Hull House: a Social Experiment

I wrote this paper on Hull House, a fascinating social work experiment in 1900s Chicago. The settlement house's commitment to ending urban poverty, and the women's commitment to their suffrage rights, really resonated with me. I'm a sucker for people who dramatically change the way humans think or act: Albert Einstein, Dorothea Dix, Carl Jung, Jane Addams.
By the end of the nineteenth century, America was a tumultuous place. Rapid industrialization and urbanization increased social change, while communication technology hastened a “mass” culture. One hallmark of this era was an optimistic reform spirit: activist organizations sprang up around the country determined to rectify a plethora of social ills, from harsh prisons to alcoholism. Reform movements differed greatly from one another, but often used scientific study and government intervention. One prominent movement was the settlement house, a community of rich, educated individuals helping the urban poor as a wealthy reaction to the increasingly evident economic divide (Carroll Wade, Louise.) The most famous American settlement house was Hull House in Chicago, established in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. By using upperclass altruism, politics, and social science to help the urban poor, the independent women of Hull House increased the social role of government and fought against sexism which limited their reform efforts.
Hull House was the brainchild of Jane Addams, the daughter of an influential Chicago miller and organizer. Addams attended college at Rockford, Illinois; at this time, new women’s colleges, such as Mount Holyoke and Smith College, were proliferating to offer women a typical men’s education, and women like Addams flocked to these opportunities (Hovde 27.) After graduation, Addams visited Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house, in England. Affiliated with Oxford University, Toynbee Hall’s students believed cultured men could defeat poverty by meeting the poor on their level; the men ran local poverty organizations in London (Cohen, Miriam; Hovde 38.) Inspired, Addams traveled with Ellen Gates Starr, another educated woman, to establish Hull House as a similarly service-oriented organization. The pair selected the Nineteenth Ward of Chicago, the poorest area of a rapidly growing city, and recruited young people to help run the House (Hovde 45.)
As inspired by Toynbee Hall as Hull House was, the latter’s emphases on daily interaction with the urban poor gave Hull House a more pragmatic flavor evident in its social programs. By helping local people, often immigrants, with domestic tasks--everything from midwifery to saving burning stables--Hull House women gained the respect of working-class Chicagoans (Hovde 64, 71.) Programs inside the house focused on women and children to help stabilize working-class families. Offerings throughout the settlement’s history included cooking classes, an art gallery and gymnasium, hygiene and nursing classes, kindergarten, and temporary residences for working women (Johnson, Mary Ann.) Although most programs stayed within the domestic sphere, Hull House women also demonstrated their ability to succeed beyond traditional housewife and teacher roles: they were independent from men, both financially and physically; started their own organization; and lived in a poorer area than social mores deemed appropriate for upperclass women (Hovde 69, 38.)1
"Do I have to sit for this picture? I'm bored, but I'm gonna look thoughtful and kind instead, dammit." ~ Jane Addams

Addams and company quickly realized that many of Chicago’s problems—juveniles prosecuted as adults, lack of hygiene, low wages, etc.—were too pervasive for Hull House alone to solve. They soon agitated for government regulation, another key aspect of the Progressive era (Johnson, Mary Ann.) To gain support for local reforms, Addams and Starr connected with both wealthy and working-class groups, including the elite Chicago Women’s Club and trade union heads (Hovde 62; Johnson, Mary Ann.). For example, in 1899, Hull House resident Julia Lathrop wanted to handle juvenile delinquents separately from adult criminals, so she enlisted the help of the Chicago Women’s Club and the Chicago Bar Association to establish America’s first juvenile court law and associated Juvenile Court Committee (Hovde 65.) At the federal level, reformer Florence Kelley established the Children’s Bureau to advocate for child labor laws; Julia Lathrop got the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act passed during her tenure at the Bureau (Theerman, Paul.) The Act reduced infant and maternal mortality rates, and was a prime example of Hull House’s reform success in the federal government (Hovde 65.) Through all these efforts, the women of Hull House demonstrated that activists could sway government decisions and that women could successfully participate in government. Hull House’s expansion of government into the social sphere also set a precedent for the New Deal of the 1930s.
The settlement’s residents collected data to quantitatively support their reform efforts. Many Progressive-era reformers used systematic study and techniques to improve fields via regulation and management, e.g. “scientific management” to improve manufacturing efficiency (Carroll Wade, Louise; Des Jardins, Julie.). Participating in this applied science trend, in 1895 Hull House published Hull House Maps and Papers, an employment and housing study used to pinpoint social issues in Chicago. The study became a seminal sociology work and influenced major Chicago schools, such as the University of Chicago’s Sociology Department (“Hull-House Maps and Papers: Sociology in the Settlement;” Lundy Daniel, Cathleen.) By using the study to pass child labor protection laws, Hull House women both expanded the social role of government and proved sociology’s problem-solving value (Lundy Daniel, Cathleen; Hovde 73.)
Despite such accomplishments, Hull House women realized that once their philanthropic efforts became part of government, they could not participate further because men considered politics a male sphere (Hovde 95.) For example, Julia Lathrop became head of the Children’s Bureau not through her own political agency but because her activist accomplishments made her attractive to male government officials (Theerman, Paul.) Convinced female voting rights would lessen the sexist political climate, many Hull House women became suffragists (Cohen, Miriam.) Agitating for the vote as a means for political participation required these activists to believe women could contribute to society outside of their traditional domestic sphere; Hull House’s independent nature provided this confidence. The majority of Hull House residents, including Addams, Starr, Lathrop, and Kelley, were wealthy, well-educated women who lacked satisfactory job options save teaching and nursing; denied an outlet for their energy, these women jumped at the opportunity to do meaningful work at Hull House (Theerman, Paul; Hovde 27.) Working with poor Chicagoans gave Hull House residents intellectual freedom and hands-on experience, which often propelled them into successful careers. For example, Alice Hamilton, toxicologist and first female Harvard Medical School faculty member, began her career examining industrial health at Hull House (“Dr. Alice Hamilton.”) Thus the settlement house served as a place to discover and develop talents away from gendered expectations, which in this era limited females to teachers and homemakers (Hovde 32; Cohen, Miriam.) Succumbing to the societal pressure of children and husbands may have impeded their reformist careers, because husbands of this era expected women to be housewives with only part-time, if any, careers (Hovde 32; Diliberto, Gioia; Cohen, Miriam.) Thus it’s probably not coincidental that most Hull House women avoided marriage (“Dr. Alice Hamilton;” Hovde 70; Theerman, Paul.) Even Addams’s financial support came from organizational donations and her financier, Mary Rozet Smith (Hovde 69.)2 Therefore the fact that many Hull Housers became suffragists comes as little surprise, since these autonomous women saw political agency as paramount to their continued success.
World War I diverted attention from Hull House’s reform efforts. During the war, Addams and many other Hull House residents crusaded for international peace and women’s suffrage. In 1931, Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, donating half the money to Chicagoans hurt by the Great Depression (Hovde 118.) Hull House women’s suffrage fight and political participation paved the way for the broader feminist fights of the 1950s and beyond. And finally, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal broadened Hull House’s dream of government help—aid for the sick and elderly, childcare and maternal laws, food for the poor—and employed some of its eminent women, including Frances Perkins of the Labor Bureau, to further that dream (Sprague, W. Leah.) Hull House’s legacy is still strong, both in government humanitarianism and increased gender equality.

1 Hull House’s liberation seems similar to that of the Lowell System of textile manufacturing, which offered young women a paid job away from even more restricted societal norms. However, Hull House offered more freedom than the Lowell System did because its experiences and connections allowed occupants to pursue careers outside of the freedom-giving structure. By contrast, the Lowell System’s wages sustained freedom only as long as a woman lived within the system; many women who left the System had no choice but to revert to patriarchal standards of homemaker (Hovde 70, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.)

2 Evidence suggests Jane Addams had romantic relationships with other women, including Ellen Gates Starr and Hull House financier Mary Rozet Smith; Addams wrote of her and Starr’s “marriage” and later considered herself married to Smith. However, this era was filled with close friendships between wealthy educated women such as Addams and Starr, lending some ambiguity as to the nature of Addam’s relationships. Regardless, most Hull House women never depended on male financial support (“Living at Hull House: Jane and Ellen and Mary;” Diliberto, Gioia.)

Works Cited
  1. Carroll Wade, Louise. “Settlement Houses.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society, n.d. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  2. Cohen, Miriam. “Women and the Progressive Movement.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  3. Des Jardins, Julie. “The Politics of Reform.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  4. Diliberto, Gioia. “Prologue: A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams.” The New York Times On the Web. The New York Times Company, 1999. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  5. “Dr. Alice Hamilton.” Changing the Face of Medicine. National Library of Medicine. n.d. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  6. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “Lowell Mill Girls and the Factory System, 1840.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  7. Hovde, Jane. Jane Addams. New York: Facts On File, 1989. Print.
  8. n.a. “Hull-House Maps and Papers: Sociology in the Settlement.” TeachSpace. DeVry University, Spring 2001. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  9. Johnson, Mary Ann. “Hull House.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society, n.d. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  10. n.a. “Living at Hull House: Jane and Ellen and Mary.” TeachSpace. DeVry University, Spring 2001. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.
  11. Lundy Daniel, Cathleen. Hull-House Incorporated: The Professionalization of Social Work. The University of Virginia, Jan. 2001. Web. 7 Jun. 2015.
  12. Sprague, W. Leah. “Her Life - Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal.” Frances Perkins Center. Frances Perkins Center, 1 Jun. 2014. Web. 10 Jun. 2015.
  13. Theerman, Paul. “Julia Lathrop and the Children’s Bureau.” American Journal of Public Health 100.9 (2010): 1589-1590. Web. 8 Jun. 2015.


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