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Twenty years at Hull-House
A great Chicago book: A guide to creating civic well-being in troubled times
by Rebecca Anne Sive

This article shared 3380 times since Wed Apr 26, 2017
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…that the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life."1 — Jane Addams

Twenty Years at Hull-House, written by Jane Addams and published in 1910, is Addams's account of how to imagine and secure civic good in troubled times.

Since I first read Twenty Years at Hull-House in college, I have returned to it repeatedly, for there is much wisdom in its pages. I discussed its value—I went so far as to call it "every woman's bible"—in a paper I gave to Chicago's Caxton Club on March 8 ( International Women's Day ), 2013.

At that time, I was reviewing final proofs of Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman's Guide, my own primer for public leadership. I thought Twenty Years at Hull-House would be inspirational context. It was. It remains so today, when I share Addams's insight again, hopeful that as Addams inspired so many Chicagoans in her gilded age to work for good, she will again inspire in ours.

In a speech to the Union League Club in 1903, Addams asked her audience: "What did [George Washington] write in his last correspondence? He wrote that he felt very unhappy on the subject of slavery." Continuing, Addams said: "That was a century ago. A man who a century ago could do that, would he, do you think, be indifferent now to the great questions of social maladjustment which we feel all around us?"2

Sadly, here we are—another century hence—feeling all around us those very same "great questions of social maladjustment": immigration, poverty, women's unequal rights, racial inequality, and my favorite high school essay topic: industrial statesman or robber baron?

While Jane Addams wrote a dozen books, it is Twenty Years at Hull-House that has stood the test of time. Recently, it was listed at number three by the Guardian on a list of "The Top 10 Books about Chicago,"3 after Sister Carrie and The Jungle and followed by Native Son, all three novels imagined from what Addams experienced firsthand in her Chicago neighborhood—one so like Sister Carrie's, Jurgis Rudkus's, and Bigger Thomas's.

However, after arriving at his conclusion about the importance of Twenty Years at Hull-House, the author of the Guardian article damns Addams with faint praise, describing her as "a classic bluestocking whose sense of noblesse oblige may now seem condescendingly de haut en bas [sic]," then grudgingly admitting that "she and her work helped thousands of people have better lives, and inspired generations of women activists to come."4

Yes, Addams was, as the Oxford Dictionaries describes, a "bluestocking," "an intellectual or literary woman."5 And, yes, her language is courtly. But Twenty Years at Hull-House is in no way an account of a fancy lady's noblesse oblige—helping, and then help bestowed—retreating to her true life among the "haut." It is an account of a woman who not only worked for the "bas," but lived among them, of her political awakening and lifelong work as a community organizer on their behalf.

Indeed, Addams described her purpose in founding Hull-House as nothing less than to "put things to rights."6 That's why Twenty Years at Hull-House has withstood the test of time. It describes a courageous policy agenda ( for example, advocating for workers' rights and for world peace ), a revolutionary social justice strategy ( creating a settlement house—more on this below ), and a daily campaign for civic good by the most unlikely of candidates in the most unlikely of places, in an honest-to-goodness "slum." ( Tearing down that neighborhood and Hull-House 75 years later, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley boasted about how quickly he had destroyed Hull-House and its surrounding community for something he viewed as so much better. )7

Visits to Toynbee Hall and the People's Palace, two East London settlement houses, had convinced Addams that a settlement house was needed in "the shame of the cities" that was Chicago in 1889:8 "[An experience] perhaps unconsciously illustrated the difference between the relief-station relation to the poor [the "bas"] and the Settlement relation to its neighbors, the latter wishing to know them through all the varying conditions of life, to stand by when they are in distress, but by no means to drop intercourse with them when normal prosperity has returned, enabling the relation to become more social and free from economic disturbance"9 ( italics mine ).

Addams wrote that she was driven to found Hull-House because she realized that there was no place "somewhere in Church or State [where there is] a body of authoritative people who will put things to rights as soon as they really know what is wrong."10 In sum, if things were to be put to rights, she would have to do it, since neither the churchmen nor the government men had got the job done.

Though too few were as courageous as she, Addams situated her motivation to found Hull-House in a group context, "a heritage of noble obligation which young people accept and long to perpetuate. The desire for action, the wish to right wrong and alleviate suffering, haunts them daily. Society smiles at it indulgently instead of making it of value to itself. The wrong to them begins even farther back, when we restrain the first childish desires for 'doing good,' and tell them that they must wait until they are older and better fitted. We intimate that social obligation begins at a fixed date, forgetting that it begins with birth itself"11 ( italics mine ). Wow: from birth on, we have a duty to "put things to rights." This is way more than "having helped."

Muckraking writer Ida Tarbell, Addams's colleague and friend, at the time an editor at The American Magazine, and, according to an Addams biographer, Katherine Joslin, "the book's grandmother,"12 serialized Twenty Years at Hull-House when it was first published. The excerpts she chose were set up by a series Tarbell wrote, "The American Woman," which "traces the story of female achievement from 1776 through the years of the Civil War and makes the case for female involvement in the public sphere, including the natural right to ...political power."13 Tarbell had determined that she and Addams shared the same goal: to gain public power, in order to achieve social justice. They agreed: just do it.

In this context, remember that Hull-House was founded 31 years before the 19th Amendment secured American women's suffrage. Indeed, the founding of Hull-House occurred during heated battles over how even to achieve women's suffrage, much less women's political power. Addams ( and Tarbell ) trail-blazed anyway.

Wrote Henry Steele Commager, in the introduction to the edition of Twenty Years at Hull-House I read 45 years ago, quoting Lincoln Steffens, another muckraking contemporary of Addams, writing in The Shame of the Cities, Chicago in 1889 was "first in violence, deepest in dirt; loud, lawless, unlovely, ill-smelling...the teeming tough among [American] cities."14

Continuing his description of what awaited Addams on Halsted Street, Commager wrote: "Chicago [was where] all the evils and vices of American life seemed to be exaggerated. ... It was an America familiar to us in the novels of Theodore Dreiser ( Sister Carrie ) and Upton Sinclair ( The Jungle ), an America that accepted uncritically the grim doctrines of Social Darwinism that promised success to the strong and the ruthless, and remorselessly condemned the weak and the helpless to defeat."15 ( Sound familiar? )

Addams rejected this state of affairs wholesale. She moved into Hull-House, along with her equally stalwart companion, Ellen Gates Starr, got to work, and in 1910, shared what she had learned in 20 years there.

Addams remained at Hull-House until her death. Throughout, she wrote, sharing her "social thought," as another biographer, Christopher Lasch, characterized her books and hundreds of articles.16 However, it is Twenty Years at Hull-House that best and most personally lays out Addams's ideas for securing good for all.

Below, I've shared passages from this bible that I think best illustrate her approach.

1. Be an idealist

Addams wanted to believe that "the things which make men [and women] alike are finer and better than the things that keep them apart, and that these basic likenesses, if they are properly accentuated, easily transcend the less essential differences of race, language, creed and tradition."17 ( I confess that in our Trumpian world my mind and heart are comforted by this glorious idealism. We can overcome. )

2. Believe in democracy for all

Addams believed that democracy—and the economic opportunity it presumes — is for all, not only for the moneyed classes. "Doubtless the heaviest burden of our contemporaries is a consciousness of a divergence between our democratic theory on the one hand, that working people have a right to the intellectual resources of society, and the actual fact on the other hand, that thousands of them are so overburdened with toil that there is no leisure nor energy left for the cultivation of the mind."18

Here, Addams's "haut" language affirms her belief that all Americans have an equal right to participate in democracy, albeit doing so by describing her belief that all should have "energy left for the cultivation of the mind."

Lest you doubt what Addams was driving at, she then wrote: "Those who believe that Justice is but a poetical longing within us, the enthusiast who thinks it will come in the form of a millennium, those who see it established by the strong arm of a hero, are not those who have comprehended the vast truths of life. The actual Justice must come by trained intelligence, by broadened sympathies toward the individual man or woman who crosses our path; one item added to another is the only method by which to build up a conception lofty enough to be of use in the world."19

3. Befriend decision makers

Allen Davis, Addams's great biographer, describes the community organizing Addams and Ellen Gates Starr undertook to garner support for creating Hull-House. "Jane went from the Woman's Club to the anarchist Sunday school, from elegant receptions in the palatial townhouses of Chicago's Gold Coast to [travels] through...slums, from lecturing to some of the wealthiest women in the city to teaching poor and dirty children how to model in clay."20 According to Davis, she even joined Fourth Presbyterian so that she could meet "leaders in philanthropy."21

After she met these leaders in philanthropy, Addams built personal relationships with them, to use to benefit the Hull-House community. ( For instance, she did so at The Fortnightly Society, ( where she was a member ), whose other members at the time included Bertha Palmer and Louise de Koven Bowen, among those who funded Addams's projects. )22

Ponder Addams here, calling on another kind of decision maker to enlist in her cause, recounting an incident when she went to the defense of a supposed anarchist: "As the final police authority rests in the mayor, with a friend who was equally disturbed over the situation, I repaired to [the mayor's] house on Sunday morning to appeal to him in the interest of a law and order that should not yield to panic. We contended that to the anarchist above all men it must be demonstrated that law is impartial and stands the test of every strain. The mayor heard us through with the ready sympathy of the successful politician."23 Smartly, Addams couches her success not in her own persistent work, or access to decision makers, but in the "ready sympathy of the successful politician." Like I said, make friends all over the place.

4. Create an institutional context in which to foster unique systemic change

Addams found it difficult to decide what to do once she graduated college. She tried medical school ( and got sick ), teaching ( according to Allen Davis, "she went to a sewing school for poor children," but, writing about the experience: "I found I couldn't make button holes very well" ),24 and engaged in other charitable work ( of the noblesse oblige sort ). None satisfied. She wanted a greater public purpose and a wider field of opportunity.

Describing this lost decade, Addams wrote: "I was absolutely at sea so far as any moral purpose was concerned, clinging only to the desire to live in a really living world and refusing to be content with a shadowy intellectual or aesthetic reflection of it."25

After attending a bullfight, she described her epiphany, in the Twenty Years at Hull-House chapter titled: "The Snare of Preparation" ( a phrase Addams credits to Tolstoy ): "In deep chagrin I felt myself tried and condemned, not only by this disgusting experience but by the entire moral situation which it revealed. It was suddenly made quite clear to me that I was lulling my conscience by a dreamer's scheme, that a mere paper reform had become a defense for continued idleness. …I had made up my mind that next day, whatever happened, I would begin to carry out the plan [to create Hull-House]."26

It was off to East London to visit Toynbee Hall and the People's Palace to learn how, having visited once before and having done nothing about "the plan."

"Our endeavors [were] to make social intercourse express the growing sense of the economic unity of society and to add the social function to democracy.… Hull-House was soberly opened on the theory that the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal; and that as the social relation is essentially a reciprocal relation, [the settlement, where in people of one social class live amidst another] gives a form of expression that has peculiar value."27

5. Engage activists of complementary skills

Addams wrote: "At any rate the residents [the "residents" were mostly middle-class women like Addams] at Hull-House discovered that while their first impact with city poverty allied them to groups given over to discussion of social theories, their sober efforts to heal neighborhood ills allied them to general public movements which were without challenging creeds. But while we discovered that we most easily secured the smallest of much needed improvements by attaching our efforts to those of organized bodies, nevertheless these very organizations would have been impossible, had not the public conscience been aroused and the community sensibility quickened by these same ardent theorists."28 Addams clearly asserts that all could be—and needed to be — a part of putting things to rights.

Foreshadowing Barack Obama in Chicago earlier this year in his exhortation to his followers to focus on issues of basic, community well-being, 125 years ago, Addams did what Obama preached: "Show up. Dive in. Persevere."29 Here is one example: "We also quickly discovered that nothing brought us so absolutely into comradeship with our neighbors as mutual and sustained effort such as the paving of a street, the closing of a gambling house, or the restoration of a veteran police sergeant."30

6. Choose politics—even political office—because it is requisite to improving the common good

Addams wrote: "One of the first lessons we learned at Hull-House was that private beneficence is totally inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city's disinherited."31 Consequently, Addams became active in politics. In 1905, she was appointed to the Chicago Board of Education. She remained a political activist until her death 30 years hence, becoming an increasingly important politician in the international and national arenas, while remaining committed to local Chicago politics, albeit understanding its complexities and frustrations. For instance, describing a period when the Chicago Board of Education and its teachers were arguing over salary levels, and how teacher competency would be measured ( sound familiar? ), Addams wrote: "The whole situation between the superintendent supported by a majority of the Board, and the Teachers' Federation had become an epitome of the struggle between efficiency and democracy; on one side a well-intentioned expression of the bureaucracy necessary in a large system but which under pressure had become unnecessarily self-assertive, and on the other side a fairly militant demand for self-government made in the name of freedom."32

Here, Addams describes another political project: in order to pass "the first factory law of Illinois, regulating the sanitary conditions of the sweatshop and fixing fourteen as the age at which a child might be employed. . .a little group of us addressed the open meetings of trades-unions and of benefit societies, church organizations, and social clubs literally every evening for three months.. .. The Hull-House residents that winter had their first experience in lobbying."33

Sadly—and too often—a woman's life of political advocacy, no matter how mildly described, is met with disapproval. Addams experienced this when she became active in the peace movement, as an organizer of the Women's Peace Party ( in 1915 ), and then as founding president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom ( in 1919 ). The University of Chicago—where she had been an adjunct lecturer, had helped found its school of social service administration, and had trained its first directors, Hull-House residents Sophinisoba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, refused to give her an honorary degree. And, according to Commager, "the Daughters of the American Revolution stigmatized [Addams] as 'a factor in a movement to destroy civilization and Christianity.'"—34 Redemption of a sort came shortly before Addams's death when, in 1931, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, after having been nominated dozens of times. Still, she had to share the prize with a man. ( Sexism ruled then, as it still rules, at the Nobel Foundation. To date, 825 men and 49 women have received prizes, including those women, like Addams, who have shared the Prize with a man. In 2016, there were no women Nobel Prize winners. )35

7. Live a life of meaning in service to others and in community with others

Addams wrote: "We do not like to acknowledge that Americans are divided into two nations….We are not willing, openly and professedly, to assume that American citizens are broken up into classes, even if we make that assumption the preface to a plea that the superior class has duties to the inferior."36 In fact, Addams did not want to be a member of "the superior class" ( the "haut" ) with duties to the "inferior" ( the "bas" ). Instead, she wanted "… to share the race life,"37 ( italics mine ), not as an incidental I-passed-you-on-the-street-and-said-hello matter, but as the fundamental condition of human exchange and equality.

As to a life of service, she wrote: "… It is difficult to see how the notion of a higher civic life can be fostered save through common intercourse; ... the blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation can be made universal and must be made universal if they are to be permanent; that the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life..."38

Need I say more about this great Chicago book!

Rebecca Anne Sive is author of Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman's Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House.

This article was first published in the Caxtonian, newsletter of Chicago's Caxton Club.


1 Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House: With Autobiographical Notes ( New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912 ), 116.

2 J Franklin Fort, Exercises in Commemoration of the Birthday of Washington ( Chicago: Metcalf Stationery Co., 1903 ), 9.

3 Andrew Rosenheim, "The Top 10 Books about Chicago," The Guardian, July 16, 2014, accessed January 15, 2017,

4 Ibid.

5 "Bluestocking," English Oxford Living Dictionaries, accessed February 15, 2017,

6 Twenty Years, 81.

7 Monica Eng, "Daley vs. Little Italy," WBEZ 91.5 Chicago, accessed February 15, 2017,

8 Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities ( New York: McClure, Philips & Co., 1904 ).

9 Twenty Years, 164-165.

10 Ibid., 81.

11 Ibid., 118.

12 Katherine Joslin, Jane Addams, a Writer's Life, ( Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004 ), 102.

13 Ibid., 112.

14 Henry Steele Commager, foreword to Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes, by Jane Addams ( New York: The Saturday Review, 1960 ), x.

15 Ibid., ix-x.

16 Christopher Lasch, ed., The Social Thought of Jane Addams ( Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965 ).

17 Twenty Years, 111-112.

18 Ibid., 270.

19 Ibid., 58.

20 Allen F. Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1973 ), 58.

21 Ibid., 54.

22 Edward T. James et al., Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 3 ( Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971 ), 9.

23 Twenty Years, 405.

24 American Heroine, 42.

25 Twenty Years, 64.

26 Ibid., 91.

27 Ibid., 194.

28 Ibid., 200

29 "President Barack Obama's Farewell Address ( Full Speech ) | NBC News," YouTube video, 51:00, posted by "NBC News," January 10, 2017,

30 Twenty Years, 315.

31 Ibid., 310.

32 Ibid., 335.

33 Ibid., 201.

34 Commager, foreword, xv.

35 J. R. Thorpe, "No 2016 Nobel Prizes Went to Women—And That's Total Bullsh*t," Bustle, October 13, 2016, accessed February 15, 2017,

36 Twenty Years, 41-42.

37 Ibid., 116.

38 Ibid.

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This article shared 3380 times since Wed Apr 26, 2017
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