Forgive me in advance for going all ‘personal’ on you, but it’s been a bad couple of days for democracy and human rights, and therefore it’s been a bad couple of days for me. Usually when I feel discouraged I pick up one of my many non-fiction books on social reformers and immerse myself in their lives and experiences. Reading about past social reform movements gives me hope and perspective.
So here comes the personal part…in the last few days I’ve been reading about Jane Addams (1860-1935), the “mother of social work.” And I’ve been reminded of why I keep advocating for equality and human rights for all, despite all the challenges. I’ve read about her a million times. I’ve written about her and I lecture on her, but this time something else jumped out at me that I wanted to share with all of you.
Jane Addams lived during the Industrial Revolution (1870 to 1935), and if you think we have it bad now, it was far worse back then (well, unless of course you were white, wealthy and owned a factory). Addams grew up in a wealthy family and her father was an 8-term Republican Illinois State Senator. Addams, a member of the Progressive party, was outraged by the treatment of immigrants in Chicago and in other urban centers.
Immigrants were brought into the country in droves (14 million from 1860 – 1900), many on indentured servitude contracts, which they worked off for years once they got to America. The working in conditions were just terrible—unsafe, dirty, bad air flow, no breaks, and mortality rates were high. Immigrant children, children of color and orphans as young as 6 were prized employees, working in factories for slave wages, 14-18 hours a day.
There was incredible discrimination against immigrants and poor children during that time, and even the death of children in factory accidents evoked no sympathy whatsoever. They were consistently told that if they didn’t like how they were being treated, they could go back to their home country. To justify child labor, the elites in society spread propaganda that the immigrants didn’t really love their children the way native-born Americans did.
Addams was determined to change all of this so she and her friend started the first settlement house in Chicago. Hull House offered clean and safe housing for immigrants, as well as day care, educational programs, and advocacy services. And Jane and the other settlement house workers lived in Hull House right alongside the residents.
Here are just some of Jane Addams’ social justice-related activities: she was the vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and fought for women's right to vote. She was a founding member of the NAACP, and worked tirelessly, along with Ida B. Wells, to end the extrajudicial hangings of black men. She was a founding member of the ACLU, which fought for the rights of immigrants and other oppressed populations.
She was the National Chairman of the Women’s Peace Party. She started the Immigrants' Protective League, and the Juvenile Protective Association. She was president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, an international coalition of women from both developed and developing countries, engaged in anti-war activism.
And in her free time, she organized hundreds of protests, wrote letters to political leaders, wrote op-ed pieces for the newspaper, wrote 30 books on human rights, advocacy and international peace, and had speaking engagements all over the world.
In response she got insults, death threats, and accusations that she was a communist.
She became an anti-war activist, and was attacked in the press for being anti-American and anti-military, and was expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution. She faced discouragement, had bouts of depression and wondered if her efforts made any difference at all.
Owners of factories, mills, textile manufacturing and mines who relied on cheap immigrant and child labor claimed that the economy would tank if they had to pay a decent wage to immigrants or were prohibited from hiring children. They fought hard against compulsory public education laws, since education was reserved for the elite, and they'd lose their workforce if poor immigrant children and orphans were allowed to attend school during prime business hours (this battle wages on to this day in efforts to undermine public education).
Her anti-war activism and leadership in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (this agency still exists today!) led to an international coalition of women who worked together to advocate for peace, and against oppression and exploitation, particularly of women, children and immigrants.
She traveled to the Hague a few times for conventions. In response she was investigated by the FBI for treason. Because she believed that democracy, social justice and peace must work together for everyone, she was called un-American, and a threat to the country and its "traditional values."
During an era when hardline elitists were running the country (hmmm, sound familiar?), when social Darwinism was the ideology of the land, when there were no social welfare laws to defend, and two million children were working in factories, mills and mines, and the Supreme Court had a conservative majority, this is what Jane Addams and her colleagues were able to accomplish:
My dear friends and fellow social reformers,
This fight of ours is not a new one. It did not begin in November 2016; it’s been going on for much, much longer. Many social reformers have come before us and many will come after us. It may feel as though we are at the lowest point in our history, but it was far worse during the Industrial era.
Isn’t it ironic that this time period is also referred to as the Progressive Era (1890-1920), because of all the social reforms that were gained?
While she certainty didn’t work alone, Jane Addams is an incredible example of the impact one human being can have in the world; and she couldn’t even vote legally until she was 60!
I’m sharing this with all of you because I know many of you are feeling as discouraged as I am right now. It seems as though we’re losing all of the progress we’ve made in recent years, and that our checks and balances are disappearing. But change is cyclical and things are always in motion. Even Jane Addams wrote about the ebb and flow of justice and oppression, and the importance of being prepared for the next forward-moving wave.
She also warned of giving up too soon, writing “nothing can be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon and left one unexpended effort which might have saved the world.”
So we're all in agreement, right? We're not giving up?
Dr. Michelle Martin is a social worker, policy specialist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Social Work, where she teaches social welfare policy, and researches dynamics related to immigrants, political asylum-seekers, refugees and other displaced populations.