Social activist visions: Constructions of womanhood in the autobiographies of Jane Addams and Emma Goldman

Heather Elaine Ostman, Fordham University


Social reformer Jane Addams's (1860–1935) and anarchist Emma Goldman's (1869–1940) autobiographical constructions of womanhood extend their public advocacy by manifesting their respective ideologies and by functioning as rhetorical strategies for implicit reformist arguments within their texts. Their constructions of womanhood, divided here into the following categories of daughterhood, sexuality, wifehood, and motherhood, offer a lens through which their reformist advocacy may be viewed. In both of her autobiographical volumes, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) and The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930), Addams's gender constructions parallel the Progressive-Era ideology she championed. Addams's autobiographical persona manifests her ideology and supports her popularized public activist persona as the “Mother of Social Work,” in the sense that she represents herself as a celibate matron, who served the suffering immigrant masses through Hull-House, as if they were her own children. On the other hand, Goldman exemplifies anarchist ideology through her autobiographical persona, representing herself as a sexually active woman at the same time that she portrays herself as a self-sacrificing mother. By comparing herself to a mother, Goldman too reinforces the favorable public image of herself as the anarchist “Mother of the Cause,” as her supporters reverently called her. Addams's and Goldman's appropriation of motherhood suggests their awareness of cultural ideals of gender, but it also suggests their mutual awareness of using gender roles as rhetorical strategies for the activist arguments in their texts. The paradox of each of their gender role constructions, in particular their motherhood, is that the subjective “I” of the text is legitimized by the objectivity of gender roles. Despite the differences between Addams's and Goldman's ideologies and activism, and although neither woman was a biological mother, their mutual appropriation of motherhood also points to the visionary aspect in their autobiographies: both similarly advocate for a new world order based on the interdependence expressed within this gender role and subvert patriarchal models of individualism and separation.

Subject Area

American literature|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Ostman, Heather Elaine, "Social activist visions: Constructions of womanhood in the autobiographies of Jane Addams and Emma Goldman" (2004). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3125022.