Jane Addams

On this date in 1860, Jane Addams was born, the eighth child of a prosperous family in Cedarville, Ill. Her mother died while pregnant when Addams was 2. Her businessman father, Quaker by conviction but not affiliation, served for many years in the state Senate. Addams entered Rockford Female Seminary at age 17, intending to pursue a medical career.

Her plans changed after she developed health problems of her own and her father died from appendicitis while vacationing with his second wife at a Green Bay hotel. She inherited $50,000 in 1881, a considerable sum at the time. 

She and classmate Ellen Gate Starr, with whom she had a romantic relationship, opened a settlement home in Chicago in 1889, expanding services for the working-class poor to include a girls’ home, nursery and other amenities. Hull House was secular by Addams’ decree. She documented social conditions, worked with reformers and radicals of every stripe and wrote articles on everything from suffrage to prostitution.

She co-founded the Woman’s Peace Party in 1915 and was elected national chair. It eventually became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was intimately involved with the founding of sociology as an academic field in the U.S. The Jane Addams College of Social Work is a professional school at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Although she credited Jesus in her address, “A Challenge to the Contemporary Church,” she denounced the church fathers very firmly in it: “The very word woman in the writings of the church fathers stood for the basest temptations.” While she remained a member of a Presbyterian church, Addams regularly attended and sometimes lectured at Unitarian and Ethical Society events and had a close relationship with members of the Jewish community.

Addams had a long domestic partnership with Mary Rozet Smith, who was wealthy and supported Addams’ work at Hull House and elsewhere. They were together for 40 years until 1934, when Smith died of pneumonia. Addams, who suffered a heart attack in 1926, died of cancer in 1935.

Freedom From Religion Foundation