“Twenty Years at Hull House” is the acclaimed memoir of social reformer Jane Adams. It contains unflinching descriptions of poverty and degradation of the Industrial Revolution, and the steps she took to establish housing, food, clean water, and education for the poor of Chicago.
Joining me today is Rebecca Sive, author of three books on women’s politics and power. She’s also a motivational speaker for women’s audiences; a former professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and the recipient of numerous awards for her public leadership and service. Rebecca and I talked about how to find rest as a feminist voter, the way every public service is bound up in all aspects of society, and how the messages from Jane Adams’ work, written over one hundred years ago, are still so relevant today.
Discussed in this episode:
Twenty Years at Hull House by Jane Addams
Every Day is Election Day: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House by Rebecca Sive
Vote Her In: Your Guide to Electing our First Woman President by Rebecca Sive
Make Herstory Your Story: Your Guided Journal to Justice Every Day for Every Woman by Rebecca Sive
Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm
Rebecca’s article about Twenty Years at Hull House in Windy City Times
Division Street: America by Studs Terkel
Rebel Bayou by Samuel and Sarah Hyde
The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America by Nicholas Lemann
(Note: Some of the above links are affiliate links. If you shop using my affiliate link on Bookshop, a portion of your purchase will go to me, at no extra expense to you. Thank you for supporting indie bookstores and for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
Julie Strauss: Hello, Rebecca. Welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Rebecca Sive: Hi. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
JS: I am honored to have you, and I am really excited to talk to you about the book that you chose to talk to us about. But first, before we get into that, will you let our listeners know what it is that you do?
RS: Well, I have had a, so to speak, varied career as an organizer, director of organizations, public official, professor, and author, all centered around the same topic, which is Women’s rights, the women’s movement, specifically. Our work together to advocate for women’s rights and equality, and that’s been the focal point at various times in different contexts.
JS: This has been a challenging year to do that work, I would think
RS: Yes, yes, indeed. I mean, it’s been a challenging, you know, since Hillary Clinton lost, frankly, in 2016. I think it’s been a challenging time for millions of American women. As e saw at that time with the women’s marches, and since then in lots of different activities, some successful, some not. Certainly, this year, we hit a low point with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case.
JS: I am going to go ahead and ask you the mental health question that I was saving for the end. I’m going to ask you first, since we’re already on this topic: what’s your advice to feminist voters who absolutely want to, you know all the things, rip out our hair, rip off our eyeballs, go bury ourselves in a cave somewhere and never come out. What’s your advice for sticking with it, I guess, without dying of exhaustion.
RS: Yeah. That’s a really important question because, obviously, our movement for justice really needs all of us to be in it for as long as we can. I think a few things, not necessarily in order of importance. First of all, when you feel that sort of sense of desperation or grief or it’s just been too much, I have found that returning to a focus on local work has been very helpful. There are these huge national problems. They probably take huge national solutions developed at the grassroots, in many cases, but there’s always important local work to be done. I mean, people are hungry, people are homeless, women are being abused. There are ways to be helpful where you can see the immediate helpful impact of what you are doing. And so I really encourage people to think local when they’re feeling that sense of, oh my God, this is just all too much. This second thing, which sort of comes with that, is I have found even in the moments of deepest despair, so to speak, is that there’s joy in doing the work together. You know that I have lifelong friends, and that’s been a fairly long life, women I met when I was in college. We gathered together for our 50th college reunion in June, and we still care about the same things. We still work on the same things. Some of us are healthier than others, you know? But the joy of being with other women and men to pursue what it is we care about and celebrate it and take the measure of our victories, you know, small or big. It’s a form of joy. It’s not the only one. I’m a gardener. I’ve been happily married for 50 years. But it’s an important form of joy. I think that people sometimes think that they have lost and the fact is they haven’t. And I guess the last piece of advice on this front I would give is to take the time when you’re feeling that way. To reflect on what’s most important to you about the work, you know. Is it the issue itself? Is it deploying some skill you have – writing or speaking or organizing? Is it the ability to be a part of an organization and the feeling of belonging? I mean, there are a lot of different aspects to what one experiences when they’re involved in a movement like this one. I know that when I have felt grief stricken, say for instance by the Dobbs decision, then I have sort of come back to, well, what it is, what is it that I do in this work that I, as a person, as Rebecca, must continue to do because it’s just important to me, and, I believe, by extension, of value to others. And that helps me get past that immediate sense of just loss.
JS: Speaking of working locally, tell us about the books that you’ve written.
RS: I started writing about women’s issues really right after college when we moved to Chicago. And actually it kind of pertains here. I wrote a book with some friends of mine; it was published in 1975, called the Chicago Women’s Directory. It was bilingual in Spanish and nothing’s been done like it since then, actually. That book was my sort of first go at both writing a book that would be useful to women in a variety of ways and inspirational. Fast forward to the two thousands I guess, and I was teaching at the University of Chicago. I was teaching on women in politics. I was continuing my other work and I just thought reflecting on Hillary Clinton’s loss, that there were lessons to be taken from that. And of course, you know, others could have written about, perhaps others have. But I felt that, given the range of my political and civic experience, that I could say something. So in the decade or so, I’ve written three books. The first one’s called Every Day is Election Day. It’s a guidebook for women who run for office or seek appointed office. The second was called Vote Her In, about the strategy for electing a woman president. And the third, Make Herstory Your Story, which is really a journal, a guided journal for women who wanna become active politically. It’s been a great experience, I have to say. And wonderful to connect with women in this way.
JS: Do you think we’re going to see a woman president in our lifetimes?
RS: Yes. When we saw, of whatever you may think of particular issue positions or even personality, Hillary Clinton was superbly qualified for the job. Far better, for instance, and far more qualified, for instance, than Barack Obama. So there are these elements of structural sexism that impede women including as president. But I think what happened in this last go-round is we had four powerful women running for very qualified women running. All of them did well. Neither of them prevailed, but they’re out there. And now there’s a whole new generation of women governors, in particular, who I think are thinking about this or may not have thought about it yet, but certainly will. And it’s women who elect Democratic presidents and you probably know from the data. If a woman could prevail in those early primaries and proceed, I think she would have a good chance of winning. It’s important to think about because we each have a role to play too. Which is the good news. We can work for those women.
JS: So let’s get to your reading life. What is your reading life like?
RS: I’m sort of the classic book worm since kindergarten or before, with my mother taking me to the library. My parents were book worms and so I’ve always read and read a lot. Related to my professional work, I have always read a lot of biographies about women particularly political women. But I do read a lot of fiction as well. And I also have, as you might guess from looking at my office, I have a substantial interest in art, particularly women’s art. And so I do read in that area as well. But I would say that my favorite books really are books about women leaders. You know, learning how they did what they did and the circumstances of their lives has just been really – I love reading those books.
JS: Do you remember how you found this one that we’re talking about? Twenty Years at Hull House.
RS: This is my battered copy with Post-it notes from when I was in college. This was in the days of a 50 cent paperback. So at the front of the book, it’s got the address on the inside, my name there and my address of where I lived with my parents while I was in college. So I would say the early seventies is when I found this book and have, as you can see, kept it by my side ever since.
JS: So you read it for a class or you just found it while you were in college?
RS: I don’t remember reading it for a class. My college advisor was Paul Wellstone, who was a US Senator from Minnesota, who tragically died. He was a great progressive leader back about 15 years ago or so, and Paul may have given us a reading list that included this book, but I can’t remember.
JS: Will you tell our listeners what it’s about?
RS: Twenty Years at Hull House is the first of a two-part autobiography by Jane Adams, who was the founder of a place called Hull House, a so-called Settlement House in Chicago in 1889, and she went on to become a political, civic, and policy leader of the first rank in American life, really from throughout her adult life until she died in 1935. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her history is incredible, I should say. Her story is incredible. But twenty years after founding Hull House, she wrote this book and really was describing, you can see this image on the front of the, the building. Really describing why it was she did this and what she thought its significance was. And I read the book in my early twenties and I was just – probably next to Shirley Chisholm’s autobiography, Unbought and Unblocked, which my husband gave me for a birthday present when it was first published, it’s the most important book to me, personally, as to who I am and what I do.
JS: Can you tell me why?
RS: What she does is she really is very honest and forthcoming about why she took this extraordinary step. Across the country, you know, there was a Suffragist movement. This was after the Civil War, obviously, so no longer an Abolitionist movement. But this is really before. The main national effort in the progressive area in the 1900s to really change for the better the lives of working people and poor people and the conditions in the inner city. And what she did and why it’s so important to me is she explained how she became a public organizer and leader. Not afraid to speak her mind. Not afraid to gather her friends around her, not afraid to speak truth to power, to make people’s lives better. And for me, I was at that time just beginning my life as a community organizer. And here she was, here’s this woman who had done it. There were all kinds of stories she tells in the book that just kind of document this transition from being a rather fearful young woman and bound by the norms of society, to someone who went to her girlfriend and said, let’s go buy this house in the middle of the slum of Chicago and try to work with our neighbors to get childcare, to get better working conditions to teach people to organize for clean water. I mean, you name it, they did it.
JS: I, that’s exactly the thing that impressed me about the book is I kept thinking how even though, as you said, the language is archaic, but gosh, these problems are very current. And, oh my God, we’re still fighting this one. I can’t believe we’re still fighting for these things.
RS: Right? But the positive side of it, for those who do read it, is that you can see I, I’m not the first person who ever did this, and I don’t have to feel that I have to solve it right away or otherwise I’ve failed. The fact of the matter is, what Adams demonstrates and writes about is, I just put my shoulder to the wheel. Let’s just go out there and do it and do what you can and take a breather when you need to. But don’t forget that that your duty to community exists beyond the doors of your own home.
JS: How does this book change for you? You showed me your copy that you’ve had since college. You’ve obviously read it multiple times. How does your take on this book change over the years?
RS: At the time I first read the book, going back to my mention of Paul Wilson, Paul was not only a professor, he was a community organizer in Southern Minnesota. He was a very early example, not just for his students, but for people around the country, of how it’s possible to be an engaged intellectual in the public world. I think for me, as a bookworm, you know, as someone who is fairly studious and academic, but knowing that I really didn’t wanna be a professor full-time, what’s the other way to go? And I think that, I’m sort of thinking back that the book gave me something of a handle on that. I mean, Jane Adams not only was an organizer, she was a thinker and a writer and a influencer. So, you know, she acted on legislation, she acted on public policies. She was a member of the Chicago School Board for a while. So there was a model there, I think, for what one could do. I’ve written about Adams and the book recently, and I’ve taught it. Because, you know, same as I think the reason that we’re talking today. And thank you for having me because I think that It’s so helpful for young people who want to be activists, who want to be leaders, to understand the trajectory of a life spent doing that. And this book is a good account of a life. There obviously are others. Lots of histories, as I mentioned before, of women leaders and male leaders too. But I do think the book is helpful to current the current generations of activists and leaders. So I use it deliberately in those contexts whenever I can.
JS: She says exactly what you just said. She’s talking about her friends and, and all the reading they were doing in their youth. And she says, “This is what we were all doing. Lumbering our minds with literature that only serve to cloud the really vital situation spread before our eyes.” That line made me sit back because that’s a really easy thing to do, to read everything you can, particularly now, when all information ever invented is at our fingertips.
JS: And that phrase, “lumbering our minds,” really struck me because there is a heaviness that comes with doing nothing but reading and as you said, and as she says, going out there and feeding someone is different and it’s uplift – no, uplifting maybe is the wrong word, but it’s a positive action. Even though this is a podcast about books, and basically all I talk about are books all day long, reading not the answer to solving problems.
RS: No. I’m glad you picked up on that phrase. You’re right. That you know, she makes that point, and that goes back a bit to what I was saying earlier, that there are many people who are bookworms, readers. We love to read. We do read all the time, but at the same time, we don’t want that to be the sum of our existence. What else ought to happen? I think that even today, although obviously the professions have opened up and all of the opportunity, that’s unheard of from her point of view, it’s still the case that, that we need to fight for what we want and not to you know, sit there and think it’s just going to happen because you read a book about it.
JS: The academic aspect of it can both be overwhelming and also convince us that we’ve done something because we’ve read about it. Which, obviously, it’s a great step. But it’s not actually doing the work of it.
RS: And that’s exactly why I wrote this last book of mine. I believe every woman can be a public actor for good. And so it’s a journal, you know, about how to do it right, so we can analyze the situation. We can sort of describe in a fairly specific context what women who know they’re going to go out there and do this need to do. That’s Every Day is Election day. But Make Herstory is something broader. It sort of reflects the idea that running for office is only one way of being a public actor.
JS: Now, you shared with me an article that you wrote in 2017 about Hull House, and you mentioned that the site was torn down.
RS: The brief history is that Chicago has had two Mayor Daleys. The first Mayor Daley decided that the Chicago campus for the University of Illinois, which he really wanted to be a flagship institution, needed to be built in the neighborhood where Hull House was. It’s close to the Loop and to the downtown business community. Good transportation, both public and highways. Studs Turkel really describes this in his work, particularly in Division Street, in his interview with Florence Scala, who led the opposition to this. She was a friend of Jane Adams as a child. But Mayor Daley made that decision and he was sort of an imperial mayor, so to speak. And so I think at the time there were the original building that Jane Adams bought, and then 13 others, or maybe 11 others, they all were torn down, but for two, the original and a smaller building, to build the campus. Then what subsequently happened is that the board of directors of Hull House, I think by the mid to late sixties, after the campus was built or maybe while the campus was being built, decided to set up regional centers around the city in various neighborhoods. So they did that. There was a network when I came to Chicago as a student. There was a network of neighborhood Hull Houses in half a dozen neighborhoods. But, and this is oversimplifying, they were primarily neighborhood sort of social service centers. They didn’t have the broad political and policy and influenc or reach that the original settlement house had. And over time, this is my view, I think, born out over time, the leadership was not strong, and ultimately the whole thing closed. Shut down. That would’ve been about 20 years ago, I think. You know, there’s a Hull House museum, which is wonderful. It’s the original building on the cover of the book, and this other second building that was saved. I highly recommend it as a place to visit when you’re in Chicago. It tells the story beautifully and comprehensively. I worked there as an intern when I was in grad school.
JS: Did you really>
RS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I gave tours.
JS: Is it something that’s taught in, for example, women’s history classes or anything? I mean, is it part of the academic landscape as well?
RS: The settlement house movement, of which Hull House is the precursor, is absolutely a part of history. For people who study American political or social history they learn about Hull House. And then certainly people who study Chicago history as well or women’s history, increasingly, There is that field of study goes deeper and deeper, so, yes. Notwithstanding the fact that it was a casualty of an academic institution’s building.
JS: So tell me, what are you reading right now?
RS: I have a sort of meaningful significant family interest in books about history about Mississippi and Louisiana. This is too long a story to go into here. So the very book that’s on my nightstand now, called Rebel Bayou, I’m not sure how good it is, but it is published by a press that I think is in doing really good work, which is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press. An academic press that specializes in books about, particularly southwest Louisiana and New Orleans. And this novel, written by a couple of professors, is about the period in Louisiana after the Civil War. And it’s pretty historically based, I’m just sort of a few pages in, but I kind of make it my habit to read these books and learn what I can, even if they’re not beautifully written. When my husband and I came to Chicago, I was going to grad school and he was working. I was working at the school too. He produced, for about a decade, many of the great blues musicians of Chicago. They made some amazing records and wrote a lot as well. He’s a brilliant writer. And so we learned, he and I, and made friends with people in the Blues world. So we first went to Mississippi, like mid-seventies. I first went to Louisiana in 1981, I believe. We’ve spent a lot of time there, initially fostered by our interest in the music and the culture and matters of race relations, which of course you can’t understand in Chicago without understanding Mississippi in particular. Chicago is home to hundreds of thousands of Mississippians.
JS: Mm. I didn’t know that.
RS: Yes. There’s a book called The Promised Land by Nicholas Lehman, who is a past dean of the journalism school at Columbia. The primary populations of Midwestern Rustbelt cities were African-American populations, people who moved from the south. And that’s also true of New York – people moving from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina. So to understand deeply, if one wants to, the history of racial struggles and political struggles in Chicago or Detroit or New York or Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, Washington, DC, take your pick – to be grounded in that history way back when is really, really helpful. Sort of understanding that you know, we are really all in this together.
JS: Which is another line I highlighted in the book by the. I think my favorite line that I am going to save in my journal, “Hull House was soberly opened on the theory that the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal, and that as the social relation is essentially a reciprocal relation. It gives a form of expression that has a peculiar value.” That meant a lot to me.
RS: I think that goes to exactly what you were asking before. There are these pearls of wisdom that are as true today as they were then. It’s great when a book does that for you, right? As people who believe we can learn from books, and be inspired by books, and share what we’ve learned from books, it’s great when you find that kind of thing. That’s why, as I said earlier, I always wanted to teach this book and, that’s why these Post-its, until they disintegrate, you know, are going to be here. They’re all next to pithy phrases. Like the one that you just read.
JS: Can you give me one of your favorites?
RS: Here’s one that means a lot, and really speaks to what we talked about earlier. I think she’s quoting someone else here, but I don’t know who it is. “Those who believe that justice is but a poetical longing within us, the enthusiast who thinks it will come in the form of a millennium, those who see it established by the strong arm of a hero are not those who have comprehended the vast truths of life. The actual Justice must come by trained intelligence, by broadened sympathies toward the individual man or woman who crosses our path. One item added to another is the only method by which to build up a conception lofty enough to be of use in the world.”
RS: Oh, here’s another one that follows on that shortly: “I was absolutely at sea so far as any moral purpose was concerned, clinging only to the desire to live in a really living world and refusing to be content with a shadowy, intellectual, or aesthetic reflection of it.”
JS: Both of those go back to what you were saying at the beginning of the interview about, especially in times of overwhelm, but also just to inform your work, just get out and get your hands dirty, get out and meet people, and that’s really what it’s about. That’s what dependence is.
RS: Well, yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, I think that. It’s not only sort of getting out there and getting your hands dirty. It’s why I believe it’s that, and you’re right to say that it is also why she capitalizes the word justice. I mean, justice can’t be achieved without affirmative acts of many kinds. And so you get out there, you get your hands dirty, you take the measure of the situation or the place in which you’ve gotten involved, right? And then you proceed to act. And it doesn’t have to be, you know, highfalutin. I don’t need any kind of, you know, degree to go do it. There are half a million elected positions in American governments, from the local to the federal. School boards, fire commissioners, county boards, you name it. And the people who are in these jobs are local people who’ve taken the time to educate themselves and get involved. I sort of think that there’s a way for all of us, as you put it to, to get our hands dirty and to just do the good work.
JS: I think it is so intimidating to consider that step of diving in, particularly running for public office. But if there’s anything we have learned, it is that any clown can, and will, run and very often will get elected, regardless of actual experience or intellect, frankly.
So hopefully one thing that has changed is that a lot of people are looking around thinking, if that guy can do it, I can do it. I’m not dumber than that guy, right?
RS: I think going back to Twenty Years at Hull House and its instructive nature: neither Adams nor any of the other people who then came to Hull House to work had any particular training in the work that they were doing. I think that’s the other powerful point here that you can learn. You can start out, so to speak, small.
JS: This attitude that Jane Adams has is such an inspiring one. The humility of it, that there’s a need, I’m gonna help, I might not be the expert, but I’ve got working hands, I’ve got working feet. I know some people. Let me see what I can do and let other people tell me what they need and I’ll see what I can do to help them. That’s really public service. That’s what it is.
RS: I think also I would add to that and certainly in the case of Adams or I was talking about Ida B Wells before, because she was in Chicago at the same time. And it’s that which you’ve just described. It’s also, if I discover in the process that I can lead others, let me act. I’m from the era when girls were told not to raise their hands in classes because the boys would feel bad. Well, you know, fortunately, that’s changed. And I don’t think I ever abided by that, but I do think it’s important to encourage people, not only to participate, as you’ve said, but to take the measure of their own leadership abilities. Because we need more leaders. And that doesn’t have to be a permanent thing. It doesn’t have to be elected office. It doesn’t even have to be appointed office. It can be leading a particular effort, a particular community effort, and making sure it happens the way it ought to happen. And maybe then doing it again.
JS: All the way to the White House
RS: All the way to the White House
JS: Thank you for your time. It’s really been a delight talking to you. Will you share with our listeners where they can find you and all of the wonderful work that you do?
RS: Oh, thank you for asking. My website’s simple to find. It’s RS sive.com. My books are all available on the internet. Ordering from a bookstore; that’s pretty easy to do.
JS: Wonderful. Rebecca, I want to thank you for your time and I hope you’ll come back anytime you have another book you want to share with me, because this was a great experience ,and it’s a book I wouldn’t have come across on my own. So it was really delightful to get to read it.
RS: Well, thank you, Julie. It’s been fun.