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Jane Addams and Civic Housekeeping Essay

In the early 20th century, more and more issues began to face cities of the United States. Specific issues that cities began facing more and more included the rise in poor sanitation and health concerns in local tenement housing. In order for women to gain access to the public sphere and emerge out of the private sphere, and gain some sort of status with the men of society, Jane Addams proposed the idea of “civic housekeeping” which would let women use their skills from the home in order to clean up the issues in local tenement housing and ultimately, in the local government.

Growing up in the post-Civil War era, Jane Addams was born into a wealthy family, fueled by her father’s political and business success. Jane was raised in a way, by her powerful father, John Addams, that she was instilled with a strong sense of leadership and pride. John Addams died while Jane was at a very young age of 21, and was changed emotionally for the rest of her life, and it even affected her relationships with men later in life, as she was never married. Jane was very devoted to her father and loved him very much, and their close relationship was important to Jane as she kept his memory for the entirety of her life.

While the idea of educating women in the post-Civil War time period was not very popular, Jane Addams was encouraged by her father to attend college at the Rockford Female Seminary. This encouragement was not given with love, but with the idea of John Addams expressing his power and wealth, which enabled him to send his children to college and get an education. Jane was very successful in her time at Rockford University, being an integral part of her college debate team and a huge participant in her classes.

Jane Addams, so highly educated and respected among women, and even men in society, was called the “model of feminine excellence in the American terms4,” and was seen as a savior for women across the United States who wished to spread their roots and do something more important with their lives while serving their country at the same time. Jane Addams was a very intellectual and prominent female for a woman of her time period, considering she attended college, which was uncommon for many females until more recent years. Attending college as Jane Addams did in her time period, was an opportunity that women were just starting to get as colleges for women began to open, in addition to universities already in existence beginning to accept women into their programs5. Addams was seen as a great influence among women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was also viewed as progressive and conventional, which was essential for someone to be in the quickly emerging, industrializing future of the United States. Her topics of speech were ones that were talked about across the country, and more specifically and especially, at the University of Chicago, where she was praised.

Addams’ interest in social activism would lead to her, and a college friend, Ellen Gates Starr, to beginning their first venture in social activism and seen as an act of genius, opening their first settlement house, also known as a “Hull-House,” in which the name was given due to the previous owners of the homes in Chicago. This Hull-House that Addams and Starr opened would later, while not the first in the United States, become the most known settlement home in the nation. This was only the beginning of Jane Addams’ personal journey into the public sphere, and more importantly, the inspiration for many women to try and start their own journeys towards gaining entry into the public eye and gaining any sort of right that would grant them the abilities to do what the men in their lives, which were their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers have been doing since before anybody could remember. The starting of Jane Addams’ journey was one that would bring only positive impacts to the United States, with a few bumps in the road of course. By starting the tenement houses in Chicago through the Hull Houses, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr had already begun their journey into the public sphere. Through opening the tenement houses and allowing people to see them and come live in them helped the two women make a name for themselves, with the more well-known woman of the pair being recognized for much more, was Jane Addams herself. Addams saw rights and freedom for women as a “perfectly possible” thing to attain, as she was optimistic and very assertive on her way to work for women’s equality and rights. The optimism that Jane Addams had was not without a price to pay on her part, as there were many negatives that had to be dealt with along the way like setbacks in acting, legislation, supporters, etc.

These settlement housing complexes, along with other emerging municipally supported housing and projects, were failing considerably as time went on, in more ways than not. Ways these housing and government projects were failing were in hygiene and sanitation, in addition to perishable products that went uninspected, like meat and dairy products, which eventually made citizens very ill, and even killed a few. Local factories emitting toxic fumes also did not help the issue at all.

Toward the late 19th century, as more and more women began entering the workforce and emerging from the home, into the public sphere, the need for women in local government and important jobs began to be pressed on local leaders. Getting women out of the home, being the private sphere, and into the public sphere through her ideas of “civic housekeeping” was Jane Addams’ main goal in society.

“Civil Housekeeping,” was a term that Addams used to refer to the cleaning up that women needed to do in tenement homes, local buildings, and more importantly, and more discretely, local government. Addams’ main goal was to eventually bring women into the public sphere and local government, through civil housekeeping. Since men were so fond of keeping women in the home, in order to clean, cook, or even just stay out of the men’s business, women began seeing themselves as possible saviors for issues that cities were facing.

The way that women began seeing themselves was through expressing their skills that they used inside the home and applying them on a much larger scale, which would hopefully assist in resolving the problems in tenement homes and other areas of cities that were being affected by environmental circumstances. Jane Addams proposed her ideas to the men of society by explaining how well women work in the home, be it cooking, cleaning, etc., so why would they not be able to help clean up the tenement homes and other parts of the city, to help out other citizens and keep their families and homes alive. Addams’ of course had the ulterior motive of working her way, along with many more women in society, into the realm of local government, in the hopes of gaining more and more rights for women in the future.

The reason that Jane Addams was so influential in her speeches and movements was not only because of the fact that she was educated, but that she had been born of a very rich and politically powerful family in the post-Civil War, which was a time of peril and misfortune for those devastated by the effects of the battles that tore across the south in the Civil War.

Although a feminist ideal, the proposal of “civic housekeeping” was appealing to men in power in the local governments. With many health violations and many previous, failed attempts at keeping up appearances and up to code in municipalities, “city housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities.”12 This aspect of women entering the public sphere, as proposed by Addams, was never examined or considered by men because they had always forced the socially constructed gender roles and affirmed that women can and will only stay in the home to perform their family duties. The good and welfare of the people, including their health and living conditions was never considered by men of local government and Jane Addams proposed to change that, in order to rejuvenate and maintain the health and welfare of local citizens, especially the women and children who were suffering due to the failure to keep up the cities, specifically tenement housing. Another part of Addams’ proposal while discussing women being brought in to clean up the homes, was bringing diverse and multitalented people who can perform many different tasks and complete them well, which would eventually show improvement across the board. In part, this was attractive to the men in power, because in the long run, it would make them look good.

While creating and executing her ideas of civic housekeeping and advocating for many other rights for women like suffrage, Addams was very distinguished from other women only hoping to attempt and succeed as much as she did. Jane Addams was very fortunate to have the quality of being able to successfully execute in fields that women normally did not participate in, which included professionalism and business fields. A key characteristic and factor that Addams possessed to successfully attain her credibility and position in society. Jane today is seen as a woman who cannot be compared to any other woman of her time period, and even today, as some goals that she strived for and eventually attained were only attainable through ways that were common in the early twentieth century, as she used her tenement houses and her local salon to spread word and expand her ideas among people.

A product of her time period for sure, Jane Addams was a woman who achieved many things in a society that discriminated against and belittled women. Addams was a woman who saw things differently than other women, and that is what helped her achieve what she achieved. Eventually, her goal of getting women out of the private sphere of the home and oppression by man, was successful. Camilla Stevens stated that, “men set about trying to run the city as a business, and women aimed to make the city more like a home,”14 which Jane Addams quickly changed in her efforts for women that made a new presence for women in America.

Through civic housekeeping, women slowly but surely made their way into the public sphere. Without Jane Addams’ strong advocating and activism, efforts made by women may not have even been made to achieve rights and a sense of equality to men, and the oppression of women by men of society would have continued and could have been much worse today. Jane Addams was a successful woman of her time period and through civic housekeeping, began the cleanup of homes and communities in and around Chicago, which led for a much brighter future for not just men, but women and children who wished to have much healthier and happier lives at home.


Addams, Jane. The modern city and the municipal franchise for women. Baltimore, Maryland: National American Women Suffrage Association, 1906. (Jane Addams Article from Moodle Site)

Hamington, Maurice. “Two Leaders, Two Utopias: Jane Addams and Dorothy Day.” NWSA Journal 19.2 (2007): 159-186. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

Shields, Patricia M.. “Democracy and the Social Feminist Ethics of Jane Addams: A Vision for Public Administration.” Administrative Theory and Praxis 28.3 (2006): 418-443. JSTOR. Web 3 Dec. 2013.

Conway, Jill. “Jane Addams: An American Heroine.” Daedalus 93, no. 2 (1964): 761-780. JSTOR. Web 3 Dec. 2013

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