photo: Hull-House founder Jane Addams in 1900.
Hull-House founder Jane Addams in 1900. Bain News Service, courtesy of the Library of Congress

In the Progressive Era, reformers like Jane Addams understood the link between public health and urban poverty. Today’s leaders could learn a lot from them.

Coronavirus can infect anyone, but the pandemic’s impact has not been equal. In the United States, with the highest death toll in the world, the death rate among black Americans is more than double that of white ones, and infections among Latinos in some states are rising at a faster clip. Crowded, polluted neighborhoods and workers in low-paid yet critical service jobs seem to be at highest risk of infection. Women make up a majority of these front-line workers, and they bear the heavier burden of childcare duties with schools still closed.

What would Jane Addams, the famed Progressive Era activist, sociologist, philosopher, and Nobel Prize winner, do about the glaring social gaps in the greatest infectious disease crisis the nation has faced in more than a century?

“If you had a little seance with Addams and her friends, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’d say what is needed is federally subsidized health care for all,” said Anya Jabour, a history professor at the University of Montana who specializes in gender studies. “And they would have wanted to study the disparate effects of the pandemic closely, because that is the sort of thing that they did in the Progressive Era.”

The question is worth asking, not only because the fin-de-siècle urban society that Addams fought to improve has so many parallels to this dark present. Addams, who is often referred to as the “mother of social work,” also gave rise to a kind of social identity that presents a refreshing way to relate to community — what Jabour calls “municipal motherhood.” At a time when the epitome of female respectability was playing angel in the house, Addams argued that tending to society was just as important as tending to one’s own. She put it this way in 1892: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

The Chicago of Addams‘s day was a city of stark inequalities and chronic public health crises, especially for women and children. More than 10,000 children under age five died every year in the 1890s, many claimed by bronchitis, typhoid, smallpox and other infectious diseases. The city’s crowded tenement districts, where the poor immigrant and African-American families who powered the city’s industrial boom resided, suffered most. Addams was outraged. In 1891, she and her companion at the time, Ellen Gates Starr, founded Hull-House, the first urban settlement house in the United States, on the Near West Side. (Addams, like several other women in the suffrage movement, “never publicly claimed a lesbian identity,” as Jabour writes, but she’d later refer to her next relationship, with philanthropist Mary Rozet Smith, as “married folks.”)

Inspired by the Toynbee Hall settlement house of Victorian London, where wealthy reformers strove to bring rich and poor under one roof, Hull-House was different from a traditional charity: Poor working families could come to access classes, cultural events, banking assistance, child care, health care, and other free resources.

The idea of providing a space for people from different economic and ethnic backgrounds to interact and learn was a concept at odds with the prevailing social theories of the day. Social Darwinist philosophers and economists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that the laws of supply and demand that determined the exploitative wages and hours of factory work were as natural as the lunar cycle, and that the wealthy owed nothing to the poor.

Addams disagreed. With her Hull-House associates, she tried to mend the fault lines of society as she saw them, with remarkable sophistication. In addition to pioneering various social services, many of which are now widely provided by local and state governments, they pioneered techniques in sociology, using surveys, journalistic investigations, and data analyses to reveal the conditions that gave rise to inequality and poor health, including meager factory wages, poor sanitation, and cramped and windowless dwellings, Jabour said. They also agitated for policy reforms, including the juvenile welfare system, child labor protections, and widow’s pensions. Many of these ideas turned into local and state law and, decades later, inspired the national social safety net programs enacted by the New Deal.

Addams and the Hull-House also inspired other settlement houses and women’s municipal leagues in cities around the U.S. and abroad. Members of these associations provided similar social services and crusaded for city fixes that endure today, from safe milk to sewer clean-ups to vaccine clinics to some of the world’s first playgrounds. Most were, like Addams, white women from well-to-do families; their organizations had problems and blind spots. They were often patronizing and sometimes racist towards the immigrants and African American families they worked with, and many clubs were racially segregated, including Hull-House, until the 1930s. Women reformers were also severely hampered in one major respect: Until 1920, they could not vote.  

Yet many of these activists, Addams the most famous, insisted that their radical pro-social ideas be enacted into federal law, no matter what the Social Darwinists said. “The goal was always for their programs to expand and become national, so that people could get consistent services and benefits regardless of where they were,” Jabour said.

Though they had their shortcomings, in many respects, they succeeded. Had they not, the inequalities they fought against would have likely grown deeper; Jabour imagines a cutthroat society of “people killing each other for food and medical supplies and masks and a place to sleep.”

Today, the companies, philanthropists, volunteers, and local governments pouring money, ventilators, and masks into fighting the coronavirus pandemic are doing so without a unified federal response from the U.S. government. Indeed, White House recommendations are frequently at odds with those of federal disease control authorities. But that doesn’t mean a Hull-House redux isn’t possible, Jabour said. When they started their work, Addams and her colleagues also lacked federal support; it took decades to see their ideas hammered into the New Deal.

Re-enter the concept of municipal motherhood, which, though explicitly gendered in Addams’ time, no longer needs to be. In the current coronavirus crisis, many women in national leadership roles are getting singled out as praiseworthy. Yet effective and empathetic leaders can be found across the gender spectrum, and ascribing any person’s abilities to gender is unilluminating at best and sexist at worst. Indeed, some plaudits earned by Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern echo the patronizing language Addams and her cohort attracted for their efforts. “What man is doing more, if as much, for human betterment than Miss Jane Addams of Chicago?” wrote the Supreme Court Justice David Brewer in 1909, 11 years before the 19th amendment was ratified. “Her womanly sympathy does not blind her judgment, and multitudes feel that their uplift in life is due to her.”

The highest office was not achievable for women in Addams’ time; women like her had to use essentialist gender roles to carve out a space in public life. But embracing the idea of municipal motherhood requires no particular gender or sexual identity at all. Addams, the municipal mother who never had children of her own, had a response to compliments like Brewer’s. “I do not believe that women are better than men,” she said in a speech to the Chicago Political Equality League in 1897. “We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislature, nor done many unholy things that men have done; but then we must remember that we have not had the chance.”

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