As bright red hearts grace every storefront in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, the virtue of love remains at the forefront for many feminists. Let’s set aside Hallmark and the commercialism of romance for a moment and focus on some forms of love often overlooked: love for friends, love for the world, and love from women for women. All of these are manifested in one of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist: Jane Addams.
Known as the Mother of Social Work, this revolutionary woman did so much more than begin a new field of study. Jane Addams (1860-1935) was a pacifist, sociologist, public philosopher, founder of the Hull House, co-founder of the ACLU, and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. All of her romantic relationships were with other women, including Ellen Star and Mary Smith. In fact, Smith and Addams considered themselves married. Is any of this brief information about Addams new to you? It certainly was to me.
Love for Friends.
I’d only heard of Addams briefly, recalling her role in the development of the field of social work. That was it. Until a very dear friend commissioned a painting of her. She is one of my dearest friends, a holy woman icon and revolutionary herself. A scholar, professor, minister, activist, and farmer, this dear friend wanted Jane Addams to hang on her office wall at the Unitarian Universalist Church where she works. Because I love my friend, and trusted her instinct that Addams was worthy of the title “holy woman,” I began researching. And Jane Addams blew my mind. Seriously. This woman was amazing. How had I not yet learned more about her?
Love for the World.
Since childhood, Addams felt a unique calling to do something to make the world a better place. Upon receiving an incredibly large inheritance from her father after his death, she set out for medical school, vaguely certain that working in the medical field would be her “helping profession,” her way of making the world a better place. Long-term illnesses prevented her from pursuing her studies to fruition. She was an avid reader and came across materials discussing settlement houses. With her lover Ellen Star, she set out for London to explore the first settlement house. These travels emboldened her to start her own settlement house in Chicago.
Addams opened the Hull House with the intention of providing cultural education otherwise only available at the university to those who could not afford it. It would be a place where cultures and classes worked together, she believed. And it was. It also became a place that met the needs of the community: providing artistic expression and intellectual exploration, garbage collection, tuberculosis study, midwifery, documentation of social illnesses, a library, space for debate, and the foundation for adult education classes.
While operating the Hull House, Addams was a leader in women’s suffrage and pacifism. She became an anti-war activist from 1899 as a part of the anti-imperialist movement, and reshaped the peace movement to include ideals of social justice in her book, Newer Ideals of Peace. Whether it was fighting against sexism, racism, classism, or war, Addams loved the world deeply and made certain that her actions reflected this deep love.
Love for Women from Women:
Though the term wasn’t in vogue and phrases like “intimate partner” were used more often than not, Addams likely identified as a lesbian. She and her long-term lover, Mary Smith, lived together in the Hull House, owned a home together in Maine, and wrote one another daily when they were apart, often referring to themselves as a married couple. Federally and legally they were not recognized as such—none of us were until this past year—but they were most certainly married, partnered, and in love.
I’d like to think that the two celebrated Valentine’s Day in the most feminist way possible: demanding sanitation reform, the right for women to vote, and with an ethical debate over a shared meal, followed by passionate kisses.
So, as you celebrate Valentine’s Day in whatever capacity you see fit and just and fair and loving, remember this daring revolutionary who loved unabashedly and fearlessly, all the while changing the world. With an arm big heart cries out to us:
“Pacifism. Activism. Equality.”
Cried her eager heart…
Bound by love, committed to justice,
Her work changed the world…
It is with love and gratitude for my dear friend who taught me of Addams, love and gratitude for my dear wife who stands by my side, and love and gratitude for the life and legacy of Jane Addams that I shall celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, intent on loving the world more boldly. Will you join me?
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of , , , , , and. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: