Women’s History Month: Jane Addams

Posted on March 12, 2019 By

Jane Addams is a notable follower of the consistent life ethic (before the term was coined). We offer a lengthy book excerpt, a shorter book excerpt, and a note from the exhibits at Hull House Museum.

Condensed excerpt from ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today, pp. 120-126

The Nonviolent Power of the Maternal Body Politic: Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Hull House (founded 1889)

by Mary Krane Derr

Jane Addams’ astoundingly fruitful life included a Nobel Peace Prize—the first ever to an American woman—and founding or early leadership roles in the professions of sociology and social work, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was the guiding spirit of Hull House, Chicago’s globally famous settlement. . . . .

Hull House – outside and inside

Around the turn of the twentieth century, death penalty proponents argued for electrocution as a supposedly instantaneous, painless, humane alternative to hanging. Electrical shock had already been used as an abortion technique . . . Despite his professed personal opposition to the death penalty, Thomas Edison oversaw the invention of the electric chair for Westinghouse, selling the press on it by lethally shocking dogs and cats. In 1903, he filmed his electrocution, billed as an “execution,” of Topsy, a Coney Island elephant, before a crowd of 1,500. The neglected, abused animal had rampaged and killed three men, including a trainer who deliberately threw a lit cigarette into her mouth. 

The same year, a Michigan legislator and businessman proposed electrocution upon birth for disabled babies—as an amendment to the budget for the state’s home for the “feebleminded.” Addams, a death penalty abolitionist, responded:

The suggestion is horrible. It is not in line with the march of civilization nor with the principles of humanity. The Spartans destroyed children physically infirm. Are we to go back to the days of Sparta? Feebleminded children are one of the cares of a community. It is our duty to care for them.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy: A Life, p. 161

Against the growing push for permanent mass institutionalization, Addams argued for what the disability rights movement now calls independent living. . . . Above all, it was necessary to “consider the problem of the special child . . . from the point of view of the child,” or, as present-day disability advocates would say, “Nothing about us, without us.” To overwhelmed parents, Addams offered,

You think you have a child unlike other children; you are anxious that your neighbor not find it out; it makes you secretive; it makes you singularly sensitive; it places you and the normal children in your family in a curious relation to the rest of the community; but if you find out there are many other such children in your city and in . . . the United States, and that a whole concourse of people are studying to help these children, considering them not at all queer and outrageous, but simply a type of child which occurs from time to time and can be enormously helped, you come out of that particularly sensitive attitude and the whole family is lifted with you into a surprising degree of hopefulness and normality.

The Jane Addams Reader, ed. Jean Bethke Elshtain

In 1908, Hull House and the Chicago Medical Society (CMS) formed the Joint Committee on Midwives . . .  Previously, as heads of the CMS Committee on Criminal Abortion, [Dr. Rudolf ] Holmes and [Dr. Charles] Bacon had assisted public officials in prosecuting those who performed “the crime of feticide,” temporarily persuaded newspapers to ban “criminal advertisements,” and discovered “the relatively great frequency of the crime of abortion among midwives . . .” The midwifery committee was charged to explore these problems further with Hull House promising “to defray all cost.” Jane Addams’ commitment of Hull House’s hard-won, always precarious funds evinced her personal support of the study’s goals . . .

In the decades following the investigation, Addams and all four committee physicians dedicated themselves even more deeply to the very social measures that got at the root causes of abortion. . . . In addition to its day nursery, infant care clinic, mothers’ club, and other maternal-child programs, Jane Addams involved Hull House in sex education and the direct provision of family planning. For her international readership, Addams wrote more than once of the need, at the personal and policy levels, for compassionate acceptance and aid of all those involved in non-marital pregnancy. . . .

Addams’ vision of the maternal body politic, with its “form of power that doesn’t have as its means violence and doesn’t have as its end total control and command,” remains one that could bring peace to the abortion war today, with its forced and lethal pitting of disempowered women against their own unborn children, not to mention other, related wars.

Excerpt from Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, by Rachel MacNair, p. 2

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Jane Addams noted aftereffects of having killed.  Known for her innovations in social work, the reports from her investigations were anecdotal and primarily aimed at social change advocacy work rather than academic review.  While she did publish some work in academic journals, such as the American Journal of Sociology, most of her writing is for the popular audience.  Of the early builders of sociological theory, she was the only one who addressed and described PTSD [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder] directly.  Though she did not have the terminology or contemporary concept yet, she was studying World War I, at a time when the concept was beginning to form.

After documentation of men who refused to shoot to kill even in the trenches, she talked of insanity among the soldiers in various places, and of their being dazed after participating in attacks.  She talks of hearing “from hospital nurses who said that delirious soldiers are again and again possessed by the same hallucination — that they are in the act of pulling their bayonets out of the bodies of men they have killed.”

Hull House Museum Exhibit Sign (viewed March 13, 2012)

Against Eugenics –

Eugenics, the study and practice of selective breeding with the goal of improving the human species, was very popular in the early decades of the 20th century. The American eugenics movement gained traction among Progressive era reformers, politicians, philosophers, scientists, and scores of prominent figures, but Jane Addams and several of her peers resisted it. While Hull-House reformers believed they could improve the lives of their impoverished neighbors by introducing them to new modes of hygiene, nutrition, and healthcare, they vehemently opposed the notion of the intrinsically lesser value of different races, the poor, mentally ill, and disabled.


For more of our blog posts on notable historical women, see:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Dr. Charlotte Denman Lozier (1844-1870): Restellism Exposed

Courageous Woman: Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) 

Is it Too Late? 1971 Speech of Fannie Lou Hamer


abortiondeath penaltydisability rightshistorynonviolenceorganizingpersonal storiessocial movementswomen's rights

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