Was Jane Addams a Lesbian?


Nobel Peace Prize-winning social worker Jane Addams was never a housewife and was tight with a woman named Mary Rozet Smith. Does that mean she was a lesbian? Does it matter?

John D’Emilio, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois, says she was, because 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.”

Jennifer Brier, an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at UIC, says no, because Addams would’ve been aware of the term but wouldn’t have used it to describe herself because “it wasn’t a phrase that had meaning for her.”

Lisa Junkin, the interim director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, just 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.”

I say: can’t we give the dead lady a break? Why does it matter?

Educator Lena Reynolds says it definitely does:

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.”

At any rate, this WBEZ piece is a fascinating look into the meaning behind Victorian platonic love. (Ever heard of a “Boston Marriage”? Feel like I’m in multiple.)


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