Historiography Saturday: Jane Addams

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Jane Addams, the woman who would go on to earn the nickname Saint Jane and the Nobel Peace Prize, began her work after a period of despondency at the prospect of never contributing anything of worth to society. Originally from a rich family, she attempted to attend medical school but dropped out due to health complications, and seized on the fledgling settling house movement as a way to make a difference. The result of her hard work was Hull House, a national model for settlement houses and the home base for Addams’ studies and social reforms. When she wasn’t helping run the House’s programs (music school, a gymnasium, clubs, etc.), Addams was active in Progressive politics, pacifism, American Pragmatism, anti-sex slavery, and suffrage work.

Recently, Addams has become a controversial addition to the LGBT historical canon. Hull House itself now advertises programming that paints Addams as a vital part of Chicago’s LGBT history, billing it as “The Queerest House in Chicago?” She shared a lifelong romantic friendship with Ellen Gates Starr, who slept in her bed and encouraged her in her work. However, romantic friendships existed in a context where high degrees of affection between women were looked upon as normal, making it difficult to pin down lesbian relationships: physical contact and even displays of undying devotion were commonplace. Researchers can find no definitive evidence one way or another of a sexual relationship between Addams and Starr, but also disagree on whether that would be necessary to establish that Addams was a lesbian given the length and exclusivity of their partnership.

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