Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jane Addams and Social Distinction

Reading the excerpt from Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House, I could hear her voice coming through very clearly. She seems like a very non-nonsense kind of lady – practical and realistic more than idealistic, though ofcourse she had to be some kind of visionary to build Hull House in Chicago. I was surprised how clearly she spoke about class distinctions and how she differentiated class and finances. She writes about a British mother and daughter who were poor, but educated and had social ambition beyond their current circumstance and how Hull House was a refuge for them. Addams is aware of the ignorance that leads visitors to mistake this young woman for a volunteer instead of a client, while also being conscious of how easily even she could form assumptions about Hull House’s clients and their circumstances, which was why she would bring a client with her when she addressed an audience about the work she was doing.
I was impressed by how many of her observations are timeless, especially about the movement of new groups to urban areas and the social dynamics at play in such neighborhoods. How specific group distinctions are adopted by children and play out throughout our lives, whether they are based on how someone eats or dresses or speaks, we are always looking for those “like us” or “not like us”.

Addams makes clear distinctions between the members of the communities she served: the new arrivals, “densely ignorant of civic duties,” the families who have been there for awhile and are moving out as quickly as they can afford to, the formerly wealthy who have “fallen”, through no fault of their own. I suppose I found this worth noting in that she seems to struggle with her own judgments, realizing that she is an outsider who is unaware of many of the aspects of neighborhood life, but also that Hull House drew folks from so many disparate circumstances that she could not help but draw some distinctions, and relate these to the reader.

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