Jane Addams was born into a large, prosperous family in Cedarville, Illinois in 1860. She graduated from Rockford Seminary but wasn´t able to realizing her ambition to study medicine; her family’s pressed her to marry rather than pursue a career. Instead of further education, she was given the Grand Tour of Europe. After the death of her beloved father and a period of mental depression and poor health, she set off again for Europe where a visit to the newly established Toynbee House in a London slum changed the direction of her life.
In 1889 she and her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in an impoverished section of Chicago, the first major Settlement House in the United States. Her work among the neighborhood people exposed her to the need for legal reform that would improve their lives: factory safety, juvenile justice, working hours for women and children, and the recognition of labor unions. There was little public support for labor unions in the city that had experienced the violent Haymarket Riot of 1886. Many people said that Jane Addams and her associates were stirring up trouble. As a result, financial support for Hull House waned, and she began to write and lecture to raise money. Her well-known autobiography Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) grew out of this necessity.
As World War I approached, Addams directed her abundant energy and organizational skill to the founding of the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women, for which she was expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1919 she became the president of the Women´s International League for Peace and Freedom, a post she held until her death. In America she was also a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with Ida B. Wells.
In 1931, Jane Addams was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Thirty-two years earlier, in a speech entitled Democracy or Militarism, she identified issues that will be familiar to today´s readers: “We must also remember that peace has come to mean a larger thing. It is no longer merely absence of war, but the unfolding of life processes which are making for a common development. Peace is not merely something to hold congresses about … It has come to be a rising tide of moral feeling, which is slowly engulfing all pride of conquest and making war impossible.”