Elevate Difference

The Social Philosophy of Jane Addams

Personally, what’s best about The Social Philosophy of Jane Addams by Maurice Hamington is something he left out. His focus stays on Addams’s political and philosophical thought with absolutely no mention of her having had, as I do, a twisted spine.

When my condition had just been detected, my eighth-grade health teacher singled me out to write a report on Jane Addams. My classmates got to choose. I was mortified. I had already read a children’s biography of Addams several years previously—subtitled “Little Lame Girl” if I remember correctly—before my scoliosis was noticeable or even present. I wanted nothing to do with Addams or Hull House. I had aspired to be Miss America. I didn’t want a role model for living with a crooked back; I wanted a straight back.

Today, reading a book about someone’s ideas, especially a woman’s ideas, offers a corrective to the current emphasis on “narrative” and “story” that even those who have normal spines can appreciate. Hamington’s biographical “overview” is a scant three pages, though for a figure like Addams, the “personal” is very much intertwined with the “political.” The first half of the book recounts her influences, writings, and unique contribution to philosophy (here Hamington lays out his argument that Addams is a philosopher in the line of American pragmatists and a feminist); and the second is devoted to the issues and subjects she wrote about.

To most of us, Addams is associated with Hull House, to my mind, unfortunately relegated to history as a museum and the settlement house movement. Social work, not philosophy—or even politics—would be the second identifier to come to mind. Sexism, argues Hamington, was what caused Addams to be omitted from the pantheon of American pragmatists and relegated to her position outside academia. William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead, who were influenced by and influenced Addams, were all professors. The author notes that although Addams acknowledged their influence on her work, the reverse was not true. Hamington, who supplies an impressive scholarly apparatus, partly excuses them with the comment: “Writers of the era were less meticulous about attribution than they are today.”

Feminists of a certain age who remember the outing of Addams in the 1970s will find little gossip about lesbianism, but they will find the Hull House culture cast as a prototype of what would be called “women’s space.” Not a separatist, Addams had friends of both sexes (and from all classes) and was much a part of the Progressive movement (1890-1920). Although claims are made about her construct of “lateral progress,” i.e., progress for everyone, as “radical” thinking, I suspect her emphasis on looking at things from all points of view would strike most as rather reformist. In a similar vein, she made important contributions to education, most especially adult education.

As for Addams’s place in feminism, Hamington tests Addams’s positions against a long array of feminisms, and ends up with “cultural” and proclaims her “prefigurative” of today’s more theoretical feminism. Her pacifist stand against American entry into World War I didn’t get Addams deported as Emma Goldman’s opposition did her. After all, Addams was the daughter of an Illinois state senator who corresponded with Abraham Lincoln. Still, this stand brought on bad press and considerably reduced her influence.

Hardly the avid fan of Jane Addams that Hamington is, I have come to value her and her work as I have learned to live with a spinal deformity and participated in social movements. I now more fully recognize the benefits of settlements to those reformers drawn to them as well as the neighborhood people they serve. These settlements, more than 400 of them at their peak, gave activists a direct encounter with the social needs embodied in real people, not “target populations.” This is something too often lacking in the staff of antipoverty, anti-hunger advocacy nonprofits administering services from distant downtown offices. May Hamington’s effort to enhance the legacy of Addams help move her heirs in the direction she championed.

Written by: Frances Chapman, February 22nd 2010