Welcome, Miss Addams, to Your History

[20 January 2009]

By Michael Abernethy

Jane Addams was being admitted to the hospital the day she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, so she was unable to attend the ceremony honoring her. Seventy-seven years later, and 73 years after her death, Addams has received another honor: induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. However, despite being a Nobel laureate, Addams’ induction has met with some resistance.

There is no doubt that Addams’ accomplishments are worthy of honors. Often referred to as the Mother of Modern Social Work, Addams took the considerable privilege of her upper-class status and used it to create a new system of assistance for the poor, hungry, and homeless. Her Hull House had a revolutionary philosophy for the turn of the last century; it held that the poor were victims of an unfair social structure, not the creators of their own fate. In addition to offering food, clothing, medical care, and legal assistance, the home provided vocational training, fine arts classes, free day care, and English language lessons for foreigners.

Yet, Addams’ contributions didn’t extend to Hull House alone. In addition to her work there, Addams helped establish the Immigrants’ Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, a Juvenile Psychopathic Clinic, and the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, as well as serving as president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (“About Jane Addams”, Visiting Hull House Musuem).

When the United States began debate on entering WWI, Addams was a vocal opponent, alienating many of her supporters. Yet she remained steadfast in her opposition, helping to found and serving as President of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In recognizing Addams’ considerable accomplishments, the Nobel Committee noted, “She is not one to talk much, but her quiet, greathearted personality inspires confidence and creates an atmosphere of goodwill which instinctively brings out the best in everyone…the fact that she took a stand for the ideal of peace was of special significance; since millions of men and women looked up to her, she could give a new strength to that ideal among the American people.” (Halvdan Koht, 10 December 1931,
“Nobel Presentation”).

With a resume such as Addams’, it’s difficult to imagine that protests could accompany her nomination to the Hall of Fame. However, the controversy doesn’t address her work, but her sexual orientation. That Addams was a lesbian is a matter of speculation, as Addams wasn’t gracious enough to leave an entry in her diaries that said “I’m a big ole lesbian.” The assumptions regarding Addams’ sexual preference come from her long-term relationships with two women: Ellen Starr and Mary Rozet Smith. Addams had intense relationships with both women (not at the same time, though), although how intense is unclear.

Addams’ letters give an indication, though. In 1902, Addams wrote to Smith, “You must know, dear, how I long for you all the time…There is reason in the habit of married folk keeping together.” Within the next few years, the two women bought a home together, after which they were virtually inseparable. When Addams had to travel on business, she and Smith wrote daily. A 1914 letter from Addams finds her confessing her longing: “Dearest, I had a wave of homesickness for you…I wanted you very much.” (qtd. in Faderman, Lillian. To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America - A History, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999.)

The conjecture regarding Addams’ orientation is a subject that has been considered by such scholars as DePaul University’s Beth Kelley, who has concluded that perceptions of Addams were shaped by the era’s “notion of female sexlessness and the pathologization of homosexuality” (qtd. by Simonette, Matt. http://www.chicagofreepress.com/node/1819 Chicago Free Press, 14 May, 2008.).

Faderman explains this notion in her exceptional article, “Who Hid Lesbian History?”. Here she argues that through the 1970s, biographers and historians ignored, rewrote, and destroyed evidence of lesbian relationships. One of the most common methods of revising history was to explain lesbian longings as heterosexually based.

One such example Faderman cites is the case of poet and feminist Lady Mary Montagu, whose letters express a loving relationship with Anne Wortley: “I am entirely yours, and wishing nothing more than it may be some time or other in my power to convince you there is nobody dearer…”. Yet, Montagu’s biographer, writing in the staid 1920s, concluded that the letters were intended to be messages for Wortley’s brother, whom the biographer decided was the true object of Montagu’s affections, although no evidence beyond the letters supports this conclusion (The New Lesbian Studies, Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A. H. McNaron, eds. New York: The Feminist Press, 1996).

With this type of illogical reasoning being committed regularly by historians, it’s easy to understand why the record of lesbian relationships has been so sketchy. Yet, these relationships hold important lessons regarding the current struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Today, Jane Addams’ relationship with Mary Smith is considered a “Boston marriage”, one of innumerable such “marriages” that existed in the late 1800s and throughout the 20th century.

In To Believe in Women, Faderman defines Boston marriages as “committed relationships between two women who, having gone to college and then found decent-paying jobs, could set up a house together rather than marry men out of economic need.” (p. 6). (A variation of these relationships was the “Wellesley marriage”, unions between two instructors at the all-women’s college.) How many such marriages existed will never be known, and the true nature of some relationships labeled as Boston marriages will also remain a mystery. Countless heterosexual women have established non-sexual yet passionate relationships with other women, so the establishment of a shared household is not necessarily an indication of lesbianism.

Jane with Mary Rozet Smith, ca. 1896

Jane with Mary Rozet Smith, ca. 1896

For instance, the relationship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok has often been described as a Boston marriage, despite the fact that Eleanor was still married to President Roosevelt for much of her relationship with Hickok. In fact, Hickok resided in the White House with the Roosevelts beginning in 1941. Letters between the two ladies make it clear that a deep love existed, but it is unclear whether the relationship was sexual or romantic in nature.

Still other Boston marriages are easier to define as romantic partnerships, most notably the relationship between writers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, documented in director Jill Godmilow’s 1987 Waiting for the Moon. Henry James’ The Bostonians purportedly based the bond between the novel’s two lead female characters on the relationship between his sister Alice James and Katherine Peabody. Other well-known social figures of the early 20th century are known to have had Boston marriages, including writers Sarah Orne Jewett, Amy Lowell, and Katherine Lee Bates, labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt.

Boston marriages still exist today, although women in same-sex relationships are more likely to self-identify as lesbian and avoid euphemistic labels. Perhaps the last public figure to participate in a Boston marriage is the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who never discussed her sexuality publically, but lived with partner Nancy Earl for over 20 years, until Jordan’s death in 1996.

The Boston and Wellesley marriages of yesteryear accomplished more than allowing female partners to set up homes together. They allowed these women to flourish by abandoning society’s expectations of female subservience. Addams’ ability to create a community of women strengthened her resolve and gave her the courage to prevail when faced with the obstacles of a patriarchal society. Similarly, the poetry of Lowell and Jewett would have suffered had the women been forced into the docile role of housewife. Faderman illustrates the point by noting that the only married female instructor at Wellesley in the late 19th century failed to obtain tenure; her household duties prevented her from excelling in her profession and she eventually left the university.

More than permitting these women to prosper and laying the groundwork for a feminist movement, Boston marriages provided lessons for today’s debate over gay marriage. Women lived together in same-sex relationships viewed by large segments of society as “marriages”, yet “traditional” marriages didn’t cease to exist. Heterosexuals still sought relationships with other heterosexuals, and the presence of lesbian couples didn’t corrupt the nation’s youth, exacerbate the country’s moral decline, or weaken our standing in the world.

Today’s gay and lesbian couples may live more openly than their predecessors, but the result is the same. The presence of gay or lesbian couples in a neighborhood has never been documented to have any effect on heterosexual relationships or the overall quality of life.

Whether or not Addams and Smith (or Addams and Starr) had a sexual union is irrelevant. That Addams chose to tie her future happiness to the well-being of another woman sent a message to society - women (and men) blossom when allowed to persue the relationship of their own choosing, even if it fails to please certain segments of society. Lesbian or not, Addams belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/69169-welcome-miss-addams-to-your-history/