Beginning with the short little book about Harry Houdini that I read in grade school, I learned that I have a soft spot in my heart for good biographies. (I'm open to suggestions!) Maybe I'm just nosy, but it's fascinating to read all about someone else's life.
The most recent biography I read was A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams.
Why did I choose this one? Well, I picked it up not knowing much more about Jane Addams than that the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Social Work was named after her. Upon reading the jacket summary, I learned that Jane had marriage-like relationships with two women during her life.
Cool, I thought. A lesbian from the 1800's! I'm in.
1. Was she?
It turns out, Addams' sexual identity is the least interesting part of her biography. I say that because she was a remarkable person who accomplished much during her life during a time when women had very limited roles in society. She helped spur a new social justice movement for the poor, stepped out of her pre-ordained role as a woman, and was awarded a Nobel Prize. But I'll get to those things in a minute...
But first, the juicy details. To make a long story short, there aren't any. Addams' biographer notes that there is no evidence that Addams had a sexual relationship with anyone, let alone women. But at the same time, her relationship with one woman, Mary Smith, in particular was marriage-like. Mary, who was very wealthy, lent financial support to Addams and her social justice project (Hull House). The two women traveled together, visited family together, spent their remaining years together helping care for each other. Their relationship with each other was probably the most important and intimate relationship in both women's lives. Yet, while their various letters to each other indicate a very strong attachment and intimacy,
"The relationship between Jane and Mary, however, was conducted with such scrupulous privacy that today it is almost impenetrable. Adding to the mystery, toward the end of her life, Jane destroyed most of Mary's letters to her. She never explained my. Perhaps she was trying to cover up the sexual nature of their love." (183-184)
Whether their relationship was sexual or not, I think is irrelevant. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, "homosexuality" was a largely un-named and unidentified identity. People who we would now think of as "gay," had no name for their feelings, desires, or actions with people of the same sex. It is clear that Addams did not want to be married to a man, nor did she have any desire to live her life with or to form romantic attachments to men. The most intimate and important relationships in her life were with other women. In my book, those two factors sorta mean you're a lesbian. Because ultimately, what is "gayness" if not the formation of intimate relationships with those of the same sex while simultaneously rejecting marriage to an opposite-sex partner?
But, at the end of the day, does it matter whether Addams was a lesbian? I think it matters for two reasons. One, it adds to the historical fact that even though the "gay identity" and movement is relatively new, gay people have existed throughout human history. Even if there was no name for it. Two, Addams' sexual identity is important insofar as her rejection of the "wife" role allowed her to lead a burdgeoning social justice movement.
2. An Early Great Harm Myth
Now, on to more important things...
One of my favorite things about reading biographies historical figures is that I am reminded that, throughout history, people have always created and perpetuated Great Harm Myths to justify denying opportunities and equal rights for certain groups.
One Great Harm Myth that was alive during Jane Addams' early adulthood was the idea that education would harm women and, therefore, rather than attending college or high school, women should stay home and prepare for lives as a wife. As Addams' biographer writes,
"Many thoughtful people agreed with Dr. Edward H. Clark, a former professor at Harvard Medical School, who'd argued in his 1873 book, Sex in Education, that girls were constitutionally unfit to follow the same intellectual regime as boys. Professor Clark maintained that brain activity by women 'diverted' to their heads vital blood they needed for menstruation. Other experts claimed that women couldn't cope with strenuous thinking because their brain's were smaller than men's." (60)
Seriously? Along that line or reasoning we could also argue that brain activity by men diverted to their heads vital blood they needed for erections.
Women should not become educated, you see, because it wasn't good for their bodies, brains, or (most importantly) reproductive organs! Education would cause (dun-dun-dun) Great Harm to women. And, to be fair, we could look at this Great Harm Myth from (at least) two vantage points. Male doctors and politicians were truly concerned about the alleged harm they thought would befall women- whose primary duty at that time was to bear children. They were "merely" basing their conclusions on untrue and stereotypical opinions about women and differences between the genders. Or, they wanted to hoard educational benefits for (upper-class) men only. No matter the motive, this Great Harm Myth had the convenient effect of largely keeping women out of the public sphere thereby decreasing competition for college degrees and jobs.
And, although the statements of these doctor are laughable now, I can't help but to wonder how remnants of this type of thinking linger today.
But alas, in Jane Addams' early adulthood, the options (upper-class) women had for college were to attend female seminaries and women's colleges (there were a few). Addams had the class privilege of being able to attend college, and she attended the non-degree granting women's seminary (because why did women even need degrees back then?) in Rockford, Illinois- "with its weak academic program, its emphasis on religion, and its rigid code of conduct." (60).
After college, she had the further (and even more rare) fortune of attending a Women's Medical College. Women doctors were seen as necessary mostly to go into OB/GYN care (as vaginal exams given by male doctors back then were seen as very embarassing procedures akin to rape) or to become doctor-missionaries overseas. Jane early on became disenchanted and dropped out of medical school because,
"[S]he knew she would not be happy in a profession that relegated women to an inferior role. Male doctors were virulently hostile to their female colleagues. Once, when a group of women showed up at a lecture at the men's medical school, they were met by yells, hisses, mock applause, paper missiles fired at their backs, and obscene remarks about their appearance. A few of the men even followed the women into the street at the end of the lecture, swearing and spitting tobacco juice on them." (84-85)."
I don't know how this behavior could be interpreted as anything other than men trying to guard their privileged positions in society. Again, fewer women doctors means fewer doctors to compete with for jobs. Or, these guys were just chumps. Either explanation is plausible.
After leaving medical school, Jane Addams spent a few years seeking mental health treatment, caring for her family, traveling the world, and searching for a greater purpose in life.
During the years between college and her founding of Hull House, Addams suffered an affliction common to many educated, well-off young women in the late 1800's: she was educated, but because of career constraints on women at the time, she had no practical way to use her talents and intelligence. For, in the late 1800's, once the relatively few women who went to college finished their studies, most of them returned home to marry or take care of their families.
It is clear that Addams had the luxury of class privilege- she inherited about one-third of her father's considerable estate and was able to attend college. Yet, she wanted to use her wealth for common good. Not caring about what society told women to be (ie- a self-sacrificing "angel of the house") she actively looked for a greater purpose in life- something more than being a wife or family caretaker. (Yes, yes being a wife and caretaker is wonderful. But every single woman in the world should not be relegated to that one role in life. It's all about women having choices, folks.)
As Jane wrote,
"It has always been difficult for the family to regard the daughter otherwise than as a family possession. She is told to be devoted to her family, inspiring and responsive to her social circle, and to give the rest of her time to further self-improvement and enjoyment..... But where is the larger life of which she has dreamed so long?" (117).
As it turns out, she discovered this larger life while traveling in Europe with a group of female companions, where she discovered that "she could live happily on her own with other young women." (121). This discovery seemed to spur her founding of Hull House. Hull House was a settlement that Jane Addams and several other women founded in a poor, working-class neighborhood of Chicago that provided education and activities for mostly-immigrant neighborhood residents.
You can read more about Hull House here. For this review, I was more interested in exploring the early life of Jane Addams. Specifically, I wanted to look at her experiences coming of age and somehow thriving in a society that largely only approved of women who were wives, mothers, or daughters. We can see that some segments of our population even today (social conservatives mostly) hold similar views of women. They are in favor of male-breadwinner households where women are relegated to Wife/Mother/Daughter role. The only difference is in the Great Harm Myth used. Those in Addams' era argued that Great Harm would befall women if they stepped out of their role. Social conservatives today argue that Great Harm is befalling society because women are able to work outside of the home. (Missing from these analyses, of course, is the fact that lower-class women have almost always had to work outside of the home. Women, you see, should never work outside the home. But poor women, of course, should always work outside the home or they're lazy welfare queens.)
For a time, and after her founding of Hull House, Jane Addams was one of the most popular and respected women in the US. And that is a testament to the great masses of men and women who actually favored expanding the role of women in society. (Too often the many men who supported women's rights are forgotten, while only the discriminatory ones who opposed women's rights are remembered.) Unfortunately, however, Jane's popularity waned in the US when she became active in the peace movement during World War I. Various Red Scare and propaganda-like tactics were used to smear her name and, because she supported the working class and labor unions, she was labeled a "communist, the Reddest of the Red." Where she was once America's sweetheart, she was suddenly labeled "the most dangerous woman in America" (262). All because, of course, she did not support the war.
Which leads me to ask, must history always repeat itself? We never learn, it seems.
With the benefit of time and hindsight, Addams' legacy has been largely restored. She is recognized for the social justice pioneer she was, and the Red Scare Tactics that were used against her are now recognized for what they were. For her work in the peace movement, Jane Addams was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Not too shabby for a "dangerous" Red.
I'm glad I read this biography. It is comforting to get reaffirmation that our society tends toward social progress in spite of stereotypical, ignorant, and belligerent opinions.
To conclude, I'll end on this fitting quote:
"What after all has maintained the human race on this old globe despite all the calamities of nature and all the tragic failings of mankind, if not faith in new possibilities and courage to advocate them." - Jane Addams