May 9, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 15

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    Elshtain places Addams in company of other visionaries of democracy

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Everywhere from academic mainstays like the Chronicle of Higher Education to bastions of business thought like The Wall Street Journal, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (Basic Books) drew forth more than reviews––it provoked interested responses, attempts to agree, disagree or question.

    And while nobody, including Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor in the Divinity School, agrees with everything Addams said or did, the responses indicated something better than unanimous agreement. They confirmed Elshtain’s idea that Addams is still a figure to contend with, and she is a person from which to still learn. More, she was someone who continued to speak directly to our hopes for democracy.

    Yet, while Addams was the most venerated woman in America at the time of her death in 1935––awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 and, as Elshtain noted, “In one way or another ... attached to every major social reform between 1890 and 1925”––Addams had been forgotten in important ways for most of the 20th century. Elshtain, who has struggled to resurrect Addams as a figure of debate, also is trying to carry those debates forward both inside and outside the academy.

    Addams was born in 1860 in Cedarville, Ill., to a prosperous Quaker family, and her father was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. As a woman of the 19th century, she could not vote for most of her life, yet she learned to use pragmatic party politics to advance high ideals. Burdened by the conventions of private domesticity and female passivity, her life reached a turning point while visiting London in 1887, when she discovered Toynbee Hall, a settlement house designed to alleviate the terrible poverty of the East End. She decided Chicago needed such a place.

    Elshtain described Hull House, the settlement Addams founded in 1889, as “no prison of refined domesticity, but a parlor of affectionate and expansive worldliness.” It ministered to the poorest immigrants: Italians, Greeks, the Irish and Russian and Polish Jews, those who worked in the meatpacking houses, steel mills and sweatshops. As The New York Times noted,

    “Addams had a keen eye for the practical needs of the poor. Over time, Hull House developed an enviable list of services––day nurseries, kindergartens, English classes, public baths and a boarding house for single people.

    But Addams also honored the immigrants’ cultural appetites to both hold onto their own traditions and acquaint them with the new. Hull House sponsored music groups, theater ensembles, handicraft workshops and reading clubs.

    Elshtain wrote, “If you were a resident, it would not be at all unusual to move over the course of a day from reading George Eliot, to debating Karl Marx, to washing newborns, to readying the dead for burial, to nursing the sick, to minding the children.”

    Addams also wrote extensively. But until now, no one has systematically examined her work. Elshtain’s analysis thus restores Addams’ status as not just an activist but also a major thinker whose writing “opens up into a world as complex and terrifying and conflicted in its redemptive power, as anything devised by Sophocles.”

    When asked what prompted her to study Addams, Elshtain said, “My purpose was just to set the record straight, to put her in the company in which she so clearly belongs––to put her with the great visionaries of American democracy.”

    While happy with the responses her book has received, Elshtain is resistant to those with the narrow views of Addams. “For the most part the critical notices have been quite good, but where I would argue with some of them is, I still think they’re trying to pigeonhole her in a way she isn’t ‘pigeonholeable.’ People have said I should have discussed pragmatism or other areas more, but I don’t want to relegate her to one school of thought. She transcends so many boundaries and categories. She’s a combination of pragmatism with commitment to Christian social gospel, deeply indebted to Abraham Lincoln and the Lincolnian vision of democracy.”

    Elshtain describes her as “Someone who speaks directly to our concerns, someone with whom you can have debates––I don’t agree with her on some things. But a lot of the work that’s been done to resurrect important female figures has had that adulatory tone. Many have had halos attached, and I think Addams is still pretty close to having a halo attached. But she’s someone you can actually engage in important debates.”

    This brings up a matter of principle importance to Elshtain, an area where she disagrees with some versions of women’s history: “Women of the past should be part of democratic debates, not left as museum pieces. Freezing Addams in her historic time and place keeps her out of the ongoing discussion. She’s part of a living heritage one can draw on, appropriate or not as the case may be.

    “Where I find her problematic (her arguments for international peace), I say so, but this is important, too, because it shows she’s part of the discussion. At the same time it’s important not to slot her into a modern ideology.

    “Some feminists find her too maternal or traditional, while The Wall Street Journal saw her, wrongly, as a precursor of big government and the welfare state. If conservatives place someone on the left and liberals place them the right, then that’s a clue that that person may have captured a complicated middle ground, which I think, indeed, Jane Addams has done.”

    Elshtain’s work on Addams is only one part of a larger program. Like Addams, she wishes to engage politics and society through action as well as words. Last month Elshtain was elected to the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, a position she shares with General Wesley Clark and several former Secretaries of State.

    Congress has allotted the endowment of a multi-million dollar annual budget to help in building the infrastructures of democratic societies around the world. Commenting on her election to this board, Elshtain said, “It’s important to deal with nonacademics; it helps keep you honest.”