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founder of the first settlement house in America
Laura Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois, on September 6, 1860. She attended the Rockford Seminary for young ladies, where she excelled in her studies. She then decided that she wanted to pursue a medical degree, but her parents thought she had had enough education. In an attempt to get her mind off of her dream, Jane's parents took her on an extended tour of Europe. Unfortunately, all that happened was that Jane became seriously ill. Then, to make matters worse, her father died soon after the family returned to America, sinking Jane into a deep depression. Before long she could barely walk or move without great pain. Eventually, she had surgery and was confined to a back brace for almost a year, time she used to think.
When she finally recovered, Jane returned to Europe, this time without her parents. While in England she was introduced to the founders of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in the slums of London. After Jane and her traveling companion, Ellen Starr, returned to America, they committed themselves to the idea of starting a settlement house in Chicago, Illinois.
Hull House opened in Chicago in 1889, and within a few years was able to offer medical care, child care and legal aid, as well as to teach English, vocational skills, music, art and drama to immigrants. In 1893, a severe depression hit the country, and Hull House soon found itself serving over two thousand people a week. In 1894, Addams founded the Chicago Federation of Settlements. By 1900, Hull House activities had broadened to include the Jane Club (a cooperative residence for working women), the first Little Theater in America, a Labor Museum, and a meeting place for trade union groups.
As the charitable efforts increased, so too did political ones. Addams came to realize that poverty would be a never-ending problem without significant changes in the law. She began pressuring the state of Illinois to look at the laws governing child labor, the factory inspection system, and the juvenile justice system. She worked for legislation to protect immigrants from exploitation, limit the working hours of women, mandate schooling for children, recognize labor unions, and provide for industrial safety. When terrible working conditions led to the Haymarket Riot, Addams was personally attacked for her support of the workers. It resulted in a great loss of donor support for Hull House, but Addams was able to replace most of that income through lecture tours and article writing. Her first book was published in 1910, and others followed biannually. Her biggest success came with the release of Twenty Years at Hull House, which became her autobiography.
Addams also became an advocate for women's suffrage, and became the first vice-president of the National American Women Suffrage Association in 1911. She campaigned nationwide for Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in 1912.
In 1915, world events made outbreak of the First World War seem inevitable. In an effort to avoid this calamity, Addams organized the Women's Peace Party. A few months later she organized the International Congress of Women, which met at The Hague, The Netherlands, and made serious diplomatic efforts to avoid war. In 1919, Addams was elected the first president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and held this position until her death. She was also a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1931, she became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Jane Addams died in Chicago on May 21, 1935. Thousands of people attended her funeral at Hull House before she was taken to Cedarville for burial.
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This page was last updated on June 16, 2017.