Even as a woman in her seventies, Jane Addams was referred to as the “most dangerous woman” in America. How could a woman who was recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 be dubbed in this way? Addams’ life was committed to the poor. She opposed war, popularized pacifism, and introduced the concept of a settlement house as an institution to safeguard the rights and culture of immigrants, laborers, and children. She attracted some of the best political, social, educational, and artistic minds to her settlement experiment in Chicago, Hull House, and her legacy continues to reach beyond the borders of the United States.
Addams’ interest in social causes was ignited by her father’s strong Quaker views. Her concern for the poor became more pronounced when she visited London’s Toynbee Hall, a university settlement that responded to the needs of the poor. In 1889, Addams began her own settlement house and named it Hull House, after the original owner of the property. It was at Hull House that many of the country’s “firsts” were initiated: kindergarten, nursery school, child labor laws, and teen club for boys. The settlement taught ethnic arts, provided lecture space, and eventually invited residents to live on the premise and work in one of the House’s many programs. Hull House even became an art gallery. Located in the Halsted-Maxwell Street area of Chicago, Hull House sat in the middle of the city’s immigrant communities.
Jane Addams, speech at Carnegie Hall, July 9, 1915
The first thing which was striking is this, that the same causes and reasons for the war were heard everywhere. Each warring nation solemnly assured you it is fighting under the impulse of self-defense. Another thing which we found very striking was that in practically all of the foreign offices the men said that a nation at war cannot make negotiations and that a nation at war cannot even express willingness to receive negotiations, for if it does either, the enemy will at once construe it as a symptom of weakness.
Generally speaking, we heard everywhere that this war was an old man's war; that the young men who were dying, the young men who were doing the fighting, were not the men who wanted the war, and were not the men who believed in the war; that someone in church and state, somewhere in the high places of society, the elderly people, the middle-aged people, had established themselves and had convinced themselves that this was a righteous war, that this war must be fought out, and the young men must do the fighting.
This world crisis should be utilized for the creation of an international government to secure without war, those high ends which they now gallantly seek to obtain upon the battlefield. With such a creed can the pacifists of today be accused of selfishness when they urge upon the United States no isolation, not indifference to moral issues and to the fate of liberty and democracy, but a strenuous endeavor to lead all nations of the earth into an organized international life worthy of civilized men.
Jane Addams, speech in Chicago November 28, 1919
Hundreds of poor laboring men and women are being thrown into jails and police stations because of their political beliefs. In fact, an attempt is being made to deport an entire political party.
These men and women, who in some respects are more American in ideals than the agents of the government who are tracking them down, are thrust into cells so crowded they cannot lie down.
And what is it these radicals seek? It is the right of free speech and free thought; nothing more than is guaranteed to them under the Constitution of the United States, but repudiated because of the war.
It is a dangerous situation we face at the present time, with the rule of the few overcoming the voice of the many. It is doubly dangerous because we are trying to suppress something upon which our very country was founded - liberty.
The cure for the spirit of unrest in this country is conciliation and education - not hysteria. Free speech is the greatest safety valve of our United States. Let us give these people a chance to explain their beliefs and desires. Let us end this suppression and spirit of intolerance which is making of America another autocracy.
Reflections on the Thoughts of Jane Addams
- Why is it that governments feel that they can not make negotiations with one another during a time of war? How is this belief different from our expectations of one another in family and community disputes?
- In your estimation, what makes a war righteous? What wars have we participated in that are righteous in your opinion? Explain your position.
- How might this “organized international life worthy of civilized men” to which Addams refers be achieved now?
- Why is it that governments seem to curtail “free speech” during times of war?
- How is it that liberty is compromised during time of war?
- Why does Addams contend that “free speech” is the greatest safety value? How is this true for the time in which we live?