Books by Louise W. Knight
In this, the first full biography of Jane Addams (1860-1935) in almost four decades, Louise W. Knight captures the tumultuous life of one of the nation’s remarkable reform leaders. The book traces how Addams’s passion for social justice, which began as a fuzzy, romantic ideal, came to infuse her daily life and led her, in 1931, to become the first American woman – she is still one of only two - to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her father’s wealth gave her a sheltered upbringing in a small town in Northern Illinois but instead of staying protected and safe, she chose a life of barrier breaking. As a young adult in the 1880s, she occupied mostly the privileged side of some key barriers. Although she was a woman living in a society that thought men superior, she was also a person of wealth in a society harshly segregated by class, and a white person of remote immigrant ancestry in a society that judged minorities and immigrants inferior. In rebellion, she moved at age 29 to the industrialized, working class, mostly immigrant West Side of Chicago, where she and a college friend co-founded the nation’s first settlement house, Hull House. Progressive political reform was far from their minds: the house was intended to be a social and cultural center where the classes could mingle and learn. But Addams’s purposes were expanded by living among people who knew the nation’s urban social, economic and political problems firsthand and her self-confidence was strengthened by making friends with Chicago’s remarkable women activists. She also discovered the obstacles created by her cultural self-righteousness and childhood prejudices and consciously set out to master them.
In tracing Addams’s story, Knight provides a fascinating journey through the Progressive Era. Addams was a leader in the settlement house movement and the campaigns to end child labor and achieve women’s suffrage and an advocate for fair immigration policies, the rights of workers to organize, free speech and other civil rights. She seconded the Progressive Party’s nomination for Theodore Roosevelt for President in 1912, and campaigned hard for his ticket, co-founded the Women’s Trade Union League, the N.A.A.C.P., and the American Civil Liberties Union, and served on the latter two organizations’ boards until her death. She opposed World War I in the face of severe criticism and in 1915 co-founded the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, which under her presidency became a worldwide force for women’s rights and peace advocacy.
The biography also takes up Addams’s ideas. Like her sometimes-reform colleagues, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Addams had a powerful analytical mind, an eloquent voice, and a skillful pen. She gave thousands of speeches and wrote eleven books on such subjects as the social responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, the challenges facing urban youth, the human trafficking of girls, the societal conditions that nurture peace, and the history of the wartime peace movement. Several were best sellers, including her continually popular memoir Twenty Years at Hull House. Able to contemplate all angles of a controversial subject, she opened the hearts of her white, upper-middle class audiences and readers to the experiences of the rest of the nation’s citizens. She told people of her own class not only about working people and immigrants’ struggles but also about their compassion for humanity, their progressive vision for the federal government, and their expectation that they be active citizens. Addams’s message, and the take away insight of this biography, is that, no matter what one’s race, gender, or class, being a citizen in a democracy is a life-transforming opportunity and responsibility.
CITIZEN book covers the first half of Jane Addams's life, from 1860 to 1899. Part I, "The Given Life," takes the story from birth to 1888. These are the years when she was making her home among her family, attending school or travelling. Part II, "The Chosen Life," tells the story of her first ten years living in an industrial neighborhood of West Chicago, from 1889 to 1899. These are the first years she spent living at the settlement house Hull House that she co-founded with Ellen Gates Starr.
The biography, while a work of original scholarship, is written to be enjoyed as well by the general reader. The story is told with narrative pace and enriched by thoughtful interpretation. In the endnotes, those interested will be able to trace the extensive original sources that Knight has consulted and to consider some of the issues of scholarship related to writing a biography of Addams or, in some cases, biography in general. There is an extensive bibliography and index. The "Afterword" gives an overview of earlier biographical work on Addams and the contributions that various fields of scholarship have made to understanding some of the issues that a biography of Addams today needs to address.