louise knight(WOMENSENEWS)–In July 1933, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler had recently been appointed chancellor of Germany and the possibility of war hung over Europe. People on both sides of the Atlantic were worried about rampant nationalism, unemployment and starvation and wondering why they found themselves in such a troubling and dangerous situation.

Jane Addams, who had become the second woman and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years before, gave a speech in which she addressed these issues, but also took up what she thought was an underlying problem–mental conformity.

At 72, Addams was willing to be blunt. She told her audience, hundreds of women attending an international congress of women in Chicago, that it was dangerous when people clung to old ideas, whether they did so out of loyalty to tradition or fear of appearing radical. What people needed to do now, she said, was imagine new possibilities while also seeing life as it was. Such "free and vigorous thinking," she promised, would "liberate new sources of human energy" and make it possible to build "a bridge between those things which we desire and those things which are possible."

A Pragmatic Visionary

It was the advice of a rare kind of person–a pragmatic visionary. Addams was integrating both sides of her worldview into one profound message: If you think for yourself in choosing your hopes and then are realistic about what it will take to achieve them, you will release you own spirit into action with wonderfully useful results.

Jane Addams–who lived from 1869-1935–did just that. She increasingly thought for herself, released her own spirit and, working with others, accomplished remarkable things.

She cofounded Hull House, the nation’s first settlement house (and one of the earliest community-based nonprofits) in Chicago, and in time became one of the nation’s most effective reform leaders, as influential in her day on both the national and the world stages as Eleanor Roosevelt was in hers.

She worked to end child labor, support unions and workers’ rights, protect free speech civil rights, respect all cultures, achieve women’s suffrage and women’s freedom and promote conditions that nurtured human potential and therefore, she believed, the spread of peace.

Greatest American Woman

She served on the founding boards of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, advised every president from William McKinley to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wrote ten books, gave hundreds of speeches and was one of the greatest American women this nation has yet produced.

Indeed, in 1912–eight years before the federal amendment giving women the vote became law–there were wistful discussions of her running for president. For the last third of her life, as founding president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she was known worldwide as an advocate for peace and women, and in 1931 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But a biography is about more than a person’s accomplishments–or failures. It is most of all a story about what she learned, or not; about how and when a person stretched herself, or was stretched; and what wisdom was gained, or refused, and why. It is about the quests of the human spirit.

Excerpted from "JANE ADDAMS: Spirit in Action" by Louise W. Knight. Copyright copyright 2010 by Louise W. Knight. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

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Louise W. Knight is a writer, a consultant to nonprofits and a former journalist and college administrator. The author of "Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy," she lives in Evanston, Ill.

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Jane Addams: Spirit in Action