A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams

A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams

by Gioia Diliberto


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684853659
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 07/07/1999
Series: Lisa Drew Bks.
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier, as well as the critically acclaimed novels I Am Madame X and The Collection. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


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

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

Table of Contents

PART I Angels in the House
1. Sarah
2. Ann
3. Rockford Female Seminary
4. The Rest Cure
5. Grand Tour I
6. Baltimore
7. Grand Tour II

PART II Angel of Halsted Street
8. Chicago
9. Hull-House Opens
10. Women Without Men
11. Revolt of the Daughters
12. Battling the Ward Boss

PART III Angel of the World
13. Spreading the Social Gospel
Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Sources
Note on Sources
Select Bibliography

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