by Marie J. Kuda

Responding to the needs of the influx of immigrants was at the heart of the founding of Hull House, which would become a prototype for settlement houses around the country. Jane Addams (romantically linked for 40 years to Mary Rozet Smith) and her friend Ellen Gates Starr opened their center in 1889 and found themselves at the hub of a social services reform movement.

Female support networks and bonding among women united in a common cause have been extensively studied by feminist scholars in recent years (notably, Blanche Wiesen Cook). By creatively expanding the definition of lesbian to put such relationships in the context of their times, many writers now conclude that Addams and some other women who shared her efforts were lesbian. Certainly the author Edith Hamilton, who was the doyenne of ancient mythology and sister of Dr. Alice Hamilton, who served at Hull House, was in satisfactory long-standing love relationships known to her biographers.

On Dec. 8, 2007, the Chicago History Museum hosted a lecture, play and film on Addams (1860—1935), founder of what has become known as the Chicago School of Social Work. Chicago has previously honored Addams with a hunk of expressway and a lakefront park, the latter dedicated on Women's Equality Day in 1996 with a poem composed and read by laureate Gwendolyn Brooks.

Addams received many honors in her lifetime. In 1931 she became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She had been a pacifist well before World War I. Addams would go on to found the Women's Peace Party, which morphed into the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Addams was deeply concerned with the welfare of women and children in Chicago and with securing legislation for their protection. She was involved in private clubs and public committees agitating for social change. She publicly supported the candidacy of attorney Pearl Hart, long active in juvenile and women's court cases, when Hart ran for associate judge of the Chicago Municipal Court in 1928. Hart would later become a well-known civil rights attorney in the McCarthy era and supporter of gay rights.

Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House together, with much of its early financial support coming from Addams' intimate friend Smith, one of the richest women in America at the time. Mary and Jane traveled together frequently; a letter preserves their demand of a hotel for a double bed to be shared, instead of two singles. Smith maintained a summer home they shared in Bar Harbor, Maine. Addams destroyed most of Smith's letters to her, but one popularly quoted letter exchange between Addams and Smith does indicate their passion. Addams: “I miss you dreadfully and am yours 'til death.” Smith: “You can never know what it is to me to have had you and to have you. ... I feel quite a rush of emotion when I think of you.”

Their “loving partnership” ended with Smith's death in 1933. Addams died in 1935, just days after attending a celebratory dinner hosted by another woman-loving woman, the future first lady and U.N. delegate Eleanor Roosevelt.

Copyright 2008 by Marie J. Kuda. This essay is in part compiled from the writings of Marie J. Kuda for Outlines and Windy City Times newspapers.

From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.

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