Childhood Studies Jane Addams
Virginia Yans, Ji-Hye Shin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0084


Jane Addams (b. 1860–d. 1935), along with Ellen Gates Starr, was cofounder of Chicago’s Hull-House, a model American settlement. Addams was a social reformer, author, and public intellectual. During her Hull-House residence from 1889 until her death, Addams led national and local childhood reform efforts for child labor, juvenile court, and public health legislation, the playground movement, public-school teaching innovations, and the abolition of childhood prostitution. When Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr arrived in Chicago, European immigrants and their children constituted three-quarters of its population. Hull-House, located in an immigrant slum, offered innovative well-babies clinics, a day nursery, a playground, and children’s art, drama, and music classes to neighborhood residents. Addams passionately insisted that the future of American democracy depended on the education, protection, health, and well-being of its youth, including immigrant and minority youth. Hull-House attracted many middle- and upper-class professionals: juvenile justice reformer Julia Lathrop, labor reformer Florence Kelley, and educator and philosopher John Dewey were drawn to Addams’s settlement as a hands-on reform experiment designed to “test the value of human knowledge by action” (see Lasch 1982: p. 187, cited under Papers, Autobiographies, and Collected Writings). They saw themselves involved in a mutually beneficial reciprocal relationship with immigrants and their children intended to make both sides of the Hull-House democratic experiment better citizens. Addams and Dewey maintained that democracy required continuing moral responsibility and receptivity to others—whatever their class, race, or gender. Far from a simple matter of individual freedom or a particular set of political institutions, they understood democracy as a way of life. In her Hull-House programs, her writings, her educational and juvenile delinquency reforms, and her suggestions for training immigrant children for industrial labor—indeed in all her efforts—Addams consistently argued the importance of the child’s potential and value as a participant in social democracy. Aware that children of poor families faced dull, unrewarding futures as unskilled factory laborers, Addams called on educators to assist students to appreciate their “social and industrial value.” At the same time, Addams cajoled industrial employers for their abuse of child laborers and, far ahead of her time, insisted on the propriety of federal powers protecting children (see Addams and Lagemann 1985: 124–135, cited under Writings on Children and Education). During her lifetime and even in the 21st century, Jane Addams is regarded as one of the United States’ most outstanding citizens and child advocates.


Jane Addams is one of the most famous and respected women in United States history. She suffered a brief period of criticism during the World War I period, when she staunchly opposed the war and led international pacifist efforts. By 1931, when she shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nicholas Murray Butler, Addams’s reputation was fully restored. As one of her biographers (Davis 2000) suggests, early biographies established her as a saintly icon. Soon after her death, Addams’s nephew, James W. Linn, published a biography that idealized Addams. Linn’s book is valuable because he knew Addams personally and inherited many of her personal and professional writings including those regarding children. Davis and later biographers attempted a balanced interpretation of Addams. Lasch’s provocative essay (Lasch 1965) explained Addams’s radicalism and reform activism in psychological terms. Lasch drew attention to the conflicting loyalties Addams felt between what she called the “family claim” and her interests in being useful to society. The conflict, which Addams felt between fulfilling traditional female roles and her struggle to define herself, led her, according to Lasch, to be the first to identify and write about parent-child conflicts in the United States. Levine 1971 also emphasizes Addams’s radicalism, by which he means Addams’s efforts to bring about rapid change. Levine probes Addams’s early personal conflicts. He understands her views on protective legislation for children and other issues as a precursor to the liberal welfare state. Subsequent biographers and commentators, particularly feminists such as Knight 2010, are interested in Addams’s maternalist reforms, her drive to accomplishment, and her original ideas have integrated Lasch’s understanding of Addams’s psychology into their works. Meigs 1970, and Scott 1971 understand Addams as one of the first generation of American college-educated women to accomplish more than previous generations of women had in public life and in educational and reform programs. They believed that their education and their feminine emotions equipped them for these tasks. Within the last ten to fifteen years, philosophers, feminists, and social scientists such as Elshtain 2002 have taken a new interest in Jane Addams; they see her as an innovative thinker way ahead of her time (see Fischer 2004; Fischer, et al. 2009; Hamington 2009; Hamington 2010; and Seigfried 1999 cited under Philosophy and Ideas).

  • Davis, Allen F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Davis discusses Addams’s early life, her writings, and Hull-House. Davis sees Addams as a typical educated woman reformer. He uses Addams’s image to plumb American attitudes to poverty, women, children, and social change. Davis characterizes Addams as a disinterested progressive, talented administrator, publicist, and businesswoman who took moderate positions in order to avoid alienating potential supporters.

  • Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

    Traces Addams’s life and the evolution of her vision of American democracy. It has a chapter on the “child and the city” in which the author examines Addams’s own childhood and her work for urban youth.

  • Knight, Louise W. Jane Addams: Spirit in Action. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

    Knight offers an overview of Addams’s personal life and reform efforts. She emphasizes Addams as a political reformer and activist, particularly her part in suffrage reform, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and international peace. The book gives some attention to Addams’s interest in child labor and other juvenile-reform efforts.

  • Lasch, Christopher. “Jane Addams: The College Woman and the Family Claim.” In The New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type. By Christopher Lasch, 3–37. New York: Knopf, 1965.

    This is a biographical essay emphasizing generational conflict among Addams, her father, and her stepmother. Lasch understands the Hull-House project and Addams’s social activism as a palliative relief from her psychological suffering.

  • Levine, Daniel. Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971.

    Levine portrays Addams, activist and publicist for poor people, immigrants, and children, as a “moving force” in the development of the welfare state. Before the New Deal, Addams argued that children justly deserve the protection of federal power to ensure their safety, health, and growth. The book contains a chapter on her philosophy of children, child labor, and childhood crime.

  • Linn, James Weber, and Anne Firor Scott. Jane Addams: A Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

    The nephew of Jane Addams, Linn bases this biography on Addams’s personal papers, manuscripts, and letters. He discusses her childhood, rise to national fame, Hull-House recollections, suffrage, and pacifism. Linn discusses Addams’s ideas on children and her work on child labor and juvenile delinquency. Originally published in 1935, this new edition includes an introduction by historian Anne Firor Scott.

  • Meigs, Cornelia. Jane Addams, Pioneer for Social Justice: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

    This biography includes several chapters relating to children. The author discusses protective factory legislation, child labor, the creation of the Juvenile Court, and the Children’s Bureau. Meigs examines Addams’s convictions about the importance of children and their right to free development. Meigs also explores other women of Hull-House and their activities and reform projects, some of which involved children.

  • Scott, Ann Firor. “Jane Addams.” In Notable American Women: 1607–1950. Edited by Edward T. James, et al., 16–22. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971.

    Scott provides a useful concise summary of Addams’s life, career, and the times she lived in. The author describes Addams as a woman who sought to reach beyond traditional roles. Scott describes Addams as a moral figure and a practical reformer. This is a good place to begin research about Addams, her life, and her accomplishments.

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