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Twenty Years at Hull-House

by Jane Addams

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature Twenty Years at Hull-House Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

The central issue in Hull-House is that the various socioeconomic classes have a reciprocal dependency and can therefore learn from one another. As Addams saw it, a settlement house would provide a place where “young women who had been given over too exclusively to study, might restore a balance of activity along traditional lines and learn of life from life itself.” Here was the crux of the matter: maintaining traditional lines while at the same time doing things that were very nontraditional. A few examples of Hull-House residents will demonstrate this mode of operation. Julia Lathrop, a lawyer, moved to Hull-House in 1890 and soon became a member of the State Board of Charities and organized the first juvenile court. Florence Kelley was the first factory inspector for the State of Illinois, and one of her deputies, Alzina Stevens, became the first president of the Working Woman’s Union and later the first probation officer of the Cook County Juvenile Court. Alice Hamilton identified flies as the carriers of disease and later wrote Hamilton and Hardy’s Industrial Toxicology, which was printed in its fourth edition in 1983. At one point, Addams herself was named garbage inspector for her ward, which shocked her neighbors, because that was “unwomanly work.” Addams replied that if it was a womanly task to nurse the sick, then it certainly was a womanly task to prevent those conditions that caused the illness. As one biography opined: “She revolted against the stereotype of woman as submissive, gentle and intuitive but did not publicly challenge the stereotype.”

Addams had considerable skill as a writer, and in Twenty Years at Hull-House, she captured the reader’s attention with engaging anecdotes that proved her points. These range from a cooking class that enabled a young woman to keep the husband who had threatened to leave her if he did not get a decent meal to the tale of a young Italian boy who died at seventeen because of his use of legally available cocaine. Because of her writing skill, Addams became one of the best known and most revered settlement leaders of the early twentieth century.

In her autobiography, Addams followed the typical format of a heroine’s life story: a weak and handicapped ugly child who had a childhood dream of helping the poor and being sensitive to their needs. This is illustrated by the story of Addams’ father advising her not to wear her new and beautiful coat because those who did not have one might feel badly at seeing hers. The second part of the format is a conversion experience, or epiphany, in which the heroine changes her life’s path. According to Addams, this took place at a bullfight in Madrid in 1888. Here Addams realized that she had been deluding herself with travel and study as a preparation for some promise of future action. Putting aside further procrastination, Addams began speaking about her plans to move into the city and live with the poor. The next January she and Starr sought a place in Chicago. That place was Hull-House. At last, the heroine had found her life’s task.

Addams’ biography defined and consolidated her position as a social reformer and identified and presented her as a symbol of Americanism. Addams, taking her cue from Lincoln, wanted to ensure that democracy would endure, and the only way that could happen with the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe was for the settlements to socialize democracy by means of educational, philanthropic, civil, and social undertakings. It was in this way that the finer and freer aspects of living would be incorporated into the common life of the country, providing mobility for all.

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