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The Education of Jane Addams

"The Education of Jane Addams"

Victoria Bissell Brown
432 pages, 30 illustrations, $39.95 hardcover

When she penned her autobiography “Twenty Years at Hull-House” in 1909, Jane Addams was one of the most famous and influential women in the country. A committed pacifist and champion of social progress, she was also deemed by the contemporary media to be the only saint America had produced. Writing from that lofty perch at the height of the Progressive Era, Addams aimed to use an attractive, accessible life story as a vehicle for advancing her reform philosophy. The result, as historian Victoria Bissell Brown of Grinnell College shows, leaves an intriguing gap between the tale she told in her autobiography and the more intricate and challenging story that emerges from her papers and the actual events of her life.

In its sharp departure from standard Addams lore, “The Education of Jane Addams” challenges the received image of America’s premier pacifist and urban reformer. Brown argues for a careful reexamination of the evidence of her life, one that realistically embeds her experience in a particular time and place, and in a particular set of gender, class, and emotional constraints. This thought-provoking new account draws deeply on previously unexamined sources. Addams emerges from this examination as a smart, determined young woman who fashioned a vibrant civic career after she cast off Gilded Age fantasies of individual heroism and folded her ambition for herself into the Progressive Era’s drive for democracy.

The founder of Chicago’s Hull-House and, later, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is portrayed here as a complicated young woman who summoned the energy to pursue public life, the honesty to admit her own arrogance, and the imagination to see joy in collective endeavor.

Originally published on November 13, 2003