Skip to content

The Woman Who Changed the World

Why Jane Addams still matters 150 years later

Born to a wealthy family in small-town Illinois, Jane Addams (Sept. 6, 1860, to May 21, 1935) rejected her narrow world of privilege and the expectations that stifled women of her class in order to put her vague democratic and philanthropic ideals into action on the west side of Chicago. She turned her energies toward bringing people together around issues of social justice, and she became one of the nation's most influential political leaders. To mark the 150th anniversary of her birth, this slide show reviews her accomplishments in areas that still confound the world.

Editor's note: Louise W. Knight is the author of two biographies of Jane Addams. The following excerpt from her new book, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, is set shortly after Addams visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London, and returned determined to replicate it in Chicago.

Ten months after telling Ellen Gates Starr about her vague dream, in January 1889, Jane moved to Chicago to begin launching what was now their, not just her, plan. Reading her letters from those early months, when she was dashing about, talking up the project with people who might support it as volunteers or donors, one feels as if a racehorse had burst out of the gate, free at last to pour every ounce of energy into running. She was all business, writing not about her moral failings but about the people they talked to and the enthusiasm they were finding for the settlement idea.

The two friends were at least partly prepared for the work. Ellen, thirty, with one year of college and a great deal of self-education, had been teaching at a girls’ secondary school for ten years and along the way had learned Italian and French. She also knew many young women from prosperous Chicago families, her former students, who had time on their hands and were longing for something useful to do. Jane, twenty-nine, had a B.A. from Rockford Female Seminary and some experience managing things, albeit on a small scale, having been editor-in-chief of the school magazine, president of her class, and president of her literary society. She had dabbled in philanthropy during the 1880s, paying charity visits in Baltimore, and she knew several languages, having studied French, German and Italian. She had even recently done a little fund-raising for the seminary from her Rockford classmates.

Read more of the excerpt >>