Jane Addams & Life after College

Jane Addams offers an answer to the question “what is there after college?” for the young woman at the turn of the last century. Addams spoke about the topic often and wrote about it directly in the texts: “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” (1892/1893), and “Filial Relations” (1902).

These texts sought to change the limited cultural and familial roles of middle-class women and bring more bright, energetic women out of the stifling confines of nineteenth-century gender roles and into the vibrant and messy world of the immigrant communities of Chicago.

While these two texts differ slightly in their focus, both were written as much to address the parents of young people who are working in, or wanted to work in, social settlements as the young women themselves (Tichi 102). “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” was delivered as a speech at the School of Applied Ethics, a six-week summer program organized by the Society for Ethical Culture in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was not only well received when it was delivered with its companion speech, “The Objective Value of a Social Settlement,” but both speeches were subsequently published broadly. “Filial Relations” was published in the book Democracy and Social Ethics alongside chapters entitled “Charitable Efforts” and “Political Reform.” This text reflects Addams’s commitment to a larger ethical outlook and the need to include everyone in the democratic life of the nation.

What will become evident is that the suggestions made in these texts and speeches led many women to break from their families and form affiliative attachments with the women (and men) with whom they worked. This outcome is only barely suggested in Addams’s writings, but the reality of the separation was borne out in the lives of the women who resided and worked at Hull-House. It would have been unwise to discuss the strength of the relationships that women could form in a collegial and collaborative environment in these arguments, though today the quality and strength of relationships between unrelated adults is seen as a marker of maturity and individuation. In Addams’s world, however, the focus, at least for the lives of women was on a woman’s relationships and commitments to her family first.

The text “Filial Relations” in particular appears to have been written to parents of middle-class women, which is a rhetorical strategy she uses in hopes of liberating young women from the limitations of domestic life. Addams begins by establishing that the bulk of people do not “share the effort toward a higher social morality,” but are content to express a general conservatism, which takes as its standards the well-worn roles and cultural expectations of the past. Those who hold those notions of social conservatism judge harshly anyone who deviates from these behaviors or viewpoints. There is a logic in this, Addams observes, because these practices are proven and offer stability to the community. Yet in this age of expanding democracy, new relationships are being tested. In order to fulfill the higher call that our flourishing democratic ideals and social relations demand, some will need to (and want to) reorient their energies from the family and themselves to a loftier social goal. Thus, Addams has laid forth the changing social and political landscape of America and identified the reasonable intentions of individuals who feel no call to reform and service and adhere to traditional roles and behaviors in an attempt to win over the skeptics to her work (76-77).

Addams describes the difficult situation in which young women find themselves in the crucible of a changing society; they are educated and privileged enough not to need to work and support a family, but unable to work independently outside the home, at a career of their choosing, due to the social strictures of the time. The conflict between their daughters’ self-willed desires to work and the parents’ desire to see her care for and enlarge the family causes many parents discomfort and confusion (77). Therefore Addams has written this chapter to “[deal] with the relation between parents and their grown-up daughters, as affording an explicit illustration of the perplexity and mal-adjustment [sic] brought about by the various attempts of young women to secure a more active share in the community life” (77). Moreover, in “Filial Relations” she recognizes that these young women, fresh from college, don’t have any script to follow in order to become the women they have been trained to be, so they are not yet adept at explaining their vocational calling.

Addams was passionate about helping to give voice to the vocational yearnings that draws women to social work and she sought to facilitate the conversation with parents, who represented the biggest roadblock to the entry of young middle-class women into the social settlement. In their youth and inexperience many young women weren’t articulate enough to express, or perhaps even conceive of the possibilities for, their lives (Addams “Filial Duties” 82). In Twenty Years at Hull-House Addams notes that it took eight years after college for her conviction “to live in a really living world and [refuse] to be content with a shadowy intellectual or aesthetic reflection of it” to coalesce and longer still for her to craft a plan about how to put her convictions into action (41). Likewise parents were confused by and unprepared for their daughters’ desire work outside the home and follow a path that did not clearly lead to marriage and family life (Addams “Filial Duties” 77). This lack of understanding often resulted in familial conflict, but Addams offers ameliorative answers.

Addams framed the issue as two equally respectable claims on the lives and energies of middle-class women: the family claim and the social claim. The family claim is the obligation and duty that each person has to the welfare of their family, whereas the social claim is the responsibility that citizens have to their country and the betterment of the community. Each serves respectable and long-revered cultural values, but Addams suggests they need to be in balance in the lives of both men and women. For women the family claim has long taken precedent, to dire consequences, which she enumerates in her text. Addams suggests that if families make an “adjustment between the family and the social claim, (. . .) neither shall lose and both [will] be ennobled” though she admits that balancing these claims into a “healing compromise” will not be easy (Addams “Filial Duties” 78).

Using literary references to Ibsen and George Eliot, she shows that people who abandon their familial ties to pursue greater personal fulfillment, and people who eschew their own fulfillment for their commitment to their families both come to poor ends. “The collision of interests, each of which has a real moral basis and a right to its own place in life, is bound to be more or less tragic” (Addams “Filial Duties” 78). Instead both parents and daughters must recognize and respect the social claim; until such time, discord will reign in the home. When parents do not recognize and respect their daughters’ vocation then they regard their daughters as “selfish and captious.” However, if they can think of the social claim as an urgent need in society, akin to the claim that is made on citizens during war, then perhaps they can think of sacrificing daughters to the social projects of the city as they sacrifice sons and husbands to war. (Addams “Filial Duties” 78). This analogy frames the plight of the poorest urban neighborhoods as both a physically dire and morally righteous battlefield. The young women will bravely sacrifice themselves to make the world better and safer. It is an argument that plays upon the parents’ patriotic impulses and can allow parents to take pride in their daughters’ unorthodox decision.

The answer to the conflict that can arise from these conflicting goals is not as simple as a young woman’s recognition of her call to service and usefulness, because often the young women themselves are caught between their sense of vocation, their sense of duty to family, and class-based social expectations. In “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” Addams acknowledges the conflicting messages with which daughters are presented when parents expose them to the work of missionaries and narratives of the plight of people in faraway locales, but then are faced with parents who are perplexed and horrified that their daughters want to go into the cities and help the poor (21). By couching a woman’s desire to work as a social claim, which takes its motivation from the Christian impulses of good works, charity, and missionary fervor, Addams recasts the secular work in a manner that is more palatable to traditional American middle-class families. At every turn, Addams’s criticisms are expressed in mild language and acknowledge the parents’ best intentions, though she counsels caution, as there are real, physical consequences, all in the service of not alienating the families.

By the time Addams publishes “Filial Duties” at the age of 42, she had already been privy to the heart wrenching family strife that many women endured in the quest for meaningful careers. She even states in the first pages of the chapter that “we constantly see parents very much disconcerted and perplexed in regard to their daughters when these daughters undertake work lying quite outside of traditional and family interests” (77). In fact one of the first residents at Hull-House, Anna Farnsworth, joined the settlement in October 1890 against the wishes of her father (Knight 219). This kind of conflict goes well beyond the walls of the social settlement though. For instance, the year after her graduation, Addams received many letters from her college friends describing how their parents curtailed their plans for further education or careers (Knight 110). Addams herself paid a heavy price for her own choice to remain unmarried and dedicate her life to the work of the social settlement. When Addams graduated from college she intended to go to Smith College and study medicine, but her father decided that she had overworked herself during college and should postpone her entry to Smith (Knight 109). After leaving Rockford Seminary in 1881 and the death of her father shortly thereafter Addams struggled with “deep depression,” “a sense of failure” and “nervous exhaustion” (Addams Twenty Years 41-43). Depressed and suffering from back pain Addams was taken to the Orthopaedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases where she was prescribed Dr. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure in the hospital and then spent time in bed at the home of her sister (Knight 120).[1] Once she had convalesced, her doctor prescribed a two-year trip to Europe (Addams Twenty Years 41-43).

Only after she had traveled to London and visited Toynbee Hall did her depression begin to lift and she began to gain a clarity of purpose. As her plan began to come together Addams decided to forgo marriage (to her step-brother George) and pursue a life of public service. This precipitated a break with her step-mother that would last the rest of her life (Knight 147-48).

Thus when Addams writes about how the lack of meaningful work will drain the soul, she is speaking from personal experience with an eye to the broader social and medicalized treatment of women. She writes in “Filial Relations”:

The social claim is a demand upon the emotions as well as upon the intellect, and in ignoring it she represses not only her convictions but lowers her springs of vitality. Her life is full of contradictions. She looks out into the world, longing that some demand be made upon her powers, . . . When her health gives way under this strain, as it often does, her physician invariably advises a rest. But to be put to bed and fed on milk is not what she requires. What she needs is simple, health-giving activity, which, involv[es] the use of all her faculties . . .  (82).

Addams deftly argues that the family’s disregard for a woman’s need to honor the social claim causes devastating psycho-emotional consequences, which during the nineteenth-century were treated with the rest cure, further enervating the young women and compounding the distress. This indictment of the way society turns a woman’s convictions against herself and then further pathologizes the resulting depression (while the cure for both the illness and the symptom is allowing women to work as their consciences guide them) is not pursued further in the chapter. Instead she turns her attention to the shortcomings of middle-class education and the lack of humane purpose found in the members of the leisure class.

“Filial Duties” presents a more overtly feminist message than “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements.” In “Filial Duties” Addams recounts educational changes that were taking place in America during the nineteenth and twentieth-century that encouraged women to see the world and regard their obligation to it in way that had been limited to men previously. She guides the reader through the life transitions of a woman at the turn-of-the-century. In her youth a woman is seen as a possession of the family that attests to its wealth and refinement. In this role, the parents make sure she is well-educated and cultivated. The world and education for women had changed though and “modern education recognizes woman quite apart from family or society claims, and gives her the training which for many years has been deemed successful for highly developing a man’s individuality and freeing his powers for independent action” (81). Thus the woman has been educated to take her place “as a citizen of the world,” and embraces the social claim, but when the woman returns from school with this education she no longer reflects the vision that the family has for itself (81). The family resents this unexpected turn of events and exerts its power over the woman in hopes of realigning her commitments to the family claim once again. The family generally gets it way in these situations, writes Addams, because the family claim is so “concrete” and the social claim so “vague” (81). In this denial of her education and social commitments the woman who is not able to throw herself into family life with enthusiasm and vigor can become depressed. The conflict between the parents’ traditional, middle-class conception of the role of women and the woman’s modern, educated conception of her vocation is evidence of a time when dramatic cultural changes are moving across the landscape causing upheaval, and allowing for exciting new (and sometimes painful) growth for women and families to take place.

The rhetoric in this section of “Filial Duties,” and the chapter as a whole, is more direct, and more feminist than “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements.” The variation between these texts may find their causes in the following aspects of difference: 1. The texts were written for different audiences. In “Subjective Necessity” Addams was addressing a large, broad, though sympathetic audience as an invited speaker at the School of Applied Ethics. Whereas “Filial Duties” was written as a chapter of a book that was more focused topically, with a more pointed philosophical and sociological execution. 2. The texts were published a decade apart. In the ten years that had elapsed between the publication of “Subjective Necessity” and “Filial Duties” Addams’s understanding of the situation for women had become more nuanced. 3. As Addams became more famous and respected she may have been less concerned with alienating individual parents. While she is widely known for her dedication to compromise in situations of conflict, she may have been willing to commit more overtly to needs of young women later in her career.

Yet in 1892, Addams was already making a clear statement about the crisis of purposelessness that was afflicting the youth (both women and men) of the moneyed class:

We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily. Huxley declares that the sense of uselessness is the severest shock which the human system can sustain, and that if persistently sustained, it results in atrophy of function (“Subjective Necessity” 21).

This argument is the precursor to Addams’s “Filial Duties” argument about the need for educated and socially committed women to have the fulfilling work that they need for their health and emotional well-being. In this speech Addams appeals to scientific authority when she references Thomas Huxley, an English biologist and advocate of Charles Darwin’s theories. Huxley wrote about the link between evolution, biology, and ethics, and like Jane Addams, Huxley was invested in education, both for children and adults. Huxley’s assertion that uselessness could result in the “atrophy of function” offers a biological basis for Addams argument.

Not only does Addams find support in science, but she also turns to classic texts of Western literature to make her argument, something that must have resonated with her middle-class, educated audiences. Addams closes “Filial Relations” with the example of King Lear’s relationship with Cordelia. It is a cautionary tale and charges parents to act differently than Lear did, by being more sensitive to their children, and recognizing that their sons and daughters have lives in the world beyond themselves: “[Lear’s] paternal expression was one of domination and indulgence, without the perception of the needs of his children, with any anticipation of their entrance into a wider life, or any belief that they could have a worthy life apart from him” (87). Lear’s family ended in “violent disaster,” but as Addams explains this can be avoided if only we can embrace a “code of ethics dealing with the larger relationships” instead of employing an ethical code that is crafted for the relationships between individuals. She asks the parents to look beyond their insular family and personal feelings to see the big picture, with all its attendant social consequences.

Addams recognizes that fulfilling such a grand call to action is difficult in the midst of family strife, but asks the parents to step back and see the conflict for what it really is—a conflict of equally noble impulses. She asserts that turmoil arises in families when “two standards of morals, both honestly held and believed in, are brought . . . together” (“Filial Duties” 87). Thus time and again she reassures parents that their attitudes and expectations are reasonable, though out of date, and reassures them that their daughters’ desires, though perhaps poorly articulated, are equally moral and upright. Addams’s conclusion to “Filial Duties” begins to move in the direction of directly acknowledging a daughter’s worth in the public, professional realm and suggests that the recognition of her worth is a moral imperative that transcends the life of the family.

Addams does not articulate in these texts just what kind of relationships a young woman makes when she is an adult and has left her family for the professional realm. Many parents must have been terrified by the thought of their daughters eschewing the traditional security of marriage and children. Many of these women, in fact, did not return to a traditional nuclear family life, but instead forged a new kind of family with the women and men with whom they worked based on the affiliative bonds that grow from collaborative work and mutual respect. The reality of the lives these women lived remains unexplored in these texts. In her later years though, in texts like Twenty Years at Hull House and My Friend, Julia Lathrop Addams describes, in detail, the lives of women at Hull-House.

Selected Bibliography

Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. 1902. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002.

—. “The Objective Value of a Social Settlement.”  The Jane Addams Reader. 1892/1893. Ed. Jean Bethke Elshtain. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 29-45.

—. “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements.”  The Jane Addams Reader. 1892/1893. Ed. Jean Bethke Eshtain. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 14-28.

—. Twenty Years at Hull-House: With Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke, ed. The Jane Addams Reader. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Knight, Louise W. Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Martin, Diana. “The Rest Cure Revisited ” American Journal of Psychiatry 164 (2007): 737-38.

Ostman, Heather. “Maternal Rhetoric in Jane Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull-House.” Philological Quarterly 85.3-4 (2006): 347-70.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. “Introduction to Illinois Edition.”  Democracy and Social Ethics. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002. ix-xxxvii.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830-1900. New Haven: Yale U P, 1995.

Tichi, Ceclia. Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us). Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009.


[1] The “rest cure” developed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) treated women suffering from “nervous disorders” or what we know today to be depression, post-partum depression, and other such psycho-emotional conditions. Mitchell prescribed a devastating combination of strict bed rest without any diversions or activities, seclusion from family and friends, and frequent feedings of soft, easily digested foods.

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