Louise Knight, author of Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, spoke at the Women’s Center on Wednesday afternoon for a One Book One Northwestern event about the life of Jane Addams and drew parallels to this year's book, Never a City So Real.
Knight emphasized that Addams was “a Renaissance woman” and that “it was daunting as a biographer to learn about all the progressive movements she was involved in.” She talked about Addams’ work in various social and progressive movements, including women’s suffrage, civil rights, ending child labor and establishing the minimum wage.
“Addams was the co-founder of the NAACP and the ACLU and she was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931,” Knight said. “This was also uncommon at the time because most people were specialized in one field or another.”
Addams is best known for establishing Hull House, the most famous settlement house in the world, in Chicago's 19th Ward in 1889. Settlement houses predated the creation of community centers, but they included several similar features such as classes, lectures, a daycare, showers and a gym. According to Knight, Addams sought to create a place where people of different classes could mix and learn from one another.
In Twenty Years at Hull House, Addams wrote about the grit she witnessed in Chicago – not in reference to the dirty and tough neighborhood where the Hull House was located, but instead about people who had resolution, courage and determination. One of the main parallels between Addams and Alex Kotlowitz, author of Never a City So Real, is that both wrote about and respected Chicago’s working people. Additionally, both came to Chicago as outsiders and retained that perspective, which was reflected in their writing along with their commitment to listen to the people they met and interacted with.
Their experiences also showed the good and bad in society and in people. Addams, Knight said, focused on how "all human beings are capable of brutality" while Kotlowitz looked at the issue of violence. And while their stories mainly revolved around how people can have great impacts on their respective communities, these communities in turn taught them a great deal about themselves.
“I think college students should remember that they should be wary of their views. Due to Addams’ privileged background, she was ignorant of various things, such as not knowing any factory workers,” Knight said. “Her life was full of rich and vivid experiences that changed her naïve views, and students should also be ready for their views to change.”
Even though Addams’ views changed due to her experiences at the settlement house, she remained committed to her morals, and more importantly, how her morals were reflected in her actions. Addams, according to Knight, said that “action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.”
“Students can also connect to Addams because she applied her ideals to life, and students are trying to figure out how to do that too. Addams herself was a college student at the time and she wanted to make a difference, but at age 27 she considered herself a failure,” Knight said. “She’s definitely an inspiration to anyone who wants to apply their ideals into their actions but they’re not sure how to do it.”