The Life of Jane Addams

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Jane Addams, a pioneering social worker, helped bring attention to the possibility of revolutionizing America's attitude toward the poor. Not only does she remain a rich source of provocative social theory to this day, her accomplishments affected the philosophical, sociological, and political thought. Addams was an activist of courage and a thinker of originality. Jane Addams embodied the purest moral standards of society which were best demonstrated by her founding of the Hull-House and her societal contributions, culminating with the winning of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, the eighth child of a prominent family in the small town of Cedarville, Illinois. Of the nine children born to her parents, John and Sarah Addams, only four would reach maturity. Pregnant with her ninth child at the age of forty-nine, Sarah Addams died in 1863, leaving two-year-old Jane, ten-year-old James Weber and three older daughters—Mary, Martha, and Alice.

Five years after Sarah's death, John Addams married Anna Haldeman, a widow from nearby Freeport who had two sons, eighteen-year-old Henry and seven-year-old George. Jane welcomed the arrival of George, who was almost the same age as she, but she resented her new stepmother at first. The little girl was used to being pampered by her older siblings and the family servants, and she was taken aback by Anna Addams's unfamiliar habits. The new Mrs. Addams was determined to enforce order in the somewhat unruly household, and she had a quick temper. When she arrived in her new home, she began at once to reorganize it, insisting on formal mealtime behavior, scrupulously orderly rooms, and strict discipline among the children.

Anna Addams was, however, intelligent, cultivated, and basically kind. An avid reader and a talented musician, she often entertained the youngsters by reading plays and novels aloud to them, playing the guitar, and singing folk songs. The children soon became accustomed to her ways, and after a few months she won the hearts of both Jane and her siblings. Although Jane grew found of "Ma," as she began to call her stepmother, she continued to look to her father and sister Martha for advice and approval. When Martha suddenly died of typhoid fever at the age of sixteen, five-year-old Jane became more dependent than ever on her adored father.

At the age of sixteen, Addams was an attractive young woman. College was an exception rather than a rule for women in the 1870s, but John Addams approved of higher education for women, and Jane wanted to go. In 1877, seventeen years old, Jane boarded a train at Cedarville station, and set off for Rockford Seminary, a "female college" in Rockford, Illinois. Like the twenty-two other women in her freshman class, Addams felt singled out for special opportunity, and she was determined to make the most of it. A few years later, after organizing a chess club, a debating society, an amateur theatrical group and editing/writing for the Rockford Seminary Magazine, Jane graduated and returned home to Cedarville. Jane Addams intended to carry out her plan of attending the Women's Medical College in the fall of 1881 largely because she had to her father she would. Jane soon realized that medical school was not for her as she found she was incapable of concentrating on her classes, an "utter failure" and "unable to work at the best of myself." In February of 1882, she dropped out and entered a hospital, suffering from severe back pain as well as depression. That April, Jane underwent an operation to straighten her spine caused by an earlier childhood diagnosis, tuberculosis of the spine.

As part of young Jane's rejuvenation, her stepmother and a few other women took her on a trek through Europe, proving to be excellent therapy. Addams's European tour improved her health and expanded her cultural horizons. Even more important, however, was what it showed her about a side of...
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