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Jane Addams, coming from a wealthy, politically active family, personified all the ideals of the Progressive Era by working with social reform movements such as the settlement house movement, workers’ rights, children’s rights, civil rights, and women’s suffrage and constantly trying to make life better for those less fortunate than herself.
She was born Laura Jane Addams in Cedarville, IL on September 6th, 1860, the youngest of eight children. Her mother died when she was two. At the age of seven, she asked her father, a Republican State Senator, why some people lived in slums. He explained that some people didn’t have as many privileges as others. She decided to dedicate her life to helping people (Kent 3).
At Rockford College, Addams was class president from 1877 to 1881 and valedictorian. She went on to medical school, but she dropped out, deciding that she could help people in better ways. Then she got depressed, however, and her doctor sent her to Europe with a friend, Ellen Gates Starr. While there, she saw a poverty-stricken marketplace. On a later trip to London she saw a Settlement Home, so named because richer people would settle there to mingle with the poor, called Toynbee Hall. This inspired her to build a settlement home in the U.S. (Curtis).
She and Starr rented “Hull House”, a run-down mansion in a poor area of Chicago inhabited mostly by immigrants. Eventually the whole house was donated to the cause. Addams wrote that “The Settlement, then, is an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city” (Addams). Her philosophy was that rich and poor could learn from one another, and the world could improve through democratic reform based on each side’s understanding for the other (Curtis). It opened on September 18th, 1889. By 1890, 2,000 people a week attended the House’s child care, hot lunch, kindergarten, club meetings, parties, union meetings, and adult night school. Residents hiked, walked in the park, and biked together. Other reformers came to work for women’s rights and against poverty and child labor in the House’s thirteen new buildings.
Addams also served on Chicago’s board of education, cofounded the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, was the first woman president of the National Conference of Social Work, was a founding member of the NAACP, and became vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Administration. She became the garbage inspector of Chicago in 1895 after complaining to City Hall that the garbage administration was leaving the streets too dirty. She lobbied the Chicago government to build playgrounds, parks, kindergartens, and public baths in poor neighborhoods. She helped establish the School of Social Work at the University of Chicago. She wrote ten books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of speeches, in which she argued that true democracy requires political and economic empowerment of all citizens, denounced war, and supported the negotiated settlement of political problems.
Addams, a pacifist, was extremely against the U.S. joining World War I in 1914. In 1917, she and Crystal Eastman founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which became the American Civil Liberties Union. She taught a course in peace studies at the University of Wisconsin. In 1906 she wrote “The Newer Ideals of Peace,” and she lectured against war. She served as chair of the Women’s Peace Party and was president of the International Congress of Women (which formed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom/WILPF) from 1919 until 1929, at which point she was made honorary president for life. In 1931 she became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and she donated the prize money to the WILPF, although she could not travel to accept the prize because she had cancer.
She died of the cancer May 21st, 1935, and thousands came to her funeral. However, her legacy lived on– during the 1960s, the Hull House Association spread to twenty locations. Americans will always remember her as the very picture of the progressive age in which she worked, constantly working to help people less fortunate than herself, whatever the reason.
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