13. Jane Addams returned from a tour of Europe determined to make a difference to the lives of the poorest women in America
In late 18th and early 19th century America, many notable men dedicated themselves to the idea of social reform. Indeed, even Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson proclaimed themselves to be reformers keen to make a difference for all levels of society. But it’s wasn’t just a man’s game. Jane Addams was also one of the era’s most notable social reformers. Above all, she campaigned for women’s rights, arguing that mothers were best-placed to make America’s cities better – and fairer – places to live for everyone.
Addams, who was born in Illinois in 1860, enjoyed a privileged upbringing, though she did suffer from a range of childhood illnesses. When her father died, She inherited a tidy sum of money and decided to devote herself to public work. Addams toured Europe with her friends, and it was here she learned about ‘settlement houses’ in London, where university graduates lived alongside poorer members of society. In 1889, she had opened her own such place, Hull House in Chicago. The mansion house became a refuge for women, as well as a lively center of research and debate.
Not content with just running her settlement house, Addams was also an active political campaigner. She argued that mothers were best-placed to guide education and housing policies. As such, they should be given the vote. She founded the Women’s Peace Party, for which she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and she also helped set up the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Perhaps more importantly, she served as a role model to countless women like her, showing middle-class ladies how they could make a difference in their communities.