"Jane Addams: Spirit in Action" by Louise W. Knight
"Jane Addams: Spirit in Action"
By Louise W. Knight
W. W. Norton & Company, 352 pages, $28.95

After the Daughters of the American Revolution revoked Jane Addams’ membership because of her opposition to World War I, she joked, “I had supposed at the time that (my membership) had been for life but it was apparently only for good behavior.”

It's something of an achievement to be expelled from an organization for bad behavior when you’re well over 50, but Addams was not about to let anyone tell her how to act. As Louise W. Knight’s lucid biography shows, she spent her youth subordinating her desire for independence and meaningful work to society’s notion of proper conduct for the dutiful daughter of an affluent businessman. It brought her only the grim sense that she was “trapped in a life she did not want.”

Founding Hull House in 1889 with money she inherited from her father, Addams began to create the life she did want at America’s first settlement house. She and her fellow Hull House residents provided social services and cultural activities for the impoverished immigrant families of Chicago’s 19th Ward, but Addams was no Lady Bountiful dispensing largesse. Choosing to live among working-class people in an era of vast income inequality, she was affirming a vision of social unity that fueled all her subsequent activism.

In “Democracy and Social Ethics” (1902), Addams rejected the idea of benevolent charity as old-fashioned and undemocratic. She urged middle-class and wealthy Americans to stop feeling superior to the poor and learn to see their point of view. “Much of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to lack of imagination which prevents understanding the experiences of other people,” she wrote.

As she did in her previous book about Addams, “Citizen” (a Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2005), Knight cogently traces her subject’s intellectual development. But while “Citizen” closed in 1899, when Addams was 39, this volume continues through her death in 1935. It shows her moving onto the national stage to share the convictions that prompted her to establish Hull House and examines the way those convictions evolved based on what she observed in Chicago.

Addams saw her neighbors perpetually fired and rehired to keep costs down. She heard a factory owner refuse to put a safety guard on equipment that had killed a child worker. During the bitter 1893 Pullman Strike, she could not persuade George Pullman to meet with strikers to negotiate a settlement. Believing that workers deserved a voice in determining the conditions under which they labored, she supported unions at a time when the U.S. government invariably acted with owners to crush them.

Working to institute laws limiting child labor and to get the filthy streets of the 19th Ward cleaned up by garbage-removal companies whose contracts were handed out as political spoils, she learned that politicians paid little heed to female reformers who could not vote. Addams had always believed in women’s suffrage, but she began to work more actively for it after a failed 1896 campaign to defeat a notoriously corrupt alderman.

All her adult life, Knight shows, Addams was enfolded in a warm community of like-minded women. She founded Hull House with her school friend Ellen Gates Starr. Early resident Florence Kelley, an avowed Marxist, helped her realize that social ideals required political action.

Mary Rozet Smith, her life partner, frequently traveled with Addams, and the wealthy Smith’s comfortable home offered refuge from the hurly-burly of Hull House. Displaying a nuanced understanding of earlier generations’ same-sex relationships, Knight does not presume to decide whether the couple’s connection was physical.

Supported by this community, Addams wrote books and gave lectures expressing its ideals to the wider world. Her warm personality, and the unthreatening way she advocated controversial causes (including civil rights for African-Americans) as matters of simple social justice, made her one of the most beloved public figures in America during the early years of the 20th century.

“Twenty Years at Hull House” (1910) was Addams’ most popular book, and she reached the height of her political prominence when she seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate in 1912.

Her outspoken opposition to World War I ended her broad popularity. Addams had been an anti-imperialist since the Filipino-American War of 1899, and Knight does a nice job of explaining how her “synthesizing mind” led her to see militarism, the impulse to conquer rather than negotiate, as the underlying mindset that fueled opposition to the progressive movements she supported.

Those movements were increasingly under attack in the conservative 1920s. Addams, appalled by the vengeful Versailles Treaty, became president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Poor health began to limit her activities, just as the changing political climate restored her popularity. Newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that Addams “understands more about the real people of the United States than anybody else.” She died before the outbreak of the world war that she had foreseen the Versailles Treaty would provoke. Her example, Knight movingly reminds us, inspired generations of civil rights, feminist, labor union and antiwar activists. What may strike contemporary readers most about this cogent and thoughtful profile is Addams’ unfailing generosity of spirit, her conviction that even the most bitter disputes could be resolved if people would only listen to each other. We could use more of that spirit in today’s political discourse.

 Wendy Smith is author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre in America, 1931-1940” and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Prize for Excellence in Reviewing.