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It was Jane Addams’ voice that led Louise Knight to work as a biographer. Ms. Knight talked about reading Ms. Addams’ “20 Years at Hull House,” her 1911 autobiography, which recounts reforms and interventions that came out of Hull House, the Chicago settlement house she co-founded and led, that changed the lives of an estimated 9,000 immigrants every year. Ms. Knight said that after reading it, she realized that she had never read any author who spoke to her as Ms. Addams did. Recently interviewed by the RoundTable, Ms. Knight talked about two biographies she wrote about Ms. Addams and a new book, which is slated for release in the fall of 2020. This latest biography will be about Angelina and Sarah Grimké, the “Grimké Sisters,” who made the choice to leave aristocracy in the early 1800s to become Quakers, which led to their historic abolitionist activism.
Ms. Knight talked about the characteristics that first drew her to Ms. Addams’ story, and then to the story of the Grimké Sisters. “I’m interested in people who are wrestling bravely and rightly with moral dilemmas and that come out on the right side, the way we would all love to come out.” Ms. Knight said that she has been fascinated by moral questions for many years and that she admired how frankly Ms. Addams wrote about them. “If you grew up during the second half of the 20th century, as I did . . . outside of church no one was discussing morality. There was no interest in considering the proper way for human beings to treat each other.”
In the early 1970s a new biography about Ms. Addams was published – “American Heroine” by Allen F. Davis. Ms. Knight read it, and while she said she learned many things she had not known about Ms. Addams, she was not entirely happy with the book. She said that Mr. Davis “had an ambivalent relationship with [Ms. Addams], he mocked her as an important historical figure, he dismissed her mind, he dismissed her ideas . . . He was clueless as to what the struggle was inside of her . . . She had the ambition that in a man he would have respected, but that in a woman, he didn’t even notice.” She also said that biographies were rarely written about women during the times in which Ms. Addams lived (1860-1935), and in which the Grimké sisters lived (Sarah, 1792-1873. Angelina, 1802-1879).
Some years later a colleague, who was one of the authorities on Ms. Addams’ personal papers, knowing of Ms. Knight’s passion for the work of Jane Addams, urged her to write her own biography of Ms. Addams. While Ms. Knight had thought that she would write that biography when she retired, she decided that there was no point in waiting to do the thing she most wanted to do. “I might be hit by a bus at age 50 and go under the wheel saying, ‘Damn, I’m not going to be able to write that biography of Jane Addams.’ ”
She then made up her mind that she would not allow her own doubts to stop her. “I decided that I wasn’t going to second guess it, I wasn’t going to say ‘I’m unqualified.’ I wasn’t going to say that I didn’t have the right degrees or that I didn’t have enough money,” Ms. Knight said, “I decided not to negate it in any way that’s practical . . . I was going to shut [all my doubts] down and do it.” She said that she was inspired not only by her fascination with Ms. Addams, but also by her love of biographies and how “people whose lives gelled were people who did the thing they most wanted to do. I was really compelled by that.”
Ms. Knight said she was intrigued and inspired by how Ms. Addams went from being a truly sheltered person whose class and wealth created a “cloud of politeness around her” to being a revered savior of vulnerable immigrants, and then a hated figure for her pacifism. “World War I was the real test . . . From the beginning, she was supporting the peace movement and mediation. She was quite vilified in those years and when the United States entered the war [the hatred toward her] became very bad. For the first time in her life she had to ask herself, ‘How do I make a choice between what the people feel I should do and what I believe to be right?’ . . . In the end, she couldn’t just go with the people’s desires, which had been her romantic theory – ‘what the people want I want.’ ”
Ms. Knight said that Ms. Addams’ strength was driven by her moral convictions, which had been shaped by her adopted process of interaction between what she read and what she thought, and by her determination that her own actions and her beliefs should always line up. “She couldn’t change who she was, in the sense that she had to do what she believed in,” said Ms. Knight, who also gave examples of what this characteristic led to. “She was part of the movement to help the conscientious objectors who were jailed and starved in World War I, and out of that protective effort grew the ACLU.”
Ms. Knight said the Grimké Sisters worked for the same things that Ms. Addams did, but Ms. Knight said that theirs had been a more radical approach from the very beginning. For example, while Ms. Addams continued to keep the company of wealthy people that supported her work at the Hull House, the Grimké Sisters had gone, by choice, from being aristocrats to being part of the lower middle-class economically and taking stances counter to most of what they had known. “They were actively rejecting everything about the moral system of their upbringing,” said Ms. Knight. “They were not only rejecting slavery – after growing up with 17 slaves in the house, but were rejecting hierarchical society, which Ms. Addams also did. They were most of all rejecting materialism.”
Ms. Knight said the Grimké Sisters were taught by their parents to have their own unique opinions, which, along with their religious background, led them into the Quaker faith. She adding that during the antebellum period in which the sisters lived, evangelical religion was very anti-material. The Grimké Sisters received no monetary inheritance from their mother, but instead chose to receive it in slaves, who they then freed.
When they joined the national abolitionist movement, they were not just supporting abolition. Ms. Knight said, “They were attached to an activist movement to change policy. They were grassroots organizers, in the mode that we think of – they were in the broad sense political activists, traveling, lecturing and organizing female anti-slavery societies.”
Ms. Knight explained how the two sisters complemented each other, “Sarah [the elder of the two sisters] had the structured, rational mind, and was, in a certain sense, more of an intellectual. She would have been a fabulous judge, like her father. Angelina was the brilliant orator. She had a great mind, but it was much more facile, resourceful and spontaneous. This is what made her a great orator. She would have been a fabulous prosecutor in a trial. So, you get to see these two kinds of personalities. Sarah is more careful and cautious, the way a judge has to be. Angelina dives in. Her heart is in it.”
They were key organizers in creating the first national political meeting of women in New York in 1837 and in 1838 Angelina became the first woman in the nation to address a legislative body. Ms. Knight said that they were also the first ones to assert that women’s rights are human rights.
She said that the kind of work that both Ms. Addams and the Grimké Sisters did is badly needed now, but that “It’s a rare thing to be a free agent these days. Most of the social activism energies go into making it a career – in a paid sense. You get a fulltime job in social justice . . . and it pins you in.”
However, Ms. Knight said, “Journalists are not, by nature, necessarily protected from certain pressures. … But, do have the possibility of thinking independently and saying, ‘The hell with it, I’m going to say what I think’.” She said that she thinks the journalist Ronan Farrow, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize, is a good example of this. “A few years ago, he had hit a wall. He was interviewing these women that had been through these traumas sexually … but the broadcast TV network he worked got cold feet, feeling that they needed more evidence and canceled the story. They refused to let him work more on the story, which he felt he could not abandon, and he lost his job.”
His entire world seemed to be collapsing and still he could not give up working on the story about the sexual assault of women. Ms. Knight said, “What you can see is that because of his own family, he had to tell that story. Even though he thought he was ruining his life and his career was in the tank, he could not stop. To him it was the right thing to do; he came out the other side and, oh my gosh, he wins the Pulitzer.”