True peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.
Jane Addams, the pioneering American social reformer and women’s rights activist, was a leader in advancing world peace and women’s suffrage. In recognition of her incredible contributions to the social good, she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. The co-founder of the famous Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago, Addams was instrumental in bringing the needs of mothers and children to greater public awareness and is recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.
Born in Illinois in 1860, Addams was a voracious reader as a child and was inspired by Charles Dickens’ writing on the lives of the poor to spend her life helping those in need. As an adult, she learned about the settlement house movement – a social reform movement that began in the late 19th century to provide education and healthcare resources to the urban poor. After visiting the world’s first settlement house, Toynbee Hall in London, Addams was inspired to open Hull House in 1889. Hull House offered an adult night school; clubs for older children; a gym and bath house; music, theater, and art lessons; and an employment center, among many other services; at its height, 2,000 people a week walked through its doors.
Addams encouraged women to become “civic housekeepers,” working for the betterment of their communities. At one point, in 1894, she served as the first woman appointed as sanitary inspector and, with the help of the Hull House Women’s Club, made over 1,000 reports of health department violations. She was also a vocal advocate of women’s suffrage as she recognized that human welfare concerns would not be given adequate attention by the government without the voices and votes of women.
A staunch supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, Adams was elected president of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1915. In this capacity, she headed a commission which organized the first significant international effort to mediate between the warring nations. As a pacifist, she faced severe criticism once the US entered the war, and was even branded as unpatriotic. Following the war, however, President Calvin Coolidge and the public at large supported Addams and the WILPF efforts in the 1920s to ban poison gas — which was achieved in 1925 with the signing of the Geneva Protocol.
Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 – the second woman in history to receive the honor – for her pioneering social reform work and her leadership of WILPF’s peacebuilding efforts. Remembered as an individual who had transformed the lives of so many, especially women, Addams once said that the “old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled.” Thanks to her tireless efforts for suffrage and women’s rights, there are fewer snares in all of our paths.