Saturday, March 14, 2009

"The Most Dangerous Woman In America:" Jane Addams: Champion of Democracy by Judith and Dennis Fradin

The word "empowered" may be overused in current discourse, but it perfectly describes the adult life of Jane Addams. A child of some privilege in her small hometown, growing up with a troubling spinal deformity and hurt by the early death of her mother, Jane Addams developed a sensitivity to the needs of those less fortunate far beyond that of the usual young girl of her time and place. In a time in which women were rarely allowed to attend college or professional schools and in most states not even allowed to own property, inherit money, vote, or hold public office, Jane Addams became a modern woman, not for personal satisfaction alone, but for the benefit of the disenfranchised and deprived around her.

An involved and superb student, Jane longed to attend college, but her father sent her to a fine "female seminary" of its time, from which she received, several years after completing the required coursework, a revised college diploma. While at Rockford Female Seminary, Jane and her accomplices had nighttime candlelit readings of forbidden literature such as Romeo and Juliet and, according to the story, even did a bit of illicit drug experimentation with opium, the "drug de jour" of her time.

When her strength and energy proved unable to sustain her through her first year at the new Women's Medical College of Philadelphia, Jane faced a bout of depression as she faced her internal debate over what she should do with the rest of her life. As she bided time on a "grand tour," a closeup view of desperate poverty in Europe suddenly gave her a goal--that of doing something to empower the poor to improve their own lives. Observing social workers at Toynbee house in London, Jane suddenly saw herself doing the same thing for the poorest of the poor in her own state, in the city of Chicago. In less than a couple of years, Jane Addams had, with her own inherited money and strong will, purchased Hull House, found a staff of educated young people to live there and begin direct work with the people in the surrounding neighborhood, and become well on her way to leadership in the new world of social work.

In a few years Hull House became if not the first, the best known "settlement house" in America. At first Jane was a hands-on social worker, teaching classes to children and adult, raising money, recruiting staff and volunteers, and even serving as a city "garbage inspector" to make sure that her neighborhood became free of the filth which had nearly drowned the streets. As a woman unable by law to hold local office, she worked behind the scenes to get sympathetic candidates elected. She wrote constantly--books, magazine and newspaper articles, and became the conscience of the city and of the nation in the years before the turn of the twentieth century.

As the new century began, Jane Addams became increasingly active in two other issues that were to fill the rest of her life--women's suffrage and world peace. Involvement in electing supportive candidates for Chicago's Nineteenth Ward brought Addams to the conclusion that the time had come for women to vote and hold office in the United States, and she allied herself with the Women's Suffrage Movement, appearing at the 1912 Republican Convention to campaign for a suffrage plank in their election year platform. When that failed, she supported Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party. But as war in Europe began in 1914, Addams' attention shifted to the growing National Peace Committee of Women which sought to avert World War I and deter the U.S. from sending forces to Europe. She traveled and spoke and took part in conventions and became one of the public faces associated with this movement, earning herself the nickname of "the most dangerous woman in America."

Because of her fame and the enormous good will the public had for her, her support of the peaceniks of her time made some consider her dangerous, but she never relented in her support of world peace until her death in 1935. Although she was attacked and lost some public support through opposition to the war, the work of Addams and her colleagues did much to ameliorate the suffering of civilians, particularly children, during and after the war, and their influence was felt in the development of the League of Nations and other international humanitarian organizations.

Honored as a 2007 Notable Children's Book, Jane Addams: Champion of Democracy is, for its audience, a substantial and exhaustive exploration of a woman of two very different centuries, a woman with vision and management skills who put both to work where they were most needed and made a difference in her own time and for all time.

Extensive photographs, source notes, bibliography, and index make this book a natural for research reports during National Women's Month.

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  • Are you aware of any adolescent novels that would open up conversations about poverty or economic struggle either in North America or globally? I'd love to know of any titles.

    By Blogger BD and KD, at 1:38 PM  

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