Jane Addams on Cultural Feminism

Addams was, and remains, one of the most articulate and sophisticatedtheorists of cultural feminism. Her major intellectual resource,especially during the 1890s, was Otis Tufton Mason's Woman'sShare in Primitive Culture. [7] Addams used Mason'sbook in a course she taught through the University of ChicagoExtension Division. [8] Therefore, a brief summary of his ideasis in order.

This feminist text is a radical statement on the role of womenin the formation of culture and civilization. Mason attributedthe development of many, if not all, the major innovations inart, language, religion, and industry to women. He documentedthat, in general, it was women who housed, fed, and clothed thespecies in early societies. Mason stressed the uniqueness of women'sabilities and nature, even in the areas of public governance andspeech: "Nothing is more natural than that the author ofparental government, the founder of tribal kinship, the organizerof industrialism, should have much to say about that form of housekeepingcalled public economy." [9] Clearly. many of Addams' ideasare traceable to this influential book which not only stressedthe significance of women, but even their superiority to men.Mason's concluding paragraph amply conveyed his view:

It is not here avowed that women may not pursue any path in lifethey choose, that they have no right to turn aside from old highwaysto wander in unbeaten tracks. But before it is decided to do thatthere in no harm in looking backward over the honorable achievementsof the sex. All this is stored capital, accumulated experienceand energy. If all mankind to come should be better born and nurtured,better instructed in morals and conduct at the start, better clothedand fed and housed all their lives, better married and encompassedand refined, the old ratios of progress would be doubled. Allthis beneficent labour is the birthright of women, and much ofit of women alone. Past glory therein is secure, and it only remainsto be seen how far the future will add to its lustre in the preservationof holy ideals. [10]

This interpretation of women's place in early society contrastsmarkedly with most interpretations of "primitive" societies.Instead, such cultures and social worlds are often seen as "barbaric,""naturally" dominated by men, and strongly lacking inthe benefits of "contemporary civilization." Such apatriarchal view was supported originally by W.I. Thomas, whoexamined the sexual division of labor in early societies as afunction of "katabolic and anabolic energies" for malesand females respectively. His interpretation of the male dominanceof public life and activities based on this quasi-Darwinist positionsoon ended, however, and his later formulations of women's rolein society were much more egalitarian. [11]

As scholars studying early societies, it is assumed here thatThomas was more influenced by Addams' cultural feminism than shewas influenced by his ideas about sexual energies. Although Addamsdid believe in the existence of a "maternal instinct,"this biological state was a sex-linked strength of women thatwas denied its full expression in patriarchal society. In hisearly writing Thomas justified the restriction of women's participationin society and their limitation to the "women's sphere."At this time, Addams valued the female world and wanted it tobe extended throughout society. This does not imply. however,that his influence on her work was negligible. On the contrary,when the corpora of Addams and Thomas are compared, striking similaritiesemerge.

The study of women was central to both, and the specific concernsof the young delinquent, the immigrant, and the prostitute werecommon threads. Emphasis on the social origin of behavior andthe significance of social meaning and interaction permeate bothsets of writings. Both authors were more conservative in theirearlier writings than in their later ones. Addams was more religiousand elitist in her early years than in subsequent ones, and Thomaswas originally more sexist. Both studied "primitive"societies and ultimately came to believe than women were increasinglyoppressed as "civilization" spread. "The city"was viewed as the locale for changing social expectations, andthe cost of such social dislocation was considered in depth byboth.

With the frequent visits of Thomas to Hull-House, their long friendship,his activities in support of women's suffrage and rights of expression,it is clear that a deep intellectual and collegial bond existedthat was reflected in both of their work on women. [12] It ispossible that Addams was partially responsible for Thomas' broadeningview of the role of women in society and his movement away fromthe then popular Doctrine of the Separate Spheres. Similarly,it is probable that Thomas aided in Addams' broadening perspectiveon social meaning and interaction as a basis for society ratherthan her earlier, more moralistic stance.

Despite these significant areas of overlapping interests and thought,there were important distinctions in their work. Addams was morepolitically active, more concerned with the plight of the poorand working class, and more involved in applied sociology thanThomas was. [13] On his part, he was clearly more scholarly,more influential in the academic world of sociology, and moresupportive of a single standard for the sexes based primarilyon the male model of society and social action. Thomas was alsomore supportive of women's testing of moral limits and standardsthan Addams. His view of the city and social disorganization helda key to interpreting city life as potentially exciting preciselybecause it was an adventure, albeit often an illegal or harrowingone. Addams, in turn, saw the underside of this glamour more poignantlyand with more opprobrium. City life was far from an adventurefor impoverished families in poor housing, with limited money,bad health, and underpaid employment. Addams emphasized the problemsof the city and the dislocation of minorities: the poor, the aged,the immigrant, the young, and women.

Addams was a public leader because she acted on her vision ofa new world, while Thomas was an intellectual leader because hesystematically described his vision of the present. Together,they formed an important intellectual vision with a common baseand a slightly different focus.

Another intellectual stream feeding her cultural feminism wasradical feminism. In particular, she was strongly influenced byher life-long friendship with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, anotherearly feminist theoretician and sociologist. [14] Gilman's writingswere more materialist and militant than Addams', but they shareda deep interest in women's culture and emancipation.

One of the first indications of this friendship was Gilman's moveto Hull-House in July of 1895. She left San Francisco amid muchfanfare, for even at this time she was a noted figure. One newspaperclaimed that she was to be Addams' "guest and first assistant."[15] She stayed less than a year, perhaps because of her failureto be an important leader within the group, but during that timeshe was an active participant at the settlement.

In October, Gilman offered a series of six weekly lectures. Shediscussed the labor movement, the advancement of women, childhood,social organization, the "body of humanity," and socialethics. [16] The following March she joined Addams, Kelley, McDowell,Vincent, and Small in a public protest against Chicago sweat shops.[17] Shortly after this, however, Gilman moved out of Hull-Houseand on to other projects. Her ties with Addams and the other Hull-Housefigures were never severed, however.

Gilman and Addams joined forces on at least two other occasions.They both worked on The Women's Journal, a feministmagazine advocating women's emancipation. This journal was notablein being one of the few women's publications that addressed workingwomen's issues. [18] In 1915 [19] Gilman and Addams also participatedin the beginning of the women's peace movement.

In addition to these feminist activities, they were also intellectualcolleagues. In 1898, Gilman's book Women and Economics was published and enthusiastically read by Addams and her femalecolleagues. Florence Kelley wrote Gilman that " 'Ms. A.'has carried off one copy to Rockford [Addams' hometown], and givenher other one to Mary Smith, so with our wonted frugality, theresidents are waiting in rows for her to come back with it."[20] Kelley was able to "have a shot at it on our trip toWashington . . . and read it through on the way down and again,critically, on the way back." [21] Both Kelley and Gilmanwere socialists, and this materialistic interpretation of women'sperspective was clearly known by Addams. Thus, the residents ofHull-House, including Addams, were not demurely reading "proper"or "saintly" literature, but were interested in radicalchanges in the structure of society, including feminist alterationsin women's power and status.

Repeatedly, Addams advanced the argument that women were morehumanitarian, caring, and "down to earth" than men.By restricting women's freedom to the home, the larger societywas corrupt and unjust. Everyday life functioned poorly becauseit was based on male values and ethics. This cultural feminismpermeated the settlement movement, and provided a system of valuesfor organizing life in these communal homes.

Cultural feminism was an underlying theme in all of Addams' writings.In addition she frequently used women as the source of her ideasand topics of analysis. She wanted to broaden the scope of women'sactivities, therefore altering the basic structure of values andrelations throughout society. In addition to this generalizedapproach, Addams specifically studied prostitutes, women in themarketplace, especially working-class women, and pacifism. Eachof these areas of study is examined below.


7. Otis Tufton Mason, Women's Share in Primitive Culture (New York: D. Appleton. 1918, c. 1894).

8. "A Syllabus of a Course of Twelve Lectures, Democracyand Social Ethics by Jane Addams, A.B." (n.p., n.d.),SCPC. Cited by John C. Farrell, Beloved Lady (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins Press. 1967), p. 83, n. 5. Since Addams wrote atext by the same name (New York: Macmillan. 1902), Mason's ideasprobably influenced her in writing this book.

9. Mason, Women's Share in Primitive Culture, p. 240.

10. Ibid., p. 286.

11. See W.I. Thomas, Sex and Society (Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press. 1907). Ch. 1 is based on Thomas' thesis, "OrganicDifference in the Sexes," pp. 3-55. See also the discussionsin this volume in chs. 5 and 8.

12. Thomas and his relationship to Addams is documented in chs.5 and 8. His work in social reform and specific causes in Chicagoalso provided for a complementary division of labor between theapplied and theoretical sociologist.

13. It is important to remember that Thomas' work on the topicof women was too political, as were his ideas on sexuality, forthe academic community. The limits of faculty activism, documentedin ch. 7, were so constraining that even the more modified politicsof Thomas were too much for the business elite that dominatedthe university.

14. Gilman was closely associated with the sociologist LesterWard, published in The American Journal of Sociology,and spoke at the American Sociological Society. A thorough analysisof her sociological thought has yet to be done. See a brief analysisof Gilmans's sociology by Carolyn Sachs, Sally Ward Maggard, andS. Randi Randolph, "Sexuality, the Home and Class,"in Midwest Feminist Papers 2 (1981):31-44.

15. "Gone to Live at Hull-House," San Francisco Chronicle 25 (July 1895):15, Scrapbook 3, 1895-97, SCPC.

16. Ibid., schedule of lectures, p. 18 (the pages are not chronologicallycompiled).

17. Ibid., "Attack the Sweat Shop," 18 March 1896, p.68; "To Abolish Sweat Shops." n.d., p. 69.

18. The affiliation of the Woman's Journal is noted ineach issue.

19. Davis, American Heroine, p. 216.

20. Florence Kelley to Charlotte Gilman, 28 July 1898, GilmanPapers, 177; 138, one of 2 microfilms, Schlesinger Library.

21. Ibid.

From Mary Jo Deegan, Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918.New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Books, 1986, pp. 226-230.

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