This paper explores Jane Addams’s and John Dewey’s aspirations for democracy, in light of contemporary American efforts to install democracy in other parts of the world.  Addams’s democracy provides a critique of hierarchical, class-based, exclusionary power relations as well as American imperialism in the late 1880s. Pragmatist democracy requires diversity, education for empathic understanding and critical analysis. This paper also questions whether Addams’s democratic thought holds up under a postcolonial feminist critique of democracy and global capitalism.


The relevance of Jane Addams’s theory of democracy in a global post-colonial feminist context.


The American military missions have recently been categorized by our government as attempts to “bring democracy” to the world. As a result, thinkers and activists have begun to re-examine – and critique – the theory and practice of democracy. American pragmatists, particularly Jane Addams and John Dewey, were formative thinkers in the 20th century conception of democracy, and it is their formulations of democracy that may help us rethink the meaning of democracy. Democracy is not a static form of social association – it is redeveloped in each generation and in each locality, and pragmatists understand ideas as rooted in a particular social and historical context, growing out of experience and are subsequently being tested in experience. Democracy can only exist as a living principle, in particular localities and times. As Addams said, “The political code, as well as the moral law, has no meaning and becomes absolutely emptied of its contents if we take out of it all relation to the world and concrete cases,..” (1899).   

With a state senator as a father, familiar with the documents of the American founders, Addams was initially committed to liberal democracy and heroic individualism. Yet living at Hull House dramatically changed her concept of the democratic ideal, as she personally experienced the issues of her neighbors, became involved in the labor movement, and tried to change local government and improve local schools.

After moving to Chicago in 1894, John Dewey became a trustee of Hull House, often visited there and became a close friend of Addams. Dewey began to think and write about democracy and social issues after he moved to Chicago, and became part of Hull House and other social movements in Chicago. As such, he saw ideas of democracy tested out in those experiences. Pragmatist democracy, for both Addams and Dewey, was born out of the perplexities of modern industrial life, though direct engagement with the problems of that life, developed in dialogical and social practice.

The pragmatist democracy of Addams and Dewey also developed in a time when the American experience was moving from a time of a national myth of individualism, symbolized by the American frontier and those who heroically explored it, to an awareness of the necessity of cooperation and social equality needed to live together in a city environment. (In reality, of course, the people who settled the frontier were often absolutely dependent upon each other for survival and were much more communal and interdependent than the American mythology would suggest.)  In the latter part of the 19th century, many people were talking about society as a social organism (not just the Hegelian idealists – this was part of Robert Owen’s utopian movement and part of the Progressive Era social discussion.) In her earliest published essay, in 1892, Addams refers to the social world that we share together as a “social organism,” a living entity composed of individuals as the organic elements of a whole. This term referred to an understanding of living interrelationship; we as humans are bound together, that which affects one part affects the whole. Dewey also notes early in his career that humans “are not isolated non-social atoms, but are (human) only when in intrinsic relations to (humans)” (EW 1:228-230).

This was also a time when women began to enter public and intellectual life – because of their limitations they were must more perception of the limits of individualistic liberalism, and the way that the founders of the US Constitution had limited “equality and fraternity” to particular races and classes.  Thinking and writing in this period, Dewey and Addams extended the concept of democracy to social and cultural realms as an ethical solution to philosophic and social problems they faced in their times.  Dewey said, “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (MW9: 93).

Both Dewey and Addams saw democracy as a continually evolving aspiration. As an ideal, “democracy” belongs to that small class of ideas which must be recreated in every generation, and redefined by each thinker, it is, as Addams said, a  “mystical” ideal, “continually demanding new formulation” (1909/1972, 146). She was impatient with earlier formulations of liberty and democracy that weren’t developed out of experience and interaction. (See in particular Newer Ideals of Peace, 1907, 32)  Dewey also acknowledges that any definition of democracy must be arbitrary; democracy is an idea and an ideal, having never been perfected in actuality. As he says in The Public and Its Problems, “. . .democracy in this sense (as an ideal) is not a fact and never will be” (LW 2:328).

III. Democracy developed through experiential and dialogical methodology

A note here about Addams’ methodology – how she developed her philosophies and how she communicated them to a wide audience. Although Addams read extensively in philosophy and political theory, she often found that when applied to actual practice, the ideas needed to be modified. (She said of the democratic vision of the American founders that “their idealism was the type that is afraid of experience.” (Newer Ideals of Peace, 1907, 32).) She would often rush home from an experience and write (like being the one to deliver a child of an unmarried woman because no one else would). She often would draft a paper, deliver it to an audience, and then rewrite it – doing this multiple times as she continued to think with others.  The sources for her musings were rifts between what is commonly believed to be true and who she actually experienced – she called these “perplexities.” And her stories were most often the stories of women. Her writing style, even in her most philosophical books, was to tell stories – and she was a powerful story-teller.  That is why she is often read in a literary context; her book Twenty Years at Hull House has never been out of print since its original printing, and is often analyzed for its form of biography.

This contextual and flexible style of thinking with others is a great example of democratic practice, consistent with pragmatism. According to the pragmatists, a democratic society is always in a state of flux, always changing to reflect the vision of the current citizens, (in a way that is consistent with James’ understanding of vagueness and the continual re-creation of our world.) Democracy as a political system ideally reinforces individual-social/political interaction that we are always affecting and being affected by the world that surrounds us.  In a democracy, Dewey says, “every individual must be consulted . . . (so) that he himself becomes a part of the process of authority, of the process of social control” (“Democracy and Education in the World of Today” LW 13:295). In this way, “the ballot box and the majority rule” become real symbols of how the political system adjusts to the individual, as the individual adjusts to the political world.

Moral Ethic/Diversity

As an ethical system, Addams believed that democracy represents an evolutionary improvement beyond individual ethics or family based ethic – democracy requires us to think of what is good for the whole. She didn’t think about this in utilitarian terms, as the good of the many outweighing the good of the individual – rather in democratic terms to consider the good of many individual others and the social goods that were integral to a good life.  

The first step in developing a democratic social ethic is once again, understanding and experiencing the lives of others. As she said in her introduction to Democracy and Social Ethics (DSE), “Identification with the common lot which is the essential idea of Democracy becomes the source and expression of social ethics.” (8-9). Diversity becomes the key to democracy and to social ethics were predicated on an assumption of equality and interaction between various classes and races. As she said, “Diversified human experience is the foundation and guarantee of democracy.” (DSE 6) Dewey echoes this need for identification and interaction with diverse others in his definition of fraternity, which he understands as “continuity, that is to say, association and interaction without limit.” So “democracy is concerned not with freaks or geniuses or heroes or divine leaders but with associated individuals in which each by intercourse with others somehow make the life of each more distinctive” (MW 11:53). 

When there is social conflict resulting from changes in values, when the old life patterns are no longer working, when “old values are at hazard,” she says that diversity from the various immigrant groups moving to American is what could give hope for new discoveries and purposes. In thinking about social goods, Addams understands the reciprocal nature of the creation of the “good” in society.  All classes and all people must receive the good in a condition of equality, but also (and perhaps more importantly) all classes and all people must contribute to the creation of the social good, before it can even be labeled as worthy “good.”

We have learned to say that the good must be extended to all of society before it can be held secure by one person or one class; but we have not yet learned to add the statement that unless all men and classes contribute to that good, we cannot even be sure that it is worth having.[i]

This sense of social goods not being a good unless all contribute to it, extend to democracy, would mean that democracy can be done to people – they must actively be creating the process and the result in order for it to be “worth having.” Such an understanding of democracy flies in the face of current American ideals of “bringing” democracy to other nations in the world. Given Addams’s understanding that democracy is “empty of all meaning” without the concrete situation, what political could be applied to other countries by another?  The only possible application is the process itself of working with others, creating a space for others to develop a system that works.

Democracy is possible because of diversity, and could not be the result of sacrificing diversity. As Francis Hackett, an early resident of Hull House, said about Addams, “one feels in her presence that to be an ‘other’ is itself a title to her recognition.”[ii] In a similar way, while some feminists have rejected the object-orientation of being made “other”, many feminist-pragmatists of our era have embraced “otherness”, celebrating the new understandings that such otherness can bring into the academic and political dialogue.

Education for a Democracy

Both Dewey and Addams explicitly connected the possibility of democracy to the process of education; without the right education, democracy is not possible. The education that fits one for democracy is one that engages learners in critical and creative thinking, understanding and yet questioning one’s own historical and cultural context, and developing empathetic understanding of others. Democracy is process of change, and for Addams that process is slow and deliberate, like the process of education. As she said “the processes of social amelioration are of necessity the results of gradual change” and that the change occurs both through the “steady efforts to accumulate facts” as well as listening to many diverse ideas and opinions.[iii] This steady and gradual change describes a community-based learning process, requiring factual knowledge but also dialogue, listening and questioning. Addams would have been critical of current educational trends toward technological education, away from the humanities and arts that she found so transformative. As Martha Nussbaum recently said, this trend in education leads us toward “(n)ations of technically trained people who do not know how to criticize authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations” (2006, 311). Like Addams, Nussbaum claims that such an education puts the survival of democracy at risk.

Deliberative democracy relies on rational and critical education as a starting place for dialogue. As an example, Catherine Audard, relying on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann in Jerusalem, argues in “Socratic Citizenship: The Limits of Deliberative Democracy” that deliberative democracy depends on deep intellectual understanding and critical thinking.  I doubt that Addams would disagree, but she would argue, like Nussbaum, that deliberative democracy also depends on emphatic understanding developed form shared direct experience and literature and the arts. Understanding the necessity of empathic imagination – of understanding the lives of many others through their stories --  is a contribution that feminists have particularly made to the contemporary discussion of education for a democracy and it is a quality that cannot be easily tested by standardized testing tools.

Postcolonial feminist critique

Postcolonial feminists criticize how democracy is intertwined with 1) capitalist vales which results in 2) using people as means of production toward profit, 3) its connection to patriarchal militarism and 4) the ways the idea of democracy is used to perpetuate Western hegemonies. For the purposes of this essay, I will use Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s analysis in “Feminism Without Borders” to compare some of the basic ideas with Addams work. Given that Addams’ view of democracy is basic to her entire philosophical work, it is important to consider how her pragmatist feminist democracy holds up under a post-colonial feminist critique. It is my sense that Addams’ philosophy probably holds up better under a post-colonial feminist critique than it did in a radical feminist (60s era) critique, particularly given her interests in cultural and economic reform

Capitalist Values

Mohanty’s post-colonial feminism focuses on a materialistic analysis, a critique of capitalistic values which she says are “seriously incompatible with feminist visions of social and economic justice.” (8)  Her critique is primarily concerned with the effects of global capitalism. She maintains that “the interests of contemporary transnational capital and the strategies employed enable it to draw upon indigenous social hierarchies and to construct and maintain ideologies of masculinity/femininity, technological superiority, appropriate development, skilled/unskilled labor, and so on.” (167). Addams also critiqued capitalism, and like Mahonty, often used women’s work and women’s lives to illustrate her point. Her 1894 analysis that the owner of factories was paternalistic (Pullman), using the King Lear’s paternalism as a metaphor.   She supported labor unions which created local and national resistance to the degradation of workers in the capitalist system. Questions have be raised about whether she worked to accommodate immigrant populations to the system rather than changing the system.  By 1912, after two decades in the Hull House neighborhood, during which she became increasingly critical of the inequalities of capitalism, she commented that “the great principle of liberty has been translated…into the unlovely doctrine of commercial capitalism (New Conscience 93). Addams moved over time to a more socialist position as a result of participating in and supporting the struggles of the labor movement to address the unchecked inequalities of laissez-faire capitalism.

Democracy and Social Ethics addresses the need a new ethical system in industry – that the top down hierarchies of traditional capitalism need rethinking in a social democracy. As she says, workers must conceive of themselves as connected to the entire industrial organization:

When each man had his own shop, it was perhaps wise to lay almost exclusive stress upon the industrial virtues of diligence and thrift; but as industry has become more highly organized, life has become incredibly complex and interdependent . . . he must have a conception that will include not only himself and his immediate family and community, but the industrial organization as a whole.[iv]

Addams believed the ideal of democracy, brought to the workplace, required that the workers should have a voice regarding the conditions of their industrial jobs. Labor unions, for Addams, were an expression of democracy and grew out of the natural interdependence between workers and owners (even though owners were not at that point willing to accept the labor unions).

It is interesting to consider how and why Addams’s understanding of democracy changed dramatically from when she was influenced primarily by her father’s frontier capitalism. Her early understanding of capitalism was certainly influenced by her father’s capitalism – a mixture of the support of people for his candidacy with support of his economic plans (particularly the railroad.) How did she move from this to support of the labor movement, support of socialism, critique of imperialism? A pragmatist ethic of  fallibalism – the idea that one’s ideas may be completely wrong is illustrated in the development of Addams philosophy of democracy. . When ideas are tested out in practice, they may need to be changed. This ethic of pragmatism, the constant need to test and revise, is an ethic because it is an obligation of thought and life – and is consistent with democratic ideals. As in deliberative democracy, per Habermas, we are required to defend a proposition or belief through argumentation, while being yet conscious of its fallibility.  (2002, p. 37)  

Post-colonial feminism shares with feminism a critique of positions of privilege – but whereas earlier feminists have identified the location of privilege as white, male and heterosexual, the insight of post-colonial feminism allows us to see the locus of privilege as “capitalist rational economic male” (Brooks 2000, 51).  In her analysis of effect of global capitalism, Mohanty prefers the term “Two-Thirds World’ rather than “third-world” to talk about those that are the victims of global capitalism, acknowledging in this terminology that every country contains “two-thirds” populations. And as she points out,  “It is especially on the bodies and lives of women and girls from the Third World/South – the Two-Thirds World – that global capitalism write its script and it’s by paying attention to and theorizing the experiences of these communities of women and girls that we demystify capitalism as a system…” (235)  If Mohanty were writing today about the effects of capitalism, she would no doubt put the industrial immigrant populations of Chicago in the 1990s in the Two-Thirds group within a first world, or One-Third nation.

And then, as now, the women and girls suffered disproportionately. As did no other writer of her era, Addams’s work highlights the stories of women and girls affected by industrialist capitalism, and it is with these stories that she advocates for change in nearly every area of work and domestic life. Writing about prostitution in Chicago she echoes Mohanty: “when the solidarity of human interest is actually realized, it will become unthinkable that one class of human beings should be sacrificed to the supposed needs of another…(1912/2002, 98).

The change advocated by Addams and Mohanty differ however. Addams advocates for representation, women’s voting rights, safe and clean communities, valuing women’s traditional work as part of community life. She wanted to bring democracy to the workplace, as a social ethic, while Mohanty wants to push against anti-globalization as the major focus of activism.

Militarism has become such a part of our social fabric in the US today that we can barely remember a time when peace activists were not only agitating against war but alson against cultural militarism. Mohanty also points to the links between militarism and masculine values (229) , something that Addams and the women peace workers were very aware of. Well before the era of WWI, when her life-work changed to peace work, Addams was working to root out competitive and militaristic practices in everyday life. She was opposed as well to both colonialism and imperialism. Addams was a member of the Central Anti-Imperialist League of Chicago which published on of her early essays on peace, Democracy or Militarism (1899). In that essay she critiqued US imperialism and some Americans desire for colonies, arguing instead for a global view of humanity. She quoted a 1898 American Federation of Labor, “with the success of imperialism the decadence of our republic will have already set in.”  The model of democracy most often currently in use is that of consumer-preference-driven, with the candidate being the product, advertising shaping consumer preferences.

In terms of a post-colonial feminist critique, Addams rarely questioned her own privilege as a person of a particular economic and racial class, and did not understand or critique Western hegemony.  (She was uncomfortable with the wealth that she had that was resulting from suffering, but does not take action that any social justice advocate would now find adequate.)  This will need further development.


For Addams like other pragmatists, process and method matters as much as the end result. She was concerned that competitive practices would result in antagonistic, militaristic and hierarchical non-democratic social and political policies. (Newer Ideals of Peace) The current understanding of democracy has been shaped by the competitive nature of capitalism, the belligerent and forceful nature of military power, and the dogmatic stances of world leaders.  Addams’ discourse is rarely competitive. Rather than pointing to the flaws of other’s arguments, she more often exhibits an empathetic discourse, trying to understand, changing others through sharing stories. Her sense of what democracy should be is not yet been put into practice in any national arena.   





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[i] Jane Addams.  Democracy and Social Ethics. Edited by Anne Firor Scott. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), 220.

[ii] Francis Hackett, “Hull House – A Souvenir” reprinted in Eighty Years at Hull House, ed. Davis and McCree. Hacket was the literary editor of the Chicago Evening Post.  Also quoted by Seigfried, 76. 

[iii] Second Twenty Years, 407.

[iv] Ibid., 213.