Jane Addams: Straight Until Proven Guilty
Today is the 153rd anniversary of Jane Addams’ birth. She dedicated her life to alleviating poverty and promoting peace, most famously at Hull House in Chicago, where she lived and worked to improve the lives of poor people on Chicago’s West side. She also helped found countless organizations that continue that work today, including the ACLU and the NAACP. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Hull House Museum has many resources about her life and work.
The podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class recently featured Jane Addams in a two-part episode. The hosts explained her life and work comprehensively, and the majority of their commentary was well-researched. However, they critiqued the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame for posthumously inducting Addams in 2008, because both hosts felt it was presumptuous of that organization to “claim” Addams as “one of their own” when she had never “come out” during her life. This critique is factually flawed: it ignores Addams’ own words on the subject of her personal relationships, and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of American culture during Addams’ time. However, more insidiously, it reinforces heteronormative understandings of human sexuality that facilitate erasure of queerness and queer people in history.
In the first place, Addams’ history makes it clear that she preferred the social and romantic company of women. Addams lived with two different women during her life: Ellen Starr, with whom she founded Hull House, and Mary Rozet Smith, a Hull House supporter. Her relationship with Smith lasted nearly 35 years. Once, while she was away, Addams wrote to Smith, “You must know, dear, how I long for you all the time, and especially during the last three weeks. There is reason in the habit of married folks keeping together.” I used to write letters like that to someone I called my “roommate” once too, you guys. ”Roommate” was bullshit when I said it, and it’s bullshit to describe Addams and Smith’s relationship. Nobody writes to their “roommate” like that.
It might surprise you to learn that living arrangements like Addams’ with Starr and then with Smith were common until the early 20th Century. Anglo-American social culture in Addams’ day accepted “Boston Marriages“: intimate, exclusive relationships in which two women lived together as “companions.” The Victorian and pre-Victorians belief that women did not have autonomous sexuality or erotic desire meant that even obviously romantic entanglements between women would never threaten a woman’s virginity or ultimate potential for marriage to a man. Whether because they saw it as “practice” for “the real thing,” or whether families were relieved that their old-maid daughters didn’t live alone, people pretty much convinced themselves that monogamous, homoerotic co-habitating women just hadn’t found the right guy.
Not only did people not use the word “lesbian,” lesbian identity itself was unimaginable for people in Addams’ day: women did not experience sexual desire, so sexual relationships between women could not exist. Unsurprisingly, ”coming out” wasn’t a thing when Addams was alive, either; it did not become prevalent in American culture until the 1970s. All of these aspects of the cultural context of Addams’ life make it ludicrous to suggest that Addams could have claimed a queer identity in a way people do now and alleging that modern gay people are wrong for recognizing her queerness is equally ridiculous. When straight people insist on seeing historical figures as heterosexual, it reinforces the idea that heterosexuality is the default state of humanity. Moreover, straight people’s resistance to recognizing queerness in historical figures who did not claim gay identity according to 2013′s standards means that almost no gay people will ever meet their criteria. But, despite straight people’s attempts at erasure, queer people are everywhere in history. One of them was living with her wife at Hull House in the 1890s.