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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Jane Addams center of discussion
by Yasmin Nair
2008-05-14

This article shared 3149 times since Wed May 14, 2008
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Was Jane Addams a lesbian? Does that matter? And should Adams be posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame?

Such questions were engaged by panelists at a May 7 Center on Halsted forum, 'Love on Halsted Street.' The panel's keynote speaker was Louise W. Knight, author of the Jane Addams biography, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy.

It's widely known that Addams had close and long-standing friendships with Ellen Starr, who co-founded Hull House with her, and Mary Rozet Smith. According to Knight, 'whether Jane Addams ever had sexual contact is not known,' because her private letters were burned at her request. According to Knight, 'we're convinced that nothing is more transcendent than sex.' But, for Knight, Addams' feelings for women fall within a late-19th-century discourse that connected love and friendship to political action. Given that the women were Addams' intellectual companions as well, 'the point is what they aspired to ... place the mind above the senses.'

John Burton, professor of American Studies at DePaul, addressed what he called the difficulties of finding queer role models in the past. For Burton, 'Jane Adam's story provides lessons in what makes powerful and strong relationships,' because her life rested on 'ideals based on intimate love that was also deeply intellectual,' and demonstrated 'shared lives in a larger social mission to the community.'

For Beth Kelly, professor of Women's Studies at DePaul, Addams' life spoke to the fact that 'the meaning of love for women is something we have to expand.' Echoing Burton, she said, 'We need models that affirm what we're doing in all aspects.' Kelly saw the need to recognize Addams as a lesbian, given that the Nobel Prize winner was one of the most significant Chicagoans of her day. According to Kelly, the more people know of lesbians like Addams, 'the less we'll be the targets,' and 'the less [ we'll experience ] internalized homophobia.'

Bill Greaves, the mayor's liaison to the community, spoke about inducting Jane Addams into the Hall of Fame. He read a statement from John D'Emilio, professor of history at University of Illinois at Chicago, who supported the move. According to D'Emilio, to not do so because the category of 'lesbian' was not used by Addams was to 'penalize individuals of a pre-gay era' and 'repeats the cruel logic of blaming them for living then rather than living now.'


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