By Katherine van Wormer
She had no children, but for those of us who are social workers, she was the mother of us all. The social action focus, empathy with people in poverty, campaigning for human rights—these priorities of social work had their origins in the work and teachings of Jane Addams. Unlike the “friendly visitors” before her, Addams came to realize, in her work with immigrants and the poor, that poverty stems not from character defects but from social conditions that need to be changed. From the vantage point of the Chicago Hull House, the most famous settlement house of her day, Addams addressed such issues as political corruption, child labor, urban sanitation, women’s suffrage, and race relations. “We don’t expect to change human nature,” she said, “we people of peace, but we do expect to change human behavior.”
By the turn of the last century Jane Addams was the most famous woman in America. By the culmination of her career in 1931, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for her efforts for her international work following the destruction of World War I. But during a major part of her life, she was neither honored nor beloved.
Because of her staunch pacifism during World War I—a position which branded her a subversive and radical for the rest of her life—Addams rapidly fell out of favor. Just as she had been universally acclaimed prior to the war, Addams experienced a fall from grace unparalleled among public figures in U.S. history. She was hounded by the FBI. She was even given the dubious honor of having been given a life membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution and then subsequently to be expelled.
“If you are different from others, you need to act on that difference, if society is to advance.” This statement by Jane Addams succinctly sums up her life. Her award of the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 71 was a proud moment for social workers, Quakers, and women the world over. The story of Jane Addams is one that can inspire us all.
Katherine van Wormer is Professor of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa. She is also the author of Human Behavior and the Social Environment: Individuals and Families and co-author Human Behavior and the Social Environment: Groups, Communities, and Organizations.