In the early 20th century, Jane Addams was among the most famous women in America. The Chicagoan worked, lived and loved on Halsted Street in the Hull-House settlement she co-founded with Ellen Gates Starr. Her career was one of struggle and triumph as she organized, fought for social services on behalf of immigrants, children, women and other disenfranchised groups. At one point the FBI considered her “the most dangerous woman in America.” In 1931 she became the first American woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize. Addams passed away in 1935.
The only two remaining buildings of Addams’s once 13-building Hull-House settlement are easy to miss on the vast campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, which overtook the area. And recent UIC graduate Adam Peterson used to pass by them when he was a student on his way to an American feminist history class. It was in this class that he learned about Jane Addams, but he says the class didn’t touch on her private life.
“We did touch on her background as a white, middle class, well-educated woman who just didn’t want to be married and be a housewife,” Adam says. “But then there were just these ambiguities that were said in passing [about her sexuality], but not fully discussed.”
This glossing-over prompted him to ask us this carefully worded question:
Could Jane Addams be considered a lesbian with the current use of that terminology?
If you’re looking for a quick “Yes, she was” or “No, she was not” answer, you’re out of luck. People most involved in Jane Addams’ history and legacy showed me and Adam that it’s worth asking about the lesbian label, but it can be a problem. And, if you do apply it, it’s best not to do it so quickly.
The brunette in a yellow confection dress
Let’s start with an art history mystery. In 2006, a lifetime after Jane Addams passed away, Lisa Yun Lee took up the position of Director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. One day she came across a fetching painting of a brunette in the museum's back offices.
Lee says the painting was initially described to her as being a great example of the work of Alice Kellogg Tyler, an accomplished painter who taught at the Art Institute of Chicago. She also taught at Jane Addams’ Hull-House settlement.
But, Lee says, “As soon as I started asking ‘Who is that person in the painting,’ there were hushed tones and confusion. And people said, ‘Well, some people say that it’s Jane Addams’ partner.’ Other people say it’s her biggest business supporter. Other people said, ‘Well, of course. It’s her lesbian lover.’”
The more Lee prodded, the more she realized the depth of debate surrounding the woman in the painting and her relationship with Addams. Lee says Hull-House started to dig through the historical record and “ask different kinds of questions.” At this point the staff realized this woman was indeed Jane Addams’ chosen partner in life.
Mary and Jane
This woman was Mary Rozet Smith. Lee says until people debated the painting, Smith had pretty much been written out of the historical record. But as more surfaced about her relationship with Jane Addams, Smith’s fuzzy place in the Hull-House settlement’s history became clearer.
Smith came from a wealthy Chicago family that made a fortune through manufacturing. She was drawn to the work of the Hull-House settlement, taking on several roles: philanthropist, benefactor (some might say a sugar mamma), and Jane Addams’ lifelong companion.
Addams sums up an early encounter with Smith in this unfinished poem dating from 1895:
Scholarship suggests Smith and Addams’ lives became deeply entwined. Over 40 years they wrote letters and love poems to one another. Addams requested that most of her letters be burned upon her death; she had felt they were too intimate. (Note: Burning letters was not uncommon at the time.)
The pair also vacationed together and traveled around the world, sometimes calling ahead to request a double bed, which was not unusual for women friends to do. Addams had Smith listed as an emergency contact on her passport. They also made major financial decisions, such as co-owning a home in Maine. At one point they considered adopting a child together.
As for that large painting of Smith in the yellow dress? Addams sometimes traveled with it — wrapping it up and schlepping it with her across country.
Historians say that when Rozet Smith passed away in 1934 (a year before Addams), Jane received condolences from far and wide, not unlike a widow in heterosexual relationship.
But what does this all mean? Does this kind of evidence equate to proof that the pair were lesbians?
Women who love women
What does the word lesbian mean? Well, if you use an expansive definition that does not by necessity have to include sex, then many people agree that, yes, Addams and Smith were lesbians. (After all, even married couples can have little or no sex, yet their heterosexuality is not called into question.)
Several sources tell me the most important thing to consider is what, exactly, having a relationship like this meant in Jane Addams’ time.
One good person to ask is John D’Emilio, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois. And conveniently, his office is a few short blocks from the Hull-House museum.
He defines a lesbian as “a woman who turns to other women for the love, and emotional support and intimacy that most human beings like to have in their personal lives.”
With this definition in hand D’Emilio feels comfortable assigning the lesbian label to Addams and Smith, even though he says it’s impossible to know whether Smith and Addams had sexual contact. And even if we were to find out, he says, he wouldn’t change where he lands on the use of "lesbian.”
But how does D’Emilio take those letters that were burned and deemed “too intimate” by Jane Addams? Could those have contained “smoking gun” evidence for those bent on equating sexual contact with the term lesbian?
“They just wouldn’t have been writing about that,” he says. “There’s just no way. This is not the world of Hugh Hefner and Playboy. So that’s not what they were writing about. But what they were writing about was the open expression of how much the other person meant and how much I need you!”
Even though D’Emilio is confident in saying Jane Addams was a lesbian, he can understand why others might not feel comfortable using the term. And, he says, he prefers using the term “woman-loving woman.”
A decoder ring for history
Jennifer Brier is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at UIC. Her take on the question?
“I would say no,” she says. “As a historian I would say no. As a lesbian who exists under the current definition — sometimes I’d like to say yes. But in the end, I say no.”
She says “lesbian” was a term used in Addams’ time, but Brier says Addams wouldn’t have used it to describe herself and that “it wasn’t a phrase that had meaning for her.”
Brier argues this point matters. She says it’s ahistorical to assign the term to Addams retroactively, and that can be dangerous; shorthand terminology can bypass context and you can lose the richness and diversity of human behavior. We can also mistakenly believe that we understand what being a lesbian meant at the time. And Addams’ era indeed had very different relationship cultures.
“You need a decoder ring,” she says. “And the decoder ring has to be adjusted to each historical period to actually function. It has to be tuned to the right frequency to understand what’s happening at a particular moment in time.”
Since sex is so ingrained in our current culture’s notions of what being a lesbian entails, it’s worth noting that this was not the case in Jane Addams' time; romantic relationships did not necessarily entail sex. On the question of whether Addams may have even been celibate, several experts tell me the general feeling is: 'Maybe, but it's impossible to know.'
What historians do know is during the Victorian era platonic love was in the air. It described a meeting of souls, not necessarily bodies, and was viewed as a pure kind of love that same-sex couples could enjoy. Men could share a Platonic love with men, and women with women. The intimacy in these relationships could be as deep as any hetersexual relationship, but they were not framed in terms of sex.
Lisa Junkin, the interim director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, says that Addams’ early writing expresses belief in platonic love and “wanting to channel sexual impulses, believing that people should channel them essentially toward social justice — doing good in the world.”
This idea of diverting sexual energy to more high-minded pursuits was present for men and women, and in the era’s lexicon, too. John D’Emilio says instead of using the phrase “to come” for male ejaculation, the phrase used at the time was “to spend.”
As D’Emilio tells me about this facet of history, he breaks into a mock conversation that may have actually taken place in the Victorian era: “Did you spend your seed? Well, I sure hope not because we’re a people who believe in saving!”
D’Emilio says the ethic among the middle class at the time was to be prudent and industrious, and that too much sex was the opposite of that. Sex exhausts your resources.
Addams and Smith referred to their relationship as a marriage in some writings, and this era enjoyed another kind of sanctioned love that came with a term: Boston marriages. D’Emilio characterizes Boston marriages as deep relationships and commitments between two middle-class, college educated women.
Etymologically speaking, he says, the word “Boston” refers to the preponderance of women’s colleges in Boston, while "marriage” is used because many of these women never married and lived a lifetime with another woman.
“Think about it this way,” D’Emilio says. “This is a generation in which sex is not out there in the public. Sex is supposed to be quiet and private and behind closed doors. And so Boston marriage becomes a very neutral and acceptable way of describing something, that if described in other terms might be scandalous.”
It can be argued that Boston marriages could be considered a corollary of lesbian relationships today, but it’s not clear whether sex was included in these setups.
D’Emilio says “Boston marriage” was a term that acknowledged a relationship and intimacy “without getting into the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about.” Ironically, D’Emilio says in part because there were taboos against openly discussing sex, there was a kind of flexibility in what happened behind closed doors; it just wouldn’t end up in polite conversation.
Professor Jennifer Brier adds it’s important to remember Jane Addams was part of a subset of women who were of the class and means to be able to pioneer new ways to be a woman. There weren’t many outlets for women at the time to be in non-traditional roles (especially leadership roles). The same goes for becoming trailblazers who open up new opportunities and jobs for women, immigrants, adolescents and new ways of existing in society — the basic work of Addams and Smith at Hull-House.
“She [Addams] didn’t rely on patriarchy in the way we think of today,” Brier says. “She didn’t rely on men for her economic or emotional support. She made her life with women at the Hull-House.”
And Addams was not the only woman at the Hull-House to buck gender norms. Other examples include Dr. Cornelia de Bey, who was a homeopathic doctor affiliated with the settlement and who lived with a woman and dressed in tailored, masculine garb. Hull-House co-founder Ellen Gates Starr was also Addams’s partner at one time.
An alternative label
These questions around both labeling Jane Addams and the painting of Mary Rozet Smith never left former JAHHM director Lisa Lee’s mind. Instead, she felt the museum needed to represent the complex information around the painting and the era. And it wouldn’t do to simply call Addams a lesbian.
So she and staff created an “alternative labeling project” to foster dialogue around the painting labels. The museum staff offered three labels (“tombstones” in museum lingo) to sum up the painting of Mary Rozet Smith and invited visitors to weigh in. They were:
Interim director for the JAHHM Lisa Junkin was on staff for the alternative labeling project. She says they received many responses to the labels, ranging from hate mail to fan mail, and everything in between.
“Occasionally there’s also a sense of fear or anger that we’d be telling that story, especially around young people,” Junkin says. “There have been teachers who have cut off the educators from telling the story of the relationship or who have covered over the label when students walk by — even though both the educators and the label don’t use the term lesbian with younger groups.”
Beyond the celebration and hatred for bringing Addams’ sexuality into history, the public provided useful suggestions, too. One person pointed out that none of the labels gave information about Mary Rozet Smith beyond her relationship to Jane Addams.
Which, from Junkin’s vantage, was a problem.
“For us as feminist historians, as a feminist site, that’s really problematic, right?” Junkin says. “We essentially gave her the ‘wife treatment,’ which should be avoided.”
Here’s the label the museum settled on:
But that once-mysterious painting of Mary Rozet Smith? It now hangs prominently in the former bedroom of Addams.
Junkin says “the goal was to show instead of tell, and let the audience come up with their own understanding based on the evidence we can provide.”
A new look at old sex
Junkin says after the alternative labeling project of Mary Rozet Smith, the JAHHM has made conversation about sexuality more prominent. It’s also created new programming, including a four-year film series around the sex positive movement and contemporary issues of sexuality. It also built new displays mention Hull-House’s role in progressive sex education. (Junkin says one of Chicago’s first birth control centers was at the Hull-House). She adds that staff have made their displays and tours more inclusive.
In the first week of September, the museum debuts a new tour that directly places the Hull-House in queer history. The working title: the “Gender and Sexuality Tour.”
The tour’s mastermind, Christian Alfaro, is a UIC student and JAHHM educator. Appropriately enough, he learned about Jane Addams’s non-conformity by taking a tour led by Lisa Junkin, who talked about the painting of Mary Rozet Smith.
“Representation like this is important,” Alfaro says. “It actually helped with my own self-identity.” The sentiment prompted him to learn more about Addams and ultimately start the tour Hull-House residents’ challenge to gender conformity.
Closing the circle
I phone Adam Peterson, the curious fellow who prompted this conceptual odyssey in the first place, to let him know whom I’d talked to and how they came down on Addams and the use of the “L word.”
“Well it sounds like this is opening a whole can of worms,” he says. (I agree)
But he finds it all fascinating, he says, and in the end more interesting than a simple yes or no.
It’s reminiscent of what I hear from Lena Reynolds, a JAHHM educator.
Reynolds says when she gives tours she doesn’t use the term lesbian per se, but she does say that modern-day members of the LGBT community embrace Addams as one of their own.
“She’s part of this bigger movement even if it was a time before the movement existed,” she says. “Whether or not we want to put the word on it … that she was fighting for equality and acceptance and human rights is undeniable. And that she valued love is also undeniable.”
Correction: This article initially misstated details concerning Jane Addams' Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first American woman to receive that honor.