By Louise W. Knight, author of Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, 2005, and Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, 2010.
Living from 1860 to 1935, Jane Addams is best known as the co-founder of the first settlement house in the United States, Hull House in Chicago. She was also the author of many articles and eleven books, and one of the nation’s most popular public speakers. The issues she worked on included a wide range of social reforms: child labor, the eight-hour day, strike mediation, women’s suffrage, sex trafficking, juvenile justice, adult education, immigrant rights, civil rights, freedom of speech, the death penalty, and peace. But she did not start out supporting all of these issues and, especially with women’s suffrage, Addams’ advocacy developed gradually over time.
Addams’ father, John Huy Addams, an Illinois state senator, heard Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Livermore make the case for married women’s property legislation in 1869 at a public gathering in Springfield, Illinois. Sympathetic to the legislation, he reported back to his family that he was less impressed with Stanton’s speech than with Livermore’s. (Stanton was in Illinois for the state’s first woman suffrage convention in Chicago where the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association was founded. In college, Jane Addams believed in the cause of woman’s suffrage but she later explained that this was less out of her own conviction than because it was her father’s view. Throughout her twenties and part of her thirties, Jane Addams, though considering herself a suffragist, took no interest in the cause of women voting.
In her early 30s, Addams began to become political. She took her first, reluctant step in 1893, when friends persuaded her to join them to lobby for proposed child labor legislation moving through in the Illinois legislature. Her experiences at Hull House were pushing her to do it. She knew many children who worked 10 and 12-hour days. She wanted an effective law that would compel them to be in school. And then there was the influence of newly arrived Hull House resident Florence Kelley. Kelley had been lobbying state legislatures for years back East and now, in Illinois, was deeply involved in pushing for the new child labor legislation. Under these pressures, Addams went to Springfield with her friends, and lobbied. And the bill became law. The experience showed her that politics could sometimes accomplish real change.
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