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Jane Addams: The first social worker

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Jane Addams

Jane Addams: The first social worker

Jane Addams won a Nobel Prize for her charitable activities as well as earning the name of the “Mother of Social Work” for her efforts during the Progressive Era.

But despite not knowing the term, Addams was also a true-blue lesbian with her close relationship with other women and her sense of independence.

Jane Addams: Born to prosperity

Born in 1860, Jane was raised as the eighth of nine children to John Huy and Sarah Addams in Cedarville, Illinois.

Jane’s life as a daughter of a rich family was also affected by a congenital spinal defect that was only corrected when she was older due to surgery.

She graduated from the Rockford Female Seminary as the valedictorian of her class in 1881 and was supposed to study medicine if not for her poor health. Without a goal in life, she traveled through Europe for 21 months.

With her friend Ellen Gates Starr, she visited a settlement house, Toynbee Hall in London’s East End, at the age of 27. This made her decide to open a similar house in Chicago.

They leased a large house built by Charles Hull at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets and created the Hull House, a center to help the poor families living in the area.

Jane Addams: Words and deeds

By its second year, the Hull House was hosting two thousand people a week. Jane’s reputation grew as a result.

She spoke up for the needs of impoverished communities and raised money for them with the support of friends like Mary Rozet Smith. In 1910, she became the first woman to be awarded an honorary degree at Yale University.

She also fought for women’s suffrage in legislators’ halls and taught that women should seek out opportunities to realize them.

Despite being branded as a traitor, she spoke out against the entry of the US into the First World War but she still helped by assisting Herbert Hoover in providing relief to women and children of enemy nations.

In 1931, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Jane’s health had deteriorated after a heart attack in 1926 and she had been admitted to a Baltimore hospital when they awarded the prize to her in Oslo.

She later died in 1935 after an operation revealed cancer.

Jane Addams: Her love for women

Though her deeds are known, less known about Jane is her love for women, which raises the question if it should matter.

Jane had a relationship with Chicago heiress Mary Rozet Smith, being together for more than 30 years. She also had a relationship with Ellen Starr.

However, women in the 19th century were known for being in a ‘Boston marriage‘: two women would set up house together in lifelong partnerships that were romantic but not necessarily sexual.

Lisa Lee, director of the Hull-House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said: “Personally, I have no problem calling her a lesbian, but I would have to qualify that and say, ‘I don’t think she would identify as a lesbian in the way the word is used now.'”

“But because of her long relationships with initially Ellen Gates Starr, and with Mary, I would say that I think she was,” Lee added.

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