In its purest form, social work has been around almost as long as societies themselves have. Even nomadic tribes of millennia ago had at least rudimentary systems in place for recognizing and addressing problems among certain members or groups within their society. To claim a relatively “recent” (given the above context) contributor such as Jane Addams, great as her contributions were, as the very first social worker is perhaps a bit negligent, but it depends completely on one’s definition of social work.
Did Jane Addams lay the foundation for social work as we know it today? In that light, the answer is a widely agreed upon yes. Was she the first person in history to create a system for promoting social change within a society? In that more general sense, the answer is an equally certain no. To better illuminate this distinction and the immeasurably valuable contributions of Jane Addams’ work, let’s first review her story.
Raised by Philanthropists
Jane Addams was born to a fairly wealthy family in 1860. Thanks to her relatively privileged position as a daughter of rich Quakers from Cedarville, Illinois, she was able to seek out a higher education. Since her parents (father especially) were very passionate about helping others, something they instilled in their children early on, Jane knew she wanted to follow suit. She initially wanted to study medicine, but after her father died, she became disinterested and depressed.
As a way to clear her mind and clarify her path in life, she and a classmate, Ellen Starr, visited Europe. What she saw there helped to define the mission that would lead her to make massive contributions to the world of social work.
Ms. Addams never doubted her drive to help others, thanks to her philanthropically devoted father, but it wasn’t until visiting London’s Toynbee Hall that she finally determined how she would do so. Toynbee Hall was a settlement house in a poor area of London. The visit impacted Addams so much that she began to study settlement houses, poor communities, and the problems of the people served by them. It was at this junction in her life that she decided to help others in America with her own settlement house. This is how Hull House, her landmark project, was born.
Along with her friend, Ellen Starr, Addams established a settlement house in Chicago. They called it Hull House, an homage to the settlement’s original builder, Charles Hull. It would be the first settlement house in the United States. The Hull House charter provides a fitting description of its mission, which was “to provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.” Sound familiar? This is largely why Jane Addams is credited as the mother of modern social work.
As a representative of many disenfranchised (or at least under-served) populations in her area, Addams was a very active participant in many progressive era movements. She didn’t just provide a home, she campaigned for these populations on several occasions. As a vocal woman promoting social change in the late 18th century, Jane Addams lost many of her initial investors and supporters, who dubbed her a dangerous and subversive “communist.” These are the efforts and communities that she supported:
Children: One of Addams’ earliest efforts at the Hull House was to survey the surrounding area and make maps and reports of child labor conditions to use in her argument against the established laws. Like many of her other efforts, the data she provided strengthened those that followed her, such as renowned reformer Julia Lathrop, who furthered the child labor fight.
Women: As an active member of the National American Women Suffrage Association, Addams rallied with her fellow suffragettes to fight for the right to vote. She also supported legislative actions that offered greater protection for women, and rallied a female-majority force against the war effort.
Minorities: Addams was very concerned with resource inequality in minority-heavy areas, and she made sure to include this in her “mapping” and data reporting efforts. She also rallied and protested for the fair treatment of immigrants.
Laborers: Possibly the most evident of Jane Addams’ contributions to social work and her community at large was her fight for fair labor conditions. She worked tirelessly to identify and expose the terrible labor conditions known to blue-collar workers of that era. She even participated in the famed Chicago Haymarket riot of 1886, a public outcry for laborer rights.
Peace: As a public figure committed to nurturing and protecting life, Jane Addams decried the atrocities of war as part of the peace movement that took place during the First World War. She was so passionate and effective in her anti-war campaigning that, just a few years before her death, she received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Given all of these contributions to society, it’s no surprise that Jane Addams is hailed as one of the greatest social workers of all time. She embodied the philosophy of social work before it was an official, professional institution, and that’s why she is so often credited as the first social worker. As we return to that debate, now with greater context, let’s examine Jane Addams’ contributions as evidence for her case as the first social worker.
As mentioned, Jane Addams was not the first person in history to promote social change. She was the first person, however, to professionalize it in the United States, and she is the one most responsible for many of the practice models we still use today. Through her heartfelt advocacy, research and action, she formed a methodology that is still very much embraced by modern social workers. She began the professional institution that is social work by developing the framework that it relies on to this day. Most importantly, this framework was born of a genuine instinct to promote positive change, and not of political or financial incentives. Thanks to Jane Addams, the conversations she focused on are still very much alive.
B.S. Sociology| University of Nebraska at Omaha
A.S. Physical Therapy | Clarkson College
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