Today is Jane Addams’s 150th birthday. It is a natural moment to honor her. But what should we remember her for? She is not as famous as she once was, although many people know her name. (Or think they do. No, she was not the wife of President John Adams. That was Abigail.)

Here are her most well-known accomplishments: she founded Hull House, one of the first two settlement houses in the United States, thus launching this country’s community center movement; she wrote a memoir, “Twenty Years at Hull House,” that has never been out of print; she was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931; she is often considered a founder of the fields of sociology and social work.

But I propose we remember Jane Addams for some other accomplishments.

For her insight that we can only understand people different from ourselves if we know them socially, as peers, and that, without that understanding, we cannot be wise citizens in a democracy.

Jane Addams was raised in a prosperous family in a town in Northern Illinois, earned a college degree, and read lots of books in her twenties that dealt sympathetically, if somewhat condescendingly, with working class people. By the time she moved into a working class neighborhood in Chicago at age 28, she thought she understood the lives of city workers because she had read so much about them.
To her surprise, she learned that if she wanted to understand the great diversity of people in her immigrant, working class neighborhood, she needed to know them socially, as human beings; she needed firsthand experience.

This is an insight that those of us who learn about the world beyond our “comfort zone” mainly through reading (books, websites), watching (TV and internet) or listening (radio and internet and MP3 recordings) would rather not hear.

Being a moral philosopher, Addams gave some thought to the price we pay if we stay cocooned. She wrote, “We are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences, since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life.” It mattered because, as she explained, that understanding shapes what issues we support politically and what reforms we endorse or oppose.

For her courage in insisting on her right to that ultimate American liberty, free speech.

There are many examples. To give one, she spoke out when a man she knew – a Russian immigrant who believed in the nonviolent kind of anarchism (anarchism in the 1890s had many branches) – was wrongly charged with “co-conspiracy to commit murder.” He was arrested and charged because he had met with a known anarchist of the violent persuasion shortly before that anarchist assassinated President William McKinley. A Chicago lawyer who joined Addams in helping to get the Russian and his family out of jail wrote, “In all this great city, just one person of position and influence … dared stand with me against the popular outcry… [Jane Addams] stood like a stone wall.”

Today, we are as quick as ever to dismiss the controversial views of the independent minded. Perhaps we should think about the integrity it requires to stand one’s ground. Those people who make up their own minds and do not drift along with the winds of popular opinion merit our respect and attention. And we should also listen to our own inner voices. Addams wrote, “If you are different from others, you need to act on that difference, if society is to advance.” Or as Emerson, her intellectual mentor, put it: “Self-trust is the essence of heroism.”

For her determination to figure out what she really thought and act on it.

This seems like a truism. But how often do we talk about one set of values and perform another? And how often do we see others do that too? Jane Addams took her own ideas seriously. She chewed on them, seeking to revise them in the light of what she was learning. It was a steady, arduous process that she insisted was important. She asked, “Are we going to lose ourselves in the old circle of convention… because we fail to correct our theories by our changing experience?”

As these three points illustrate, Addams set high ethical standards for herself. She poured much of the energy she might have spent judging others into self-reform. She did this for her own sake but she was also mindful that there was great power in example. She did not always succeed in these efforts, but I think her lifelong attempts are instructive.

Louise W. Knight is the author of the forthcoming full life biography, "Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (W.W. Norton, September 2010)." For more on the her author visit her website, see www.louisewknight.com. 

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