Queer Women History Forgot: Jane Addams

The woman who created social work and co-founded the ACLU was a feminist and lesbian.

For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class. 

While Jane Addams is often discussed as the ultimate selfless person in the creation of social work, her queerness is usually ignored. The daughter of an Illinois businessman and politician who admired Abraham Lincoln, Addams was a huge fan of Charles Dickens‘ writing which inspired her to want to work with and help the less fortunate. She attended the now defunct Rockford Female Seminary where she met Ellen Gates Starr, who would become her partner.

Photo by Wikipedia

After graduating, Addams attended the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia but had to leave the latter after dealing with some health issues (mental and physical). A spinal problem and her stepmother’s illness had her return to Illinois, where she struggled with what to do next. Her father’s death left her with a large sum of money that she then decided to put to good use.

In 1888, Addams and Starr toured Europe and were inspired by their social settlements to return to America and open their own. The next year, they bought a run-down mansion on Chicago’s Southwest Side and opened Hull House. It initially served as a school and care center for children and, later, offered continuing education for adults. The success and growth of their services allowed for Addams and Starr to open several more buildings and provide more and more opportunities for the city’s underserved, including a consistently expanding arts initiatives that is often credited as being a large part of Chicago’s progressive arts programming.

While Addams and Ellen Gates Starr eventually broke things off, they both continued their social work individually. Addams was one of the founders of the ACLU in 1920, and the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She became romantically involved with Mary Rozet Smith, a philanthropist who became heavily involved with Hull House and Addams’ life partner until Smith died in 1934. Addams would die the following May.

Hull House is now an official landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While it no longer functions as it once did, it is now a museum and dining hall used for special events. Jane Addams is remembered as the founder of social work in the United States, and her being a feminist and a lesbian should not be forgotten in her legacy. She’s now immortalized on an American stamp.

Photo by Wikipedia