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Jane Addams was the first American woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. This year, the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates are coming to her town.


Giving Jane Addams the chance to give the speech she never gave

by Dana Ballout
Feb 07, 2012


“The greatest man in America is a woman – Jane Addams.” That was the assessment, in 1915, of one member of the British Parliament.

She also was once described as the most dangerous woman in America. Today, Jane Addams is most recognized for being the founder of Hull House, a foundation that closed last month after more than 120 years of providing social services in Illinois.

Addams was the first American woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, and the second woman in history to receive the honor. She was nominated 91 times before receiving the award in 1931.

Remembering Addams takes on an urgency this year.

In April, her fellow Nobel Peace laureates are coming to town – her town. And since she was too ill to travel to Norway to give her acceptance speech to the Nobel peace audience, now that the Nobel laureates are here, this gives a chance for her speech to be given.

If she were alive, she’d be 152 years old. Some experts say she undoubtedly would have given her Nobel laureates a warm welcome and taken the opportunity to give the speech that she wasn’t able to give at the time.

But what would Addams have said?

“While she would be obligated to say something about world peace –people often forget that she was widely regarded as a traitor in her own time by the job creators of her day) she was always more interested in local events,” said Dr. Larry Bennett, professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“She would probably address the oddity of having a spic and span place called Hull House museum surviving, while the University which has been built up around it was created by bulldozing the immigrant community it served—along with most of the buildings that actually comprised the Hull House campus,” Bennett said.

“She would also comment on the contradictions implicit in saving the house as an artifact while tearing down the functions that the house served,” he said.

On the topic of speaking out for freedom, the theme of the Nobel Peace Summit, Addams would have urged her peers to view freedom as concrete and applied practice.

“For her, freedom wasn’t just an abstract ideal in speeches,” said Louise W. Knight, author of two books on Addams.

One of the main ways Addams viewed freedom was by whether every human had the services necessary to develop full human potential, Knight said.

She also would have hoped those services would be provided by the government by now and she would have addressed the state of social work in Illinois that may have contributed to Hull House closing.

“Addams would have said that the profession of social work, now dependent on federal sponsorship and the top percent of the population for private donations, is once again at the mercy of failed social and economic policies,” said Dr. Valerie Borum, assistant professor of social work at UIC.

Addams also would have addressed how Chicago has changed over the years.

She would likely say that “the profession of social work needs to regain its ‘sociological imagination’ as social change agents who battle the oppressive and harmful conditions impacting society's most vulnerable populations,” Borum said.

“Poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism are global, societal problems, and it is at this juncture that [Addams would have wanted us] to intervene,” she added.

“She would no doubt compare her own gilded age to our own, drawing a bead on our shared robber barons, tycoons, filthy rich politicians, and attacks on community organizers,” Bennett said.

Addams, finally, would have drawn on her experience as an activist responding to the injustices of her time.
She would have appreciated that the summit is focused on youth this year and ended her speech with a direct message to today’s upcoming generation.

“What are you going to do for your generation? That’s what she would have said,” Knight said.

The World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates will take place from April 23-25 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.