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Twenty Years at Hull-House

by Jane Addams

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Was Jane Addams more democratic or elitist progressive?

A case could be made that Jane Addams was more of an elitist progressive than a democrat. She was very much a paternalist, believing that the progressive middle-classes ultimately knew what was best for the poor. Even so, she was considerably less elitist than other middle-class reformers of the period.

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In common with many leading lights of the progressive movement, Jane Addams combined genuine care and concern for the plight of the poor and downtrodden with an attitude of elitist paternalism to those at the margins of society. An upper-middle-class white woman from a wealthy background, Addams was blessed with many privileges. But unlike many of her class, she believed that these blessings imposed on her and others like her certain responsibilities towards those less fortunate than themselves.

It was this passionate belief in the social responsibilities of the middle-classes, coupled with an overwhelming desire to mitigate the numerous social evils of America’s Gilded Age, that motivated Addams to set up the Hull House settlement house in Chicago with Ellen Gates Starr in 1889. Hull House was designed to be a place in which rich and poor could run shoulders, breaking down the barriers that existed between them. The main idea behind settlements houses was that middle-class volunteers would help to alleviate the poverty of their poorer brethren, as well as impart knowledge and culture to them. There was, therefore, a strong educational flavor to settlement houses, and Hull House was no exception.

Despite the close proximity of rich and poor, classes and masses at Hull House, it was anything but a democratic institution. The people in charge of Hull House, like Jane Addams, were middle-class, and believed that their superior education made them uniquely fitted to take on such a responsible task. As for the working-classes who regularly beat a path to Hull House, they were there to be instructed, not to instruct. They were the passive recipients of the knowledge and culture transmitted to them by their alleged social superiors.

Nonetheless, though Hull House was anything but democratic in its organizational structure, and how it carried on its work, Jane Addams did strive to make it less elitist and more democratic than similar institutions such as Toynbee Hall in London. But in an age when the gaps in culture and education between rich and poor were so very wide, such ambitions were always bound to fall short of expectations. Try as she might, Addams was never quite able to break free of a paternalistic mindset that saw the middle-classes as society’s natural leaders.

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