Printer Friendly

Defining democracy.

Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by Jean Bethke Elshtain. New York: Basic Books, 2002,328 pp., $26.00 hardcover.

The Jane Addams Reader edited by Jean Bethke Elshtain. New York: Basic Books, 2002, 488 pp., $20.00 paper.

After an upper-middle-class girlhood, in 1889, at the age of 29, Jane Addams moved into an "ample old residence" amid the tenements of a working-class immigrant neighborhood north of downtown Chicago. Three years later, she was the acknowledged leader of the social settlement movement, a vanguard whose transformative effects were felt throughout American life. By that time she had fallen in love with Mary Rozet Smith, whose financial and emotional support helped sustain her remarkable public career. Rooted in the local particulars of Hull House and its immigrant neighborhood, she articulated a new democratic "conscience" for an industrial society that immigrants were reshaping. This carried her to global prominence. Her 1910 autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House, went through six printings in its first year, was translated into German, French and Japanese, and has never gone out of print.

What a story! In an era before women could vote, Addams became a political power broker, lending the weight of her prestige among suffragists to Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party in 1912. During World War One, she channeled a vibrant international women's peace movement into social justice activism. From the war's end in 1919 until her death in 1935, she turned her talents to a variety of peace campaigns, risking and losing most of her popular support. Although toward the end of her life, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, this international recognition mattered less to her than two cherished communities of women. Before her death, she asked that her tombstone read: "Jane Addams of Hull-House and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom."

Like the generation of "founding fathers" in the 1770s and '80s and Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s, Jane Addams matured at a time of profound change that created opportunities for new forms of leadership. Like them, she rose, to the occasion.

Why is this woman's life not better known among feminists today? Now, more than ever, we need models of courage and commitment like hers. Living as she did in an immigrant neighborhood, her leadership and authority derived from the way she modeled democratic values in everyday life. She offered a clear and compelling vision of the new values in industrial society. As she expressed that vision 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." Her democratic critique of American society deepened in 1898 when she opposed American imperialism in the Philippines and developed a systematic diagnosis of militarism in American life, making her voice even more relevant to our era of inflated military budgets and "just war."

Second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in the pantheon of women in American history, Jane Addams has been surprisingly neglected by historians. Although every textbook in US history dutifully highlights her prominence in reshaping American democracy during the early decades of the twentieth century, Allen Davis' 1973 American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams is the latest biography written by a historian. This should change very soon, when historians begin to use The Jane Addams Papers and its comprehensive guide, a phenomenal microfilm collection completed in 1996 by Mary Lynn Bryan and her associates.

In the meantime, writers from other fields are claiming Addams for themselves, as demonstrated here by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political scientist. Addams' life and achievements were so diverse and protean that they are difficult to encompass within the perspective of any one discipline, however appropriate, or any one author, however admiring. During her lifetime, Addams deliberately resisted efforts to categorize her work, and today her originality still resists easy analysis. As a public intellectual, she inspired the innovative ideas of William James and John Dewey, who then developed systems of thought that continue to invite scholarly analysis today. Yet she remained committed to the everyday confusion of ordinary people in ways that deflected attention away from her and onto others whose stories she tells. No wonder historians throw up their hands, call her a saint, and move on to easier topics.

Addams is an awkward heroine for women in the twenty-first century. Her voice resounds with ideals that ran aground in the cynical aftermath of World War One, especially her Reform Darwinist belief that the future would be shaped by the masses, despite their tendency to disappoint middle-class expectations. Settlements, she wrote in 1892, "must be grounded in a philosophy whose foundation is on the solidarity of the human race, a philosophy which will not waver when the race happens to be represented by a drunken woman or an idiot boy." Her optimistic belief in the human species seems to lie beyond the reach of later generations who witnessed the horrors of human brutality that stretch from World War Two into our own time.

Jane Addams' brand of feminism also distances her from us. Too much of a realist to think that women were essentially different from men, she nevertheless emphasized the differences between men and women that society and culture had created. In this vein she helped invent "municipal housekeeping," arguing that women should assume public responsibility for the tasks they have historically supervised in private, such as health and education. The Jane Addams Reader contains many examples of the ways she encouraged women to become more active in public life, including this passage from her 1907 book, Newer Ideals of Peace.
A city is in many respects a great
business corporation, but in other
respects it is enlarged housekee-
ping. If American cities have failed
in the first, partly because office
holders have carried with them
the predatory instinct learned in
competitive business... may we not
say that city housekeeping has
failed partly because women, the
traditional housekeepers, have not
been consulted as to its multiform

                       (pp. 182-183)

But Addams' social philosophy did not readily translate into programmatic solutions. Hers was not the ringing voice of a Eugene Debs or Florence Kelley but that of a storyteller who wove good and bad together into a shared tapestry. As she put it in 1895, in an essay quoted in The Jane Addams Reader,
life itself teaches us nothing more
inevitable than that right and
wrong are most confusedly mixed;
that the blackest wrong is by our
side and within our own motives;
that right does not dazzle our eyes
with its radiant shining, but has to
be found by exerting patience, dis-
crimination, and impartiality.

                           (p. 57)

Resonating to the complex grays of human experience more than to its simpler blacks and whites, Addams is quite unlike the cardboard "saint" that most school and college texts depict. Yet her preference for the grays greatly complicates the task of understanding how she redefined American democracy and how she renewed her post-Civil War generation's commitment to social justice.

In this context, Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy and its companion, The Jane Addams Reader, demonstrate the relevance to our own time of a woman who endowed politics with moral meaning. Elshtain gives us an engaging analysis of Addams' social and political philosophy, highlighting her fit with Elshtain's own concerns: the primacy of the individual, the legitimate demands of the community and the importance of civil institutions--educational, religious and voluntary--in arbitrating conflicts between individuals and communities. Elshtain's interest in Addams also derives from her self-identification as a feminist and her belief that Addams deserves greater recognition as a thinker and public intellectual.

Every student of Addams' life has to explain the origin of her vision of everyday life as the basis for democratic renewal in politics. Many readers will be frustrated by Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy because it does not adequately explain causality in Addams' life or thought. Elshtain offers instead an appreciation of the similarity between Addams and George Eliot. "Jane Addams shared with George Eliot the staunch belief that--as Eliot writes at the conclusion of Middlemarch--the 'growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts'; and this belief perhaps best explains Addams' life and work."

Relying more heavily on Addams' published works than on her microfilmed letters, Elshtain does not explain why George Eliot was more important than other authors who might have also have shaped Addams' ideas, nor does she explain why Addams should have been so receptive to ideas that value the quotidian rather than the heroic. Although Elshtain's account is overly intellectual, it nevertheless introduces us to Addams' view "that human beings could not live on lofty, fleecy ideas, and that the moral life can only grow from the ground up."

Elshtain's chief categories of analysis--identity, selfhood, community and responsibility--dominate her subject, drawing attention to some important aspects of Addams' life and thought while camouflaging others. The effect often emphasizes the author's view more than her subject's.

For example, although Elshtain highlights the importance of community in Addams' life, she gives less emphasis to the equally important, radically democratic impulse behind Addams' construction of that community. She quotes a wonderful tale from Twenty Years at Hull-House about Addams' early encounter with sceptics. Set at the Chicago Woman's Club after Addams presented a paper on Hull House activities, what Elshtain calls "the Story of the Large Toad Who Swallowed the Small Toad" features a sceptical club member who told a personal anecdote to warn Addams away from her work.

When she was a little girl, playing in her mother's garden, she one day discovered a small toad who seemed to her very forlorn and lonely, although as she did not in the least know how to comfort him, she reluctantly left him to his fate; later in the day, quite at the other end of the garden, she found a large toad, also apparently without family and friends. With a heart full of tender sympathy, she took a stick and by exercising infinite patience and some skill, she finally pushed the little toad through the entire length of the garden into the company of the big toad, when, to her inexpressible horror and surprise, the big toad opened his mouth and swallowed the little one.

Addams understood the club member's meaning: the moral of the tale "applied to people who lived 'where they did not naturally belong.'" Addams instantly recovered the ethical high ground with an astonishing reply: "I protested that was exactly what we wanted--to be swallowed and digested, to disappear into the bulk of the people." She added, "Twenty years later I am willing to testify that something of the sort does take place after years of identification with an industrial community."

Elshtain's gloss on this story ignores the democratic implications of Addams' wish "to be swallowed and digested, to disappear into the bulk of the people." She does not comment on the contrast between Addams' reply and the club members' moral claim to remain where one "naturally belongs." Nor does she question what Addams meant by "industrial community." Instead, she interprets the story psychologically as embodying "the Christian understanding of a kenotic or 'emptying' self," and more prosaically as revealing the importance of Hull House neighbors for its residents. "Addams was insistent that the help she received from her neighbors who visited at Hull House far outweighed the help she gave them. Fellowship is both the end sought and the means to get there." Addams' version of the toad story stressed her identification with wage-earning people. Elshtain's version emphasizes her complementarity and interaction with them. In this and other instances throughout the book, Elshtain takes the sting out of Addams ' social criticism. Addams becomes a thinker without an enemy--original, but not threatening.

We find a different Addams in The Jane Addams Reader--one who sharply criticized social, political, and economic structures that stunted human lives and sustained exploitative relationships. The Reader seems to include everything that Addams wrote about religion but lacks her most concise social justice statement, "Charity and Social Justice," a 1910 presidential address to the National Conference of Charities and Correction. Nonetheless, this collection deserves to be widely read. As the Reader shows, the question for Addams, as for so many of her contemporaries, was "the industrial question." She characterized her neighborhood as an "industrial neighborhood," defining it chiefly by the work and work relations of its inhabitants rather than by the ethnicities of its Poles, Greeks, Russian Jews and Italians. In 1895 she wrote, "The crucial question of the time is, 'In what attitude stand ye toward the present industrial system? Are you content that greed and the seizing upon disadvantage and the pushing of th e weaker to the wall shall rule your business life, while in your family and social life you live so differently?"'

In 1910, she recalled the "hot chagrin" she experienced when offered a bribe by an "association of manufacturers that if the residents of Hull-House would drop this nonsense about a sweat shop bill, of which they knew nothing, certain business men would agree to give fifty-thousand dollars within two years to be used for any of the philanthropic activities of the Settlement." She assured them "that we were much concerned that our neighbors should be protected from untoward conditions of work," and with a youthful flourish added, "if to accomplish this the destruction of Hull-House was necessary, that we would cheerfully sing a Te Deum on its ruins."

The contrast between the Addams of Elshtain's analysis and the Addams of Elshtain's Jane Addams Reader is particularly sharp on issues related to legislation, government and the state. Elshtain finds in her an important ally in advocating for a civil society, but Addams went beyond the quest for a civil society to urge government to create a society that was more civil and egalitarian--one in which municipalities responded to the needs of immigrants, state legislation prevented exploitation of factory workers and public schools gave poor children an equal start in life.

The Reader reprints Addams' "Survivals of Militarism in City Government" from Newer Ideas of Peace (1907), which argued that antiquated forms of government inherited from the eighteenth century were inadequate to twentieth-century needs, chiefly because industry had grown more powerful than government. "We must frankly face the proposition that the whole situation is more industrial than political," she wrote. "The real issues are being settled by the great industrial and commercial interests, which are at once the products and the masters of our contemporary life." By failing to meet the needs of working people, Addams argued, government failed to be democratic. "The framers of the carefully prepared charters, upon which the cities are founded, did not foresee that after the universal franchise had once been granted, social needs and ideals were bound to enter in as legitimate objects of political action."

Addams cited adequate schooling, housing, old age pensions and protection from industrial exploitation as needs that modern governments should meet. Throughout Newer Ideals of Peace she argued that war and social justice were opposing social forces: "We have come to realize that the great task of pushing forward social justice could be enormously accelerated if primitive methods as well as primitive weapons were once for all abolished."

Addams presented herself and these "Newer Ideals" as part of an international movement in which she aligned herself with working people and against the combined forces of business and imperialism:
Workingmen dream of an indus-
trialism which shall be the hand-
maid of a commerce ministering
to an increased power of con-
sumption among the producers of
the world, binding them together
in a genuine internationalism.
Existing commerce has long ago
reached its international stage, but
it has been the result of business
aggression and constantly appeals
for military defense and for the
forcing of new markets.

                           (p. 115)

Newer Ideals sought a peace that was based on social justice, with governmental initiatives as a crucial contribution to achieving social justice.

Elshtain fails to recognize Addams' positive view of government and her forceful condemnation of American imperialism. She inaccurately characterized Addams as sharing "the optimistic, sunny hopefulness of social evolutionists that the old war virtues... were no longer needed in an industrial age and would therefore do what unnecessary organs do; they would atrophy and finally disappear." Why, if this was true, did Addams sacrifice her popularity and devote the last decades of her life to peace work? Elshtain creates a straw woman when she claims that Addams "doesn't want government to nationalize everything or to dominate and take over." Of course she didn't. But she did want a great deal more from government than Elshtain leads us to believe.

For Elshtain, Addams is all about fostering fellowship, a view that requires her to ignore or reshape crucial aspects of Addams' legacy. Ultimately Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy is its author's personal guide to an era in American history that generated questions still sharply contested today: Who speaks for the socially disinherited? How can all American people share in the promise of American democratic ideals? Can the good we secure for ourselves be maintained if it is not secured for all? Can social justice coexist with militarism? So long as these questions remain with us, the life and writings of Jane Addams will continue to inspire reflection and debate.

KATHRYN KISH SKLAR is Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York, Binghamton, and the author of Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830-1900 and Social Justice Feminists in the United States and Germany: A Dialogue in Documents, 1885-1933.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Old City Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sklar, Kathryn Kish
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Previous Article:The end of the free ride.
Next Article:Jamming the wind.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters