Born in Cedarville, Illinois, on September 6, 1860, and graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881, Jane Addams founded, with Ellen Gates Starr, the world famous social settlement Hull-House on Chicago's Near West Side in 1889. From Hull-House, where she lived and worked until her death in 1935, Jane Addams built her reputation as the country's most prominent woman through her writing, settlement work, and international efforts for peace.
Social settlements began in the 1880s in London in response to problems created by urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. The idea spread to other industrialized countries. Settlement houses typically attracted educated, native born, middle-class and upper-middle class women and men, known as “residents,” to live (settle) in poor urban neighborhoods. Some social settlements were linked to religious institutions. Others, like Hull-House, were secular. By 1900, the U.S. had over 100 settlement houses. By 1911, Chicago had 35.
In the 1890s, Hull-House was located in the midst of a densely populated urban neighborhood peopled by Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Bohemian, and Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. During the 1920s, African Americans and Mexicans began to put down roots in the neighborhood and joined the clubs and activities at Hull-House. Jane Addams and the Hull-House residents provided kindergarten and day care facilities for the children of working mothers; an employment bureau; an art gallery; libraries; English and citizenship classes; and theater, music and art classes. As the complex expanded to include thirteen buildings, Hull-House supported more clubs and activities such as a Labor Museum, the Jane Club for single working girls, meeting places for trade union groups, and a wide array of cultural events.
The residents of Hull-House formed an impressive group, including Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Florence Kelley, Dr. Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, Sophonisba Breckinridge, and Grace and Edith Abbott. From their experiences in the Hull-House neighborhood, the Hull-House residents and their supporters forged a powerful reform movement. Among the projects that they helped launch were the Immigrants' Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, the first juvenile court in the nation, and a Juvenile Psychopathic Clinic (later called the Institute for Juvenile Research). Through their efforts, the Illinois Legislature enacted protective legislation for women and children in 1893. With the creation of the Federal Children's Bureau in 1912 and the passage of a federal child labor law in 1916, the Hull-House reformers saw their efforts expanded to the national level.
Jane Addams wrote prolifically on topics related to Hull-House activities, producing eleven books and numerous articles as well as maintaining an active speaking schedule nationwide and throughout the world. She played an important role in many local and national organizations. A founder of the Chicago Federation of Settlements in 1894, she also helped to establish the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers in 1911. She was a leader in the Consumers League and served as the first woman president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (later the National Conference of Social Work). She was chair of the Labor Committee of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, vice-president of the Campfire Girls, and a member of the executive boards of the National Playground Association and the National Child Labor Committee. In addition, she actively supported the campaign for woman suffrage and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909) and the American Civil Liberties Union (1920).
In the early years of the twentieth century Jane Addams became involved in the peace movement. During the First World War, she and other women from belligerent and neutral nations met at the International Congress of Women at the Hague in 1915, attempting to stop the war. She maintained her pacifist stance after the United States entered the war in 1917, working to found the Women's Peace Party (WILPF), which became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919. She was the WILPF's first president. As a result of her work, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Jane Addams died in Chicago on May 21, 1935. She was buried in Cedarville, her childhood home town.