Today is Jane Addams Day in Illinois! In celebration, we’re taking look at the career of the fabulous musician, Kristin Lems, whose life and work is inextricably linked with Jane’s.
Kristin Lems is a singer-songwriter, feminist, author, and educator. Born in Evanston (Illinois), Kristin studied music from a young age, performing in choruses and orchestras. Though she continued with music throughout her life, she also received an impressively extensive education while working on her music, studying from 1972 to 2003. She received an A.B. from the University of Michigan, and then two masters degrees in West Asian Studies and Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She then earned Doctorate of Education in Reading and Language from National College of Education at National Louis University.
Also in the seventies, Kristin became involved in women’s rights, beginning a long career in the intersection between activism and music. In 1974, Kristin became the lead organizer of the first National Women’s Music Festival that was held at the University of Illinois. She took on this role in order to help create more opportunities for women to perform, after attending a folk music festival that featured no women artists.
Kristin performed her songs across the country for the next few decades, most often singing in support of the Equal Rights Movement. One of her most notable songs is Ballad of the ERA, an educational and powerful yet catchy tune about the history and purpose of the Equal Rights Amendment. In the chorus, she sings: “So no more debate, because we can’t wait./ We demand equality today.”
In 2021, Kristin created an audio musical play, Saint Jane and the Wicked Wicks. The musical tells the story of Jane Addams, known as the founder of social work in the US, and Nellie Wicks, Kristin’s great-grandmother and one of the residents of Jane Addams’ Hull House. Fascinated with and proud of the interwoven life stories of Jane and Nellie, Kristin used this personal family history as an opportunity to create a fuller picture of Jane Addams as a person.
In an interview with FF2 contributor Eliza Shoenberger about her musical, Kristin said: What you kind of come away with, which is the case for so many historical studies of women, is that Jane Addams wasn’t just a saint, she was also a human with her temper, and with her preferences and irritation and everything else. Poor Nellie Wicks wasn’t just a sinner, either. They both made choices and had a wonderful intersection that helps them both.”
Later in the interview, Kristin stated the takeaway she hoped for audiences to come out with: “I’d love Jane Addams to be rediscovered. We want Jane Addams to come out of the archives and be a living, breathing force in America and in the world. Hopefully, this play will help her come out of the shadows of academia.”
As she describes in her bio on her website: “Equally at home before vast crowds or in small living rooms, Kristin Lems has shared the stage with two First Ladies, Maya Angelou, Captain Jacques Cousteau, Gloria Steinem, Helen Caldicott and Alan Alda. She’s performed on stage with Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, Malvina Reynolds, Holly Near, Dan Fogelberg, Laura Love, Koko Taylor, Peter Paul and Mary, Michele Shocked, the BoDeans, Simon Townshend and others.”
Needless to say, Kristin has had an incredible career which has made a huge impact on the women’s rights movement, but she has also had fun doing it. While always remembering the gravity of her message, Kristin writes songs that are upbeat, enjoyable to listen to, and that even incorporate humor.
Celebrate Jane Addams today by listening to Saint Jane and the Wicked Wicks!
© Julia Lasker (12/11/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Elisa Shoenberger’s interview with Kristin Lems about Saint Jane and the Wicked Wicks here.
Listen to Saint Jane and the Wicked Wicks here.
Learn more about Kristin Lems here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: “Jane Addams, 1906” by George de Forest Brush, National Portrait Gallery is a work in the Public Domain.
Bottom photo: Portrait of artist Kristin Lems. Courtesy of the artist and used with permission.