In 1931, a panel of notable American men named Jane Addams first on a list of the 12 greatest living American women. That same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to be so honored. At her death in 1935, she was the country's most widely lauded woman in public life.

Today we remember Jane Addams as the founder of Hull-House, an innovative settlement house in Chicago, but her path-breaking work as a social and political reformer and thinker, and her leadership in peace and justice are largely unrecognized. Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of political and social ethics at the University of Chicago and one of our foremost public intellectuals, hopes to change that. In a major new intellectual biography, Elshtain helps us to understand her subject in the context of her times, in large part by a careful and compelling study of Addams' own writings.

Addams was not an ideologue of the political left or right and was involved in a wide range of issues, including "every major social reform between 1890 and 1925." Although often praised, Addams was also frequently the subject of controversy and misunderstanding. This was especially so because of her pacifist position during World War I and her defense of immigrants.

Elshtain writes that "All of Hull-House's many activities pointed toward one goal: the building up of a social culture of democracy." Addams was not interested in "sweeping" theories and never talked about the proletariat or the bourgeois. Instead, Elshtain notes, she believed that "certain experiences are shared on a deep level by all human beings" and that understanding others is essential for social change.

This biography is rich with interpretation and analysis of the life and works of a brilliant woman, and it will fascinate anyone interested in America's social history.

comments powered by Disqus