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A Useful Woman : The Early Life of Jane Addams Hardcover – July 7, 1999
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
The story of settlement house pioneer Jane Addams's early life traces a trajectory that has become almost a feminist cliché. The frustrated Victorian spinster, plagued by mysterious physical ailments, finds a socially useful outlet for her intelligence and energy and her illnesses vanish--she becomes the picture of health and contentment. Familiar though it is in outline, the particulars of Addams's personal history are fascinating, especially as related in veteran biographer Gioia Diliberto's engaging, accessible style. Young Jane comes to life as a powerful personality notable for her "cool intellect." As a schoolgirl she was already convinced that "her life would not be ordinary." The author does a subtle job of assessing the psychological roots of Addams's empathy with the poor and commitment to social justice without scanting the integrity of her ethical convictions. And Diliberto's familiarity with contemporary scholarship shows in her lucid summary of the trends in religious and philanthropic beliefs that led Addams to found Hull-House in 1889 to help poor people better themselves; yet she wears her learning lightly in a lively text. The main narrative closes in 1899, with Hull-House thriving and 39-year-old Jane happily involved in a relationship with Mary Rozet Smith that endured until Smith's death in 1934. (Addams survived her by only a year.) This is a model of popular, undogmatic feminist biography. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
From this account of her first 39 years, it would appear that pioneering social reformer Jane Addams might have as easily become a chronic invalid as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which she received in 1931. Diliberto, author of previous biographies of Hadley Hemingway and of debutante Brenda Frazer, situates Addams's dedication to the poor firmly within the context of late-Victorian virtuous womanhood. Drawing upon previously untapped personal papers, Diliberto reveals the enormous toll exacted on Addams by her attempt to reconcile the conflicting claims of her own ambitions and her duty, as she saw it, to her family. Only when she founded the Hull House Settlement to serve Chicago's inner-city immigrants, an enterprise that was both socially useful and under her own control, did she gain a measure of health. She was sustained as well by her deep emotional attachments to other women, especially Mary Rozet Smith, with whom Addams lived in what she called a "marriage" for more than 30 years. While acknowledging the implicit sexual content of Addams's friendships with women and documenting the passionate language of her correspondence with Smith, Diliberto is unable to determine if these feelings ever found overt sexual expression, though she is inclined to doubt it. Diliberto makes more of Addams's psychological difficulties than of the objective obstacles she overcame and does not quite account for her extraordinary success. Nevertheless, this accessible book holds revealing insights for both general readers and specialists. (July)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The book is well-written and accessible, and suffers only rarely from too much trivial detail. Diliberto provides remarkable insight into this remarkable woman. If you are at all interested in social causes and the people behind them, read this biography. It is truly inspiring to read of how one woman changed the course of many lives.