Thursday, 6 September 2012

Woman of Peace

The International Day of Peace logo and portrait of Jane Addams
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Jane Addams in 1860. In 1931 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for “her social reform work” and “leading the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom”. Later this month the annual International Day of Peace takes place. Not only that, but it’s the 40th anniversary of the first one in 1982. It was instituted by the UN General Assembly, originally to be held on the third Tuesday in September but since 2002 has been fixed on 21st September.

Jane Addams was elected President of the Women’s Peace Party, the original American group who formed the International League of Peace and Freedom, on its foundation in 1915.

Jane was an extremely popular public figure in America due to her work in social welfare and education. Her main establishment at Hull House in Chicago helped many poor and immigrant families, and it helped Jane to have the influence to lobby for protective legislation for women and children.

She opened a day-care centre at Hull House for the children of working mothers and provided playgrounds, nurseries, a library, a summer school for women, and worked with prostitutes and drug users. Hull House became the most famous social welfare establishment in America by 1914.

Despite this Jane’s personal popularity took a nosedive because of her strong pacifism. She apposed America’s involvement in World War One and, like other pacifists, was denounced as a traitor. Undaunted Jane led members of the Women’s Peace Party to The Hague in 1915 for an International Congress of Women. With a smaller group of women she toured the capitals of all the European warring nations, risking attack from all sides of the conflict, urging all the leaders to seek peace.

After the war Jane’s health prevented her from continuing much of the active work of the peace movement, though she remained as president of the Women’s Peace Party which formed the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom in 1921. Jane’s popularity began to return in the 1920s, and she received the Nobel Peace Prize  in 1931.

In recent years the question of Jane Addams’s sexuality has been addressed by Hull House Museum, the site of Jane’s first social welfare centre. For many years scholars have been acknowledging Jane’s close relationship with fellow reformer Mary Rozet Smith, and many of them have been referring to it as a lesbian relationship. In 2007 the museum’s curator, Lisa Lee, decided to run a project in which visitors were asked to decide on the wording of a caption beneath a portrait of Mary Rozet Smith in the museum referring to this relationship.

The project raised a few eyebrows in more stuffier academic circles, but it would be remiss of historians not to consider the possibility that the highly successful close working relationship between Jane and Mary was not influenced by a romantic connection. Jane and Mary spent 30 years together, travelling together, and working together. In the words of Victoria Bissell Brown, author of “The Education of Jane Addams”, Jane couldn’t have done much without Mary. Mary was her emotional support, Victoria states, and Jane “needed a wife – and she had a great wife” in Mary Rozet Smith.

So what did the visitors to the museum suggest for the caption on Mary’s portrait? From a choice of “companion”, “partner” or “life partner”, “partner” was the preferred term. The caption goes on to mention the “deep emotional attachment and affection” Jane and Mary had for each other.

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