idea it was to have a minimum wage and max number hours to work a week and child labor laws until now until now, and who broke the social norm of women's power in the 1900's. I feel Jane Addams would be pleasantly surprised how far America has come since her death.
    If you are interested in learning of social activism and civil rights then this is the book for you. Jane Addams worked for world peace, women's rights, and fought for the rights of many others. Learn of how one person can change a country and the world.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2012

    Prince tower

    A huge tower stretching almost 540 miles tall. Many Bey arenas are inside. Championships and tournaments are almost always held here.

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  • Posted April 19, 2012

    The detailed biography of Jane Addams is an astonishing display

    The detailed biography of Jane Addams is an astonishing display of the growth of a leader: the transformations made from a youth striving to please her father to becoming a steadfast revolutionary leader for human rights. This book details not only the events that shaped Jane, but also demonstrates changes in her thought processes through intimate letters written to her best friend. This inspiring account of her life is a motivational lesson on the impact one person can have through dedication. It’s a call to arms for the readers to create social change and strive for the equality that Jane worked towards establishing.

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  • Posted April 16, 2012

    Jane Addams's life and accomplishments are awe inspiring. Her st

    Jane Addams's life and accomplishments are awe inspiring. Her strength of character and the things she was able to accomplish in a time dominated by conservative white males is nothing less of impressive. She laid the foundation for the way we currently think of democracy and has contributed so much for the future and present generations of the world. She not only influenced American society as we know it but also influenced developing nations of the world. Her impact and wisdom has crossed generations and continents. A truly remarkable women. Spirit in Action is a great read.

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  • Posted October 25, 2011

    very good hisorical book

    Jane Addams life story parallels the struggles that life parallels the struggles that the progressive movement faced which had a humble beginning, to a booming movement that wheeled great political power, to being crushed under the world war. This biography explains many questions that people have about Jane Addams, one of the most influential women at the beginning of the 20th century. Jane had such a great effect on her time, and to understand the Progressive Movement you must understand Jane Addams.This book is great for anybody, especially historians and history enthusiasts, who want to lean about and understand more about the Progressive movement and a major driving force behind the movement. Again to learn about the life of Jane Addams is to learn about the growth, and sustainment of the Progressive movement.

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