Elevate Difference

Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy

Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy is not light, bedtime reading. The book is a compilation of ten academic essays discussing the influence Jane Addams had on democracy, the definition of socialism, and on the concept of cooperation. It ends with the most important question of all: “Can Jane Addams Serve as a Role Model for Us Today?”—a question a bit insulting to even ask.

For those unfamiliar with Jane Addams, she was the founder of Hull House in Chicago. Hull House was a settlement house that gave support, lessons and residence for women during the influx of immigrants during the turn of the century. As Hull House founder, she helped create women’s labor unions, supported educators’ rights, mentored the next generation of labor leaders and gave shelter and compassion to many young women as they figured out life in America. She was also influential in the creation of the NAACP. Her beliefs as a pacifist, Christian, socialist, and feminist were hard won and felt throughout her life by those she touched.

As a book of essays, it is uneven. Some essays, such as “The Sermon of the Deed: Jane Addams’ Spiritual Evolution” and “A Civil Machinery for Democracy Expression: Jane Addams on Public Administration” are fascinating examinations of her influence on areas not commonly associated with her image today. Other essays, such as “New Politics for New Selves: Jane Adams’s Legacy for Democratic Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century” are less interesting but touch on important components of her legacy. One essay in particular, “Toward a Queer Social Welfare Studies: Unsettling Jane Addams” is a fascinating look at Addams’ influence on the definition of gender roles and of the family, and its influence on queer theory and gay rights. The topic is a novel approach to a woman who worked for equality to all for her life, and who would no doubt be proud to know her influence was felt in this arena as well. 

The book ends with the question of Jane Addams’ ability to serve as a role model for today. The essay argues that, yes, in this society, her work as an advocate for peace is more important than ever. A worthy discussion, it seeks to understand the struggle Adams’ had with her decision to stay passive during World War I. Still, the idea seems a bit insulting. Even with that struggle, to question whether the vast influence she had is still valid today is unfair. The question of whether someone is a role model is perhaps one that should come up more with historical figures, but to end this book with that explicit question seems to discredit Addams. Essays on Lincoln or Roosevelt don’t ask if they should still be considered role models today, though maybe they should. To ask that question, whether it is because she is a woman or not—which I do not believe is the case—comes across as insulting. 

Overall, I recommend the book, with the caveat that it is an academic book, intended for a scholarly audience. However, if you would like to see a modern review of an influential woman, this is an advanced but interesting look.

Written by: Taylor Rhodes, April 22nd 2009

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