Whether by accident or design, she turned it into the center of more social, cultural, and political experiments than it is easy to describe. She taught the new immigrants among whom she had settled to lift their eyes from the squalid surroundings in which they were working and living, and to enjoy the achievements of their own native cultures—Italian, Irish, German, Greek, and Polish. But she did not neglect their squalid surroundings or their material poverty; she not only encouraged private philanthropy to provide medical care and relief for the unemployed, she taught her new friends and neighbors how to use the political system that was wasting city taxes on the friends of the local politicians, and to make the city do something for them.
After she had thoroughly established herself in Chicago, she looked further afield. She became an energetic suffragist, and was much in demand as a speaker on urban politics. But she was happy to sacrifice her popularity for important causes. In 1915, she broke with most of her friends—including, and particularly bitterly, with John Dewey—to oppose World War I, and then to oppose American entry into the war. She was one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and was president and honorary president from 1919 until her death in 1935. In 1931, she became one of the first winners of the Nobel Prize for Peace, alongside Nicholas Murray Butler, the authoritarian president of Columbia University who had sacked several of his own professors for opposing World War I. When she died, Chicago mourned her with wonderful extravagance. A former governor of Illinois declared: “There was a great woman of the past, the Mother of God, whose name was Mary; and there is a great woman of the present, the Mother of Men, whose name is Jane Addams; and they stand alone in history.”
Yet oddly enough, both her biographers and intellectual historians have found it hard to agree on what she was all about. This is not because she was elusive—nobody could have led a more public life than Jane Addams; but she presents us with almost too much to think about. It is hard to see how the anxious and uncertain young woman of the early 1880s turned into the determined campaigner for urban improvement in the 1890s. That difficulty translates very easily into a puzzle about her feminism: Did she ever quite liberate herself from the view that politics was an “unfeminine” activity? If she did not, how was it that she was so effective a politician?
The plays and poetry readings at Hull House—drawing on the works of Shaw, Dreiser, and Whitman, for example—will disquiet the commentator who looks for signs of social and cultural condescension in the work of upper-class radicals and reformers; but they charm everyone who is ready to admire the politics of generosity. Further down that road lie innumerable difficult questions about the politics of radicalism …