Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy
By Jean Bethke Elshtain. Basic Books, 336 pages, $20.00
The appellation "St. Jane" came early to Jane Addams. Florence Kelley, one of her closest comrades during the early years of settlement work at Hull House, once told Addams that if another woman called her a saint again, "I'd show her my teeth, and if that didn't convince her, I would bite her." But the label stuck. What else was one to do with Addams, a woman so out of place, so disturbing to the conventional wisdom, but consign her to the category of a holy fool, a modern St. Francis of the Chicago slums?
Jean Bethke Elshtain's adoring but ultimately flat and depoliticized account of Jane Addams' life and ideas shows how strong that temptation still runs. Addams was a challenge then, and her life remains a challenge now. Raised in an environment of Victorian moral earnestness in small-town Illinois, she could anticipate a life of motherhood, domestic graces and bourgeois respectability -- and she walked out on all of them. Like so many of the first American women to break through the barriers to higher education, she turned instinctively away from marriage. After drifting through her early 20s, she got the idea of the neighborhood settlement house from its London prototype. She opened Hull House in 1889 in a mansion that had degenerated into a saloon and furniture warehouse as property values declined and immigrant families and small manufacturing shops flooded the neighborhood. Her first plan ran toward social uplift: art classes, lectures, teas and a kindergarten. But unlike most cultural missionaries in the slums, she was quick to see not only the private dramas in her neighbors' lives but the grip of collective circumstances.
Within a decade, she was in the thick of municipal-reform politics, fighting for better refuse disposal and public-health measures, for better public schools and for more effective child-labor laws and tighter workplace-safety legislation, all the while battling to clean up city corruption and throw out her grafting alderman. She opened Hull House to debates that respectable Chicago, shivering in fear of erupting class warfare, worked hard to suppress. Socialists, anarchists, labor unionists, single taxers, the organizers of the city's new associations for racial justice -- all got a hearing and a vigorous, multisided argument. Addams spoke at strike-support meetings. She had herself appointed as district inspector of sanitation and refuse. All this more than two decades before women were allowed to vote in Illinois, when the rough world of economics and politics was still thought to besmirch the women who touched it.
Addams was Hull House's epicenter, but around her quickly gathered as remarkable a group of women reformers as a single roof has ever contained. Florence Kelley became a powerhouse in Illinois and, later, New York social-political causes. Julia Lathrop left Hull House to become the first head of the Federal Children's Bureau. Grace Abbott, who succeeded Lathrop, was to be one of the principal drafters of the Aid to Dependent Children section of the Social Security Act, the forerunner of late 20th-century "welfare." There were men, too, who moved through the Hull House circle -- John Dewey and Sidney Hillman among them -- though they never played so strong a role as the women. Over all this, Addams presided, mediating, provoking, organizing, writing and speaking -- her matronly dress and conciliating skills, her gentle eyes and her face sagging softly with age, all belying the bite that lay behind them.
The test of her determination came during World War I, amid a fever of war patriotism and civil-liberties violations that even the current administration's ideologues have yet to equal. Addams was not a pacifist by absolutist conviction. Like her friend Dewey, she had tried to reformulate her Protestant moral upbringing along more flexible lines. The question to her was not whether to slap a seal of ethical approval ("just") or disapproval ("unjust") onto war but how to foster the active dynamics of peace from the neighborhood and workplace on up. Where older conceptions of peace had been passive, legalistic and abstract, the real work of peace construction for Addams was social and dynamic. It called for engagement, such as her own plunge into working-class Chicago, with the day-to-day strains and realities of group life. Oxfam, Witness for Peace, the peace communities in Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank, the youth workers in the Los Angeles ganglands: These and many more all work within the "newer ideals of peace" she articulated. That the vengeances, sufferings and inflamed patriotism of war could be made into an instrument of peacemaking she could not believe.
That put her on a collision course with many of her closest friends and associates during the orgy of war patriotism that broke loose between 1917 and 1919. Dewey, chafing at inaction in the columns of The New Republic, temporarily convinced himself that war was simply a medical operation that a deft surgeon could control (not the last time The New Republic would leap for that illusion). Many Hull House alumnae volunteered for war administration service, hoping that they might make the war economy less exploitative of the most vulnerable of Americans. Addams held out against the political tide. She was placed on the War Department's list of most dangerous subversives. Her public reputation, at its height in 1914, collapsed.
In the aftermath of the war, Addams spent far less time at Hull House than before and far more of her time trying to rally an international women's movement for peace and justice, working hard to knit the threads of international association that the unilateralists in the Bush administration are now so determinedly unraveling. Long after it become unfashionable to think so in feminist circles, Addams continued to insist on the special moral resources of women. There is a posed photograph from her old age, reading to a racial rainbow of children at Hull House, her tired head bent into a book. There is another photo from almost the same year of Addams and her friend Mary McDowell, taken at an outdoor rally, the two women looking straight and vigorously into the camera. Addams is wearing an unfashionable hat and tennis shoes and holding an American flag under a big "peace" banner.
Perhaps the best measure of this admiring but skewed and self-indulgent intellectual biography is that Jean Bethke Elshtain reprints the first photo, the grandmother bowed over the book, but not the second. Not long ago, author and subject would have made a better match. Like Addams, Elshtain made the trek from small-town America to Chicago, where she currently teaches social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. Like Addams, Elshtain has written searchingly about civic life and against the grain of rights-based feminism. And Addams figured as something of a heroine in 1987 in Women and War, Elshtain's imaginative, intellectually restless inquiry into the entrapments of conventional war and gender narratives.
Elshtain's subsequent quest for the Jane Addams spirit has been nothing if not serious. She has tried to think hard about the kind of childhood that gives a woman the moral force that Addams so early and constantly possessed. She has traced her fingers over Addams' death mask, and one winter when the snow lay deep in the Cedarville, Ill., cemetery, she laid three roses on Addams' grave.
But Elshtain is no longer the same author who began this project a decade ago. Since then she has grown closer to politically conservative associations, which in turn have helped her become one of the most widely quoted female public intellectuals of the day. She criticized the first Gulf War on just-war grounds for its costs in Iraqi civilian and military lives, but lately she has emerged as one of the most prominent professional ethicists to side with the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Perle-Wolfowitz call for preemptive war. She has become a scold of modern mores. She has prayed with the president. These are jobs somebody has to do. But they were not lines of work that ever tempted Jane Addams.
So it is perhaps not surprising that Elshtain holds her Addams in a tight, off-kilter embrace. In a book focused on the development of Addams' ethical thought, Elshtain never mentions Addams' decade-long friendship with Dewey or the profound impact they made on each other. Lovingly recovering Addams' early essays, Elshtain sprinkles them with inert bromides -- "balance," "form," "moderation," "self-control" -- that miss the restless, yearning, forward-moving elements so characteristic of Addams' prose and social imagination. Elshtain's Addams speaks in "parables" -- "The Story of the Self-Sacrificing Mother's Spotless House," "All in Vain," "The Parable of the Small Toad" -- though Addams was an accomplished essayist who knew how to use not only stories but all the registers of argument.
Still more striking is Elshtain's depoliticization of Addams' life. Elshtain manages to describe Addams' civic-reform efforts while barely noting the way in which broadened government capacities were central to them, though Addams made the point early and articulately. To suggest that Addams "would have emerged as a critic of what the postwar welfare state became" had she lived into the present age is to confound one of Elshtain's ruling convictions with Addams' quite different views. Addams voted for Herbert Hoover, the engineer of food relief in postwar Europe, in 1928 and 1932, as Elshtain notes. But she also voted for the labor-progressive candidate Robert LaFollette in 1924 and the socialist Eugene V. Debs (though he campaigned from jail) in 1920. Addams' public support for the New Deal after 1933 -- including for the National Recovery Administration, Social Security, public works and public housing -- goes altogether unmentioned. Addams, who moved so constantly, even dependently, within circles of action and association with other progressive women, becomes, in Elshtain's hands, strangely singular and self-sufficient. Elshtain can't even bring herself to print a photo of Addams in her most characteristic pose: in the presence of other women.
Through it all, Elshtain's affection for her half-imagined Addams is unwavering. She tells the story of Addams in the First World War straight, without trying to wrench Addams' bottom-up belief in peacemaking into Elshtain's own just-war Augustinianism, or even to set the two in intellectual debate. Elshtain writes acutely of Addams' tolerance and social compassion, her defense of immigrant Americans during the war scares of 1917-19, her bottomless faith in mediation and civic discussion. But Elshtain does not let Addams intellectually disturb her or slow the onward rush of her bowdlerized ethical simplifications. Elshtain's Addams is the woman whose house door was always open, whose arms were always sheltering. "Come in," Elshtain has her Addams say. "I'm just having some tea. Would you care to join me?"
No one within the whirlwind circle of Addams' energies and aspirations remembered her that way. What do you do with admiration you can't abandon but can't take straight? What do you do with all the provocation that Jane Addams still manages to generate almost 60 years after her death? Sand her down and coat her in plaster. Make her speak in parables and platitudes. Put her on the shelf with the rest of the saints, where they can't disturb. Addams' own Twenty Years at Hull House, still in paperback, makes for deeper, more challenging reading.