Review: A Useful Woman by Gioia Diliberto

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Frequently recognized as one of the most influential women of the century, and considered a heroine by nurses and social workers around the globe, Jane Addams had to struggle long and hard to earn her place in history. Born in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, she lived during pivotal times when women were only beginning to create new roles for themselves (ironically building on the Victorian ideal of women as ministering angels).

Focusing on her metamorphosis from a frail, small-town girl into a woman who inspired hundreds of others to join her movement to serve, the poor, A Useful Woman, delves into the mysterious ailments and other troubles young Jane faced.

Determined to find a place for herself in a world where women were very limited, Jane Addams became one of the pioneers in social work. In a time when women were supposed to be seen as angels of the home and couldn’t even vote, Addams founded Hull House in an attempt to make a difference in the lives of poor immigrants and also find a focus for her need to do something other than be the spinster aunt. A woman plagued with health issues and always rather distant, Addams found became an advocate for immigrant improvement and reform to social work. She used the stigma of women being more refined and virtuous at the time to her benefit and plunged into a staggering amount of work involving helping her neighborhood. Addams served as one of the few social workers who not only had money, but a desire to live among those she was helping. It was a revolutionary idea at a time when charity work was seen as not much more than giving out help from on high.

Jane’s plight wasn’t unusual at the time. Women were expected to get married and no thought was given to a woman ever having a career or different sexual orientation that may have made that less than desirable. Women at this time were starting to become more accepted into education but were often left at ends with what to do with it afterwards. The author delves into the psychosomatic illnesses that plagued some educated women that we would now contribute to severe mental and emotional distress or depression, but at the time were seen as proof of women being “weak” mentally. She also very openly and fairly addresses the fact that Addams may or may not have had romantic inclinations towards other women, a fact complicated by the flowery letter writing at the time and Jane’s own rather remote personality.

5 out of 5

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