Harrington: The legacy of Jane Addams

Editor's note: This commentary is by Margaret Harrington, the co-president of the Janes Addams Peace Association and host/producer of the Nuclear Free Future Conversation series on Burlington's Channel 17, Center for Media and Democracy. She lives in Richford.

Jane Addams Day is observed in Illinois on Dec. 10. That is the day in 1931 that Jane Addams, a native of the state, became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It is the only day dedicated to a woman in the state of Illinois and one of the few days in the United States designated to honor the achievements of a woman.

Hull House in Chicago, where Jane Addams lived and worked, stands as the cradle of social democracy in America. Today it is a museum where visitors can see the site of the first kindergarten in the United States and learn more about the amazing history of the place where immigrants were welcomed and housed and where poor people were taught the English language so they could get along in their new country. Here, arts and crafts were taught by professionals who shared their knowledge with the people. Health needs were looked after from baths for babies to support for mothers, breadwinners and the elderly. From Hull House, Jane Addams supported the beginnings of union organizing and at great personal cost led arbitration efforts with Eugene V. Debs during the Pullman Strike of 1894. She also gave basic assistance of food and lodging to families who were starving because of draconian tactics of the Pullman company.

John Dewey, the renowned educator born in Vermont, was also a social innovator and a friend of Jane Addams. I’d love to have listened in on their conversations, which, in a way, you can if you study their parallel lives and their writings.

There’s a picture of John Dewey on the mantelpiece in the room in Hull House where the first kindergarten met. He looks out at us like he wants us to play our hearts out, find new ways of getting hard tasks done and have a go at things with unfettered energy.

Of course Jane Addams had many women friends and I offer here a possible difference between the way women and men generally do work publicly. I think for women a bond of friendship is important for getting things done together.


When Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn (now governor of Illinois) designated the first Jane Addams Day in 2006, he wrote: “Jane Addams became a tireless advocate for reform. She worked night and day to make city water cleaner, improve city schools, and clear garbage off city streets. Inspired by her example, civic minded executives and progressive reformers joined together to assist immigrants, protect children, safeguard workers and guarantee the civil rights of everyone. Today more than 70 years after her death, the organizations she helped to found are still fighting for the causes she believed in. She proved that when people work together for reform, they can change the world.”

Of course Jane Addams had many women friends and I offer here a possible difference between the way women and men generally do work publicly. I think for women a bond of friendship is important for getting things done together. This was true for me when my dear friend here in Vermont, Judith Joseph, invited me to be a member of the Jane Addams Peace Association board. Judith Joseph is a lawyer and social activist like Jane Addams and has worked for decades on behalf of homeless, battered and abused women providing them shelter and legal assistance. Judith has also worked on behalf of poor immigrants here in Vermont on their long, difficult journey into living in America.

Embracing the legacy of Jane Addams, the Jane Addams Peace Association keeps our focus on peace education. We have sponsored the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards since 1953 and recently a history of the awards has been written by Susan Griffith. Workshops have been presented including one at the New York Public Library for librarians and a common core curriculum for fourth and fifth grades has been written. Here in Vermont, following the initiatives of Judith Joseph, we will continue introducing the books to libraries.

Jane Addams founded the Peace Party, a real progressive political party, before women had the vote in America. Another friend of hers even before he became president, was Woodrow Wilson, who joined with Jane Addams in her passionate quest for peace.

Was Jane Addams’ life a successful one? I’ll leave you, dear readers, to contemplate that along with one of Emily Dickinson’s Civil War poems:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory!
As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!


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