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Sophonisba Breckinridge

Sophonisba Breckinridge


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Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, the daughter of a lawyer, William Breckinridge, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on 1st April, 1866. Her mother, Issa Desha Breckinridge came from a political family and her grandfather had been governor of Kentucky in the early nineteenth century.

After graduating from Wellesley College in 1888 she worked as a school teacher in Washington before studying law. Although the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar, Breckinridge decided to continue her studies at the University of Chicago.

In 1901 Breckinridge she received a Ph.D. in political science and three years later, became the first woman to graduate from its law school. After completing her doctoral and law degrees from the University of Chicago, Breckinridge obtained an appointment as a part-time professor in the Department of Household Administration.

In 1907 Breckinridge became a resident of Hull House and joined other women interested in social reform such as Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Mary McDowell, Edith Abbott, Mary Kenney, Grace Abbott, Alzina Stevens, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop and Alice Hamilton.

While living at Hull House (1907-1920) Breckinridge played a leading role in the development of the Immigrants' Protective League, National Consumer's League, the Women's Trade Union League and the Children's Bureau. A strong supporter of women's suffrage she was a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. An advocate of African American civil rights, Breckinridge helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1909.

Breckinridge was active in the Progressive Party and ran for the post of alderman in Chicago in 1912. A committed pacifist, Breckinridge opposed USA involvement in the First World War and was a member of the Woman's Peace Party (WPP) and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Breckinridge also worked with Edith Abbott at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. In 1920 it was moved to the University of Chicago and Breckinridge helped establish it as the country's first university-based school of social work. The two women also established the Social Service Review in 1927.

Breckinridge was the author of several books including The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912), Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Public Schools (1917) Public Welfare Administration in the United States (1927), Marriage and the Civic Rights of Women (1931) Women in the Twentieth Century (1933), Social Work and the Courts (1934), The Family in the State (1934) and The Tenements of Chicago (1936).

Sophonisba Breckinridge died in Chicago on 30th July, 1948.


Sophonisba Breckinridge - History

Most people familiar with the University of Chicago think of Sophonisba Breckinridge in connection with her achievements there. After becoming the first woman to earn her Ph.D. in political science (in 1901) and a J.D. in law (in 1904), she helped to establish the School of Social Service Administration, the nation's first social work school affiliated with a research university (in 1920), and became the first woman to hold a named professorship (in 1929).

In the movement for woman suffrage, Breckinridge was not first instead, in 1911, she was elected second vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Although she was not first in this instance, Breckinridge's leadership in the suffrage movement was significant for several reasons. Perhaps most significantly, unlike many white suffragists, Breckinridge supported African American rights as well as women's rights.

When Breckinridge took office in NAWSA alongside first vice-president Jane Addams and president Anna Howard Shaw, she became part of the national suffrage movement's "lesbian leadership team." For these women, the personal and the political were closely intertwined. Both in their private relationships and in their public commitments, they promoted women's equality.

In an essay for Women in Public Life (1914), Breckinridge argued that "political equality" was an "efficient tool" for women to achieve "an equal social and economic condition."

As a social reformer as well as a suffrage advocate, however, Breckinridge saw woman suffrage as just one part of a larger struggle for social justice. For Breckinridge, social justice included racial justice. A founding member of the Chicago branch of the NAACP and the Urban League, Breckinridge protested racial violence and demanded racial equality.

Breckinridge saw woman suffrage as a tool to promote social justice. In a 1912 speech excerpted in the Chicago Tribune, she argued that women needed the vote to combat "poverty, disease, unequal distribution of wealth, special privilege, and unequal justice."

Breckinridge's rhetorical strategies were remarkably diverse. At a time when the suffrage movement was moving away from arguments based on natural rights toward arguments based on gender differences, Breckinridge combined both approaches. Invoking natural rights, she intoned: "What we want is the ballot. We demand it and that demand is an unanswerable argument."

Breckinridge also suggested that women had unique contributions to make to American politics. She alluded to the notion of female voters as "social housekeepers" by suggesting that women should "help in the municipal housekeeping."

She also engaged in "maternalist" arguments by using women's role as mothers as a justification for woman suffrage. Conceding, "perhaps many of us women do not know as much about parliamentary law as the men," she insisted: "We do possess intelligence regarding the needs of children. That is far more important."

Although Breckinridge adopted a variety of arguments to promote woman suffrage, as a suffrage leader, she consistently advocated social justice, including racial equality. She challenged the suffrage movement's narrow focus on what African American civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois called "Votes for White Women Only."

At the same time that the suffrage movement laid greater emphasis on gender differences, it increasingly highlighted differences of class, ethnicity, and race. By the time Breckinridge assumed office, NAWSA advocated "educated suffrage," code for literacy requirements that would extend voting rights to educated, white, middle-class women, but prevent many African Americans, immigrants and working-class citizens from casting ballots.

Unlike many of her white counterparts, Breckinridge rejected exclusionary strategies. She protested literacy tests for immigrants and promoted education for working-class youth. She also welcomed African American participation in the suffrage movement. She invited Du Bois to speak at NAWSA's 1912 convention, where he advocated a "Democracy of Sex and Color," combining African Americans' and American women's struggles for full citizenship rights.

As a suffragist, Breckinridge did more than advocate women's rights she urged women to use the vote to promote social justice for all. Anticipating the adoption of the 19th Amendment, she declared: "Women should at once familiarize themselves [with] the leading issues of the day [and] vote intelligently and so make possible the greatest good for the greatest number."

Breckinridge's advocacy on behalf of both women's rights and social justice remains salient on the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting many—but not all— American women the right to vote, on August 18, 1920. The Amendment was certified into the United States Constitution on August 26, 1920, but it would be several decades before African American, Asian American, and Native American women were able to exercise the right to vote. In light of contemporary voter suppression measures and escalating police brutality against people of color, Breckinridge's insistence on upholding the civil rights of all must continue to inform American activism.

-- Anya Jabour, Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana and author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

Photos: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center. Top: apf1-02253 Bottom: apf1-02238. Home page: apf1-02252.


Sophonisba Breckinridge

For Professor Sophonisba Breckinridge, professional education, research into social problems, and direct work on behalf of the social services all advanced a single objective—the betterment of the welfare program so that the vulnerable in our society might lead richer lives.

Born in Kentucky in 1866 to a distinguished Southern family, Breckinridge was educated at Wellesley. After returning home to study law with her father, she became the first woman admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1892. Discouraged by poor prospects for building a successful legal practice as a woman, she left Kentucky for the University of Chicago at the urging of a Wellesley classmate enrolled there. Although she came to the University by “pure accident” she never again left “without….a round trip return.”

Upon her arrival in 1897, she began her studies in political science with Professor Ernst Freund. From him, she gleaned an intellectual foundation for asserting the law as an implement of social welfare. His instruction would inform her work for the rest of her career. She became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in political science from the University just as the institution was preparing to open its new law school. With Freund’s encouragement, Breckinridge enrolled in the inaugural entering class and became the first woman to graduate from the Law School in 1904.

After graduation, Breckinridge was appointed a professor at the University in what was then known as the Department of Household Administration. She embraced the role as an opportunity to effect change, introducing courses on public institutional management and public institutions for children.

Driven by her desire to make a truly useful contribution, she shifted her focus to what she regarded as “the great social issues of the day” and became involved with Jane Addams’ Hull House. She also helped found the Chicago Women’s Trade Union League and the Chicago Chapter of the NAACP.

Within a few years, Breckinridge was tapped to head the research department at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, while continuing in her role at the University. It was under her leadership and guidance that the Chicago School eventually merged with the University of Chicago to become the University’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA).

Until her retirement in 1942, Breckinridge remained a devoted teacher, all the while continuing to shape SSA, define the profession of social work, and accomplish more “firsts.” Influenced by her experience at the Law School, SSA became the first school of social service to implement the “case method.” The University appointed her the Samuel Deutsch Professor of Public Welfare Administration in 1929, making her the first female professor granted a named professorship. She was also the first woman ever chosen to represent the United States at an international conference.

A prolific writer until her death in 1948, Professor Breckinridge authored many books including The Delinquent Child and the Home, Family Welfare Work in a Metropolitan Community, Public Welfare Administration, The Family and the State, and Social Work and the Courts.

In memory of extraordinary career and far-reaching impact, the University named Breckinridge Hall in her honor. The dorm was closed to residents in 2016 and Breckinridge House was moved to the International House on campus.

Learn more about Professor Sophonisba Breckinridge on the Univeristy of Chicago Law School's website.


Breckenridge, Sophonisba Preston

Sophonisba Breckinridge, social worker, educator, and social activist, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, into a family with a long history of public service. Her father was a lawyer, a confederate Colonel, a US Congressman, and a staunch supporter of women’s education. Her great-grandfather was a US Senator and US Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson.

Breckinridge was graduated from Wellesley College in 1888 became the first woman to be admitted to the bar in 1895 and to practice law in Kentucky earned a Ph.D. in political science and economics from the University of Chicago in 1901 and was graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1904.

Breckinridge became interested in social work in 1905 after meeting Hull House founder, Jane Addams, and others active in Chicago’s era of social reform. She joined the faculty of the University of Chicago and helped develop the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, established in 1903 for the education of social workers. She served as Dean from 1908 to 1920 and prevailed on the university to make this a graduate school of social work. She remained at the University as a contributing, revered professor until her retirement in 1942.

Judith Sealander says of Breckinridge: “Breckinridge, as a social worker, fought for a progressive agenda of reforms. Key to that agenda was advocacy of greater state involvement in social issues. Breckenridge, in roles as a Chicago city health inspector, a probation officer for the Chicago Juvenile Court, a member of the executive committee of the Consumers’ League, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as secretary of the Immigrants’ Protective League demanded government intervention under the aegis of laws and agencies. She worked hard for civil rights and compulsory education laws, the minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, the eight-hour day, the establishment of a Federal Children’s Bureau, and the state’s right to remove children from abusive parents”.

Breckinridge was a charter member of the American Association of Social Workers, President of the Illinois Conference on Social Welfare, organizer and president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work, managing editor of, and contributor to, the Social Service Review.


Legal History Blog

The University of Illinois Press has published a biography on the important twentieth-century reformer and academic Sophonisba Breckenridge: Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America (2020), by Anya Jabour (University of Montana). A description from the Press:

Sophonisba Breckinridge's remarkable career stretched from the Civil War to the Cold War. She took part in virtually every reform campaign of the Progressive and New Deal eras and became a nationally and internationally renowned figure. Her work informed women's activism for decades and continues to shape progressive politics today.

Anya Jabour's biography rediscovers this groundbreaking American figure. After earning advanced degrees in politics, economics, and law, Breckinridge established the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, which became a feminist think tank that promoted public welfare policy and propelled women into leadership positions. In 1935, Breckinridge’s unremitting efforts to provide government aid to the dispossessed culminated in her appointment as an advisor on programs for the new Social Security Act. A longtime activist in international movements for peace and justice, Breckinridge also influenced the formation of the United Nations and advanced the idea that "women’s rights are human rights." Her lifelong commitment to social justice created a lasting legacy for generations of progressive activists.

"In propulsive prose, Anya Jabour brings to life progressive feminist Sophonisba Breckinridge, whose forty-year career as an advocate for social justice provides a model of 'passionate patience' for progressives in the twenty-first century."--Robyn Muncy

"Anya Jabour has written an outstanding biography of Sophonisba Breckinridge. She has thoroughly convinced me of Breckinridge's important role in American and women's history and how much of each is revealed by her lifelong activism. The research is expansive and the writing is flawless."--Joan M. Johnson


Breckinridge was the first woman U.S. representative to a high-level international conference, the 1933 Montevideo Conference., by George C. Herring, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 499. Online at Google Books. Retrieved 2011-09-20.

She graduated from Wellesley College in 1888 and worked as a school teacher in Washington, DC teaching mathematics, before returning to Lexington to study law in her father’s office. In 1895 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar.Fitzpatrick, Ellen F. "Academics and Activists: Women Social Scientists and the Impulse for Reform, 1892-1920." Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1981.

Since she had no clients who would hire a woman lawyer, she left Kentucky after a few months to become a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Her thesis for the Ph.M. degree in 1897 was on "The Administration of Justice in Kentucky," and her Ph.D. in Political Science came in 1903 with her dissertation, "Legal Tender A Study in English and American Monetary History." Meanwhile she was appointed in 1902 as assistant dean of women of the university, and the next year she was hired as an instructor. She was in 1904 the first woman to graduate from the law school of the University of Chicago and the first woman to be admitted to Order of the Coif, an honorary legal scholastic society. A news writer in Paris, Kentucky announced her achievement and gushed that Breckinridge "is considered one of the most brilliant women in the South.", Paris, Ky., June 17, 1904, col 3, p. 5. Digital Record. , Kentuckiana Digital Library.

In 1907 she moved into the Hull House and began in earnest to work with the first leaders in the Chicago settlement house movement on issues such as vocational training, housing, juvenile delinquency and truancy. Breckinridge worked with Vassar College graduate and social reformer Julia Lathrop, social gospel minister Graham Taylor (founder of the settlement house, Chicago Commons) and others to create the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, becoming its first (and only) dean.See the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy Files, 1903-1922, in the , Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections, , Chicago, Illinois. By 1920, Breckinridge and Lathrop had convinced the Board to merge the School into the University of Chicago, forming the . By 1927 the faculty of this new academic unit created the scholarly journal Social Service Review which remains the premier journal in the field of social work. Breckinridge was one of the founding editors and worked on its publication every year until her death in 1948.

By 1909 she had become an assistant professor of social economy, and over ten years later (1920) she finally convinced her male colleagues of her research abilities and earned tenure as associate professor at the University of Chicago. From 1923-1929 she was also dean in the College of Arts, Literature and Science. She earned full professorship in 1925, and in 1929 she served as the dean of pre-professional social service students and Samuel Deutsch professor of public welfare administration until her retirement from the faculty in 1933.

"My record there was not distinguished", she wrote, "but the faculty and students were kind, and the fact that the law school, like the rest of the University…accepted men and women students on equal terms publicly" ().

She was awarded honorary degrees by:

  • Oberlin College in 1919,
  • University of Kentucky in 1925,
  • Tulane University in 1939, and
  • University of Louisville in 1940.

The University of Chicago currently houses undergraduate students in Breckinridge House, named after Sophonisba Breckinridge, where students celebrate "Sophie Day" in the early spring.


History Makers, Part II: The Congressman's mistress


From the Sheldon Museum Archives: Last year we published several articles about remarkable local women in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted most American women the right to vote. In this two-part series, we focus on two amazing women who challenged the status quo of late nineteenth-century life. Their stories offer just a glimpse of what is hidden in our archives. This is the second article published in this series. Read the first here.

Central to the stories of both Sophonisba and W.C.P Breckinridge, but absent from our archive, like so many others, is Madeleine Pollard. Born in 1866 — the same year as Sophonisba — Pollard had similar ambitions for public life, but few opportunities. Like Sophonisba, she excelled in school, where she was lauded as a promising writer, but her humble background forced her to rely on the patronage of wealthier men to fund her education and further her career.

In 1884, at age 21, Pollard met the soon-to-be elected congressman W.C.P. Breckinridge by chance on a train. Beset by money troubles that threatened her studies at Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, Pollard followed up on their chance meeting with a letter to Breckinridge, who was at that time a prominent lawyer. He went to Cincinnati to discuss her predicament and learned that she was on the hook to marry a much older, largely illiterate Lexington farmer who had funded her education. An affair between Pollard and Breckinridge began days later. Pollard subsequently left school, moved across the country, and bore three of Breckinridge’s children as his political career skyrocketed. All the while, he promised that upon his wife’s death, he would marry her.

This arrangement, even with its pall of illegitimacy, was satisfactory to Pollard. The congressman provided the entree she desired into the political elite. She relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1887 and, with Breckinridge’s patronage, secured positions in the Department of Agriculture and the Census Bureau.

In June of 1892, Pollard arrived at the Bread Loaf Inn in Ripton. She had been invited at the request of the proprietor Joseph Battell, whom she had met in Washington. The other Bread Loaf residents were initially wary of the unescorted young woman, but Pollard quickly charmed them with a wit and intellect that would later be used against her as evidence of her conniving character.

Pollard had much in common with the well-heeled New Englanders who summered at Bread Loaf. She was college-educated, a public servant in Washington DC, and a budding writer who travelled in the social circles of novelist Charles Dudley Warner and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Another Bread Loaf resident described Pollard portentously as “one of the most interesting guests at the Inn, because we are likely to hear of her in the near future.”

It was likely at Bread Loaf that Pollard learned about the death of Breckinridge’s wife, at which time she began to press her lover to make good on his promise of marriage. However, in July of 1893, while she recovered from a miscarriage in Virginia, Pollard learned that Breckinridge had married another woman. Two weeks later, Pollard sued him for breach of promise of marriage.

Throughout the trial, which became a national past-time as the recession of 1893 hit, two narratives of Madeleine Pollard emerged: the social-climbing adventuress and the wronged schoolgirl. Breckinridge’s legal team tapped into a cultural anxiety about “public” women — women who turned their back on hearth and home in order to establish themselves in the world. They cast Pollard’s literary aspirations as a ruse, a means to attach herself to powerful men. Even Pollard’s own lawyers downplayed her professional ambitions, dismissing her writing as schoolgirl romanticism and often quite literally stifling her outbursts in court. Men from all across the country leapt to Breckinridge’s aid, swearing that Pollard had seduced them.

Although Pollard ultimately won her case, she never received a penny of the $15,000 promised to her by the court (just under $50,000 in today’s money). Once the darling of literary circles, she became a social pariah. For historians, she is a footnote in the collapse of Breckinridge’s political career, which sputtered in the aftermath of the scandal.

Pollard went down in Bread Loaf history as one of the Inn’s most notorious guests. In a 1932 reminiscence of the Inn and its proprietor Joseph Battell, Clara Curtis noted a certain “Mademoiselle Ixe” who “sought diversion wherever it came, finding no difficulty in beguiling members of the opposite sex.” Curtis alleges that Mademoiselle Ixe was asked to depart early from the Inn, before noting Battell’s propriety in never so much as referencing the young woman’s subsequent suit “against one of Washington’s most prominent senators for breach of promise.”

Following the trial, Pollard is absent from the historical record. A fixture of the national media for over a year, she disappeared from American newspapers after 1894. Indeed, she is absent from our archives at the Sheldon, where her story was waiting to be found in the margins of the story of the celebrated politician and his impressive reformer daughter.

It was not until recent research by the scholar Elizabeth de Wolfe that Pollard’s second act was uncovered. Contrary to longstanding assumption, Pollard did not disappear in notoriety, but flourished, finally securing the literary lifestyle that she had always wanted, this time without any extramarital strings attached. Pollard resurfaces in London, where she took classes, travelled widely, and began a lifelong companionship with an Irish woman named Violet Hassard. In uncovering Pollard’s transatlantic, post-trial life, De Wolfe utilized sources “less mediated by men,” like ship passenger lists, boardinghouse records, and British census information. Contrary to the assumption for “ruined” women, Pollard died in neither shame nor financial ruin.

The intersecting stories of Madeleine Pollard and Sophonisba Breckinridge offer a glimpse into how two women negotiated the patriarchal values of their time in order to make their way in the world. Pollard’s gross mistreatment by a powerful male public figure and her demonization by the media strike a chord in today’s #MeToo world, reminding us how often women’s accomplishments are overshadowed by the lurid details of their sex life. While Sophonisba had a prestigious name and therefore a place in public life, Pollard was lost to the margins of history, shamed and forgotten. The discovery of Pollard’s rich post-trial life is a resounding call to look for the absences in the archive, to prioritize non-traditional sources, and ultimately to question the historical record. In doing so, we can restore dignity and agency to those silenced by history.

Taylor Rossini is the Archives Assistant at the Henry Sheldon Museum and graduate of Middlebury College in art history.


Sophonisba Breckinridge

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About Sophonisba Ann Breckenridge

Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (April 1, 1866 – July 30, 1948) was an American activist, Progressive Era social reformer, social scientist and innovator in higher education.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge was a member of the political active and social elite Desha family and Breckinridge family. She was the daughter of Issa Desha Breckinridge who was the second wife of Col. William C.P. Breckinridge, a member of Congress from Kentucky, editor and a lawyer. Her grandfather was the abolitionist minister Robert Jefferson Breckinridge. Her great-grandfather was John Breckinridge. She was the second child of five: Eleanor Breckinridge Chalkley, Desha Breckinridge, Curry Desha Breckinridge.

Education and Academic Innovator

She graduated from Wellesley College in 1888 and worked as a school teacher in Washington, DC teaching mathematics, before returning to Lexington to study law in her father's office. In 1895 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar.

Since she had no clients who would hire a woman lawyer, she left Kentucky after a few months to become a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Her thesis for the Ph.M. degree in 1897 was on "The Administration of Justice in Kentucky," and her Ph.D. in Political Science came in 1903 with her dissertation, "Legal Tender A Study in English and American Monetary History." Meanwhile she was appointed in 1902 as assistant dean of women of the university, and the next year she was hired as an instructor. She was in 1904 the first woman to graduate from the law school of the University of Chicago and the first woman to be admitted to Order of the Coif, an honorary legal scholastic society. A news writer in Paris, Kentucky announced her achievement and gushed that Breckinridge "is considered one of the most brilliant women in the South."

In 1907 she moved into the Hull House and began in earnest to work with the first leaders in the Chicago settlement house movement on issues such as vocational training, housing, juvenile delinquency and truancy. Breckinridge worked with Vassar College graduate and social reformer Julia Lathrop, social gospel minister Graham Taylor (founder of the settlement house, Chicago Commons) and others to create the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, becoming its first (and only) dean. By 1920, Breckinridge and Lathrop had convinced the Board to merge the School into the University of Chicago, forming the Graduate School of Social Service Administration. By 1927 the faculty of this new academic unit created the scholarly journal Social Service Review which remains the premier journal in the field of social work. Breckinridge was one of the founding editors and worked on its publication every year until her death in 1948.

By 1909 she had become an assistant professor of social economy, and over ten years later (1920) she finally convinced her male colleagues of her research abilities and earned tenure as associate professor at the University of Chicago. From 1923-1929 she was also dean in the College of Arts, Literature and Science. She earned full professorship in 1925, and in 1929 she served as the dean of pre-professional social service students and Samuel Deutsch professor of public welfare administration until her retirement from the faculty in 1933.

"My record there was not distinguished", she wrote, "but the faculty and students were kind, and the fact that the law school, like the rest of the University. accepted men and women students on equal terms publicly".

She was awarded honorary degrees by:

The University of Chicago currently houses undergraduate students in Breckinridge House, named after Sophonisba Breckinridge, where students celebrate "Sophie Day" in the early spring.

When she obtained an appointment as a part-time professor in the Department of Household Administration which was a part of the Sociology department, in 1907, she also became a resident of Hull House. As a resident of Hull House until 1920, she became active in several causes, including:

When the women of Chicago gained limited voting rights in 1913, Breckinridge was one of eight women that ran for "alderwomanic" office.

1933 Montevideo Conference

Breckinridge was the first woman U.S. representative to a high-level international conference, the 1933 Montevideo Conference.

Publications and Organization Involvement

Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (April 1, 1866 – July 30, 1948) was an American activist. Born in Lexington, Kentucky, she was a member of the Breckinridge family, the daughter of William Breckinridge, a member of Congress from Kentucky and a lawyer. Her grandfather was the abolitionist minister Robert Jefferson Breckinridge. Her great-grandfather was John Breckinridge.

She graduated from Wellesley College in 1888 and worked as a school teacher in Washington, DC, before studying law at her father's office. She later became the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar. She was also the first woman to graduate from the law school of the University of Chicago.

"My record there was not distinguished", she wrote, "but the faculty and students were kind, and the fact that the law school, like the rest of the University. accepted men and women students on equal terms publicly" ([1]).

She obtained an appointment as a part-time professor in the Department of Household Administration, and in 1907 became a resident of Hull House. As a resident of Hull House until 1920, she became active in several causes, including:

African-American civil rights (she helped establish the NAACP)

She wrote several books on family, public welfare, and children. When the women of Chicago gained limited voting rights in 1913, Breckinridge was one of eight women that ran for "alderwomanic" office.

The University of Chicago currently houses undergraduate students in Breckinridge House, named after Sophonisba Breckinridge, where students celebrate "Sophie Day" in the early Spring.

The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912)

Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools (1917)

Family Welfare Work in a Metropolitan Community (1924)

Public Welfare Administration (1927)

Women in the Twentieth Century (1933)

The Family and the State (1934)

[edit] Organization Involvement

National American Woman's Suffrage Association (Served as vice president)

American Social Science Association (ASSA)

National Conference of Social Workers (NCSW)

American Association of Social Workers (AASW)

Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (CSCP)

On July 30, 1948 Sophonisba Breckinridge died from a perforated ulcer and arteriosclerosis, aged 82.


Historic Pic: Sophonisba Breckinridge


From the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration:

Our Founding Mothers
"Their contributions to social welfare can be summarized under three main headings: contributions to professional education, the direct contributions to the social services in Chicago and elsewhere, and their research into social problems. They all served one purpose, the improvement of the welfare program so that the disadvantaged in our community might have richer lives."

-- Helen Wright
Dean, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration
1942-56

At a time when women held little power in our society, Sophonisba Breckenridge and Edith and Grace Abbott were true pioneers. SSA and the field of social work itself owe an enormous debt of gratitude to their extraordinary talent, determination, and clarity of vision.

Edith Abbott
Grace Abbott
Sophonisba Breckinridge"

Mitchell Marks

Sid Colton

Trish Morse

Rachel Kurth

Hydepa. @gmail.com

That home in the Crain’s article with the interiors is 5001 S. Ellis, which is why I asked about Woodlawn. My guess is they might have lived on Woodlawn earlier, but I didn’t know.

Sent from Mail for Windows 10

#HistoricPic Sophonisba Breckinridge

In honor of Women’s History month—

Breckinridge is an interesting figure who finally has a biography. I’ll do a couple of days on her, but first why she’s important. Her biographer, Anya Jabour, has said this: “In a way, her career was a sort of checklist of women’s activism in twentieth‐century America. For Breckinridge, all her activities worked toward the same end: creating a just and equal society for all.”

She achieved so much against the strong headwinds of the 19th century. She attended the future University of Kentucky at the age of 14 but could not receive a degree as a woman, so after four years, she went to Wellesley. She was the first woman admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1895 though her father ran ads in the newspaper to make it clear that she was NOT a partner in his firm. She could get few clients, so moved on to Chicago to work for Marion Talbot, the Dean of Women at the University of Chicago. She was the first woman to earn a PhD in political science and economics in 1901. In 1904, she became the first woman to graduate from the Law School. Every male professor assumed she would not stay in academics. It must have been something of a triumph when she served a term as dean of the college in the 1920s and eventually was tenured as a full professor.

She studied how public policy and social reforms could address the appalling conditions for child laborers, working women, immigrants, and African Americans, joining Hull House and pushing the university to create the School of Social Service Administration (now Crown SSA after the big donor) to study what policies would effect real change. She pushed forward on every front she could, including influencing New Deal programs like the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

And yet, she isn’t well-known. She was unassuming and willing to work behind the scene to get things done and let others take the center stage. I knew about her because the university named a building after her and now there's a full biography.


Chicago/SSA/Centennial

Samuel Deutsch Professor of Public Welfare Administration

For Professor Sophonisba Breckinridge, professional education, research into social problems, and direct work on behalf of the social services all advanced a single objective—the betterment of the welfare program so that the vulnerable in our society might lead richer lives.

Born in Kentucky in 1866 to a distinguished Southern family, Miss Breckenridge was educated at Wellesley. After returning home to study law with her father, she became the first woman admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1892. Discouraged by poor prospects for building a successful legal practice as a woman, she left Kentucky for the University of Chicago at the urging of a Wellesley classmate enrolled there. Although she came to the University by “pure accident” she never again left “without….a round trip return.”

Upon her arrival in 1897, she began her studies in political science with Professor Ernst Freund. From him, she gleaned an intellectual foundation for asserting the law as an implement of social welfare. His instruction would inform her work for the rest of her career. She became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in political science from the University just as the institution was preparing to open its new law school. With Mr. Freund’s encouragement, Miss Breckenridge enrolled in the inaugural entering class and became the first woman to graduate from the Law School in 1904.

After graduation, Miss Breckinridge was appointed a professor at the University in what was then known as the Department of Household Administration. She embraced the role as an opportunity to effect change, introducing courses on public institutional management and public institutions for children.

Driven by her desire to make a truly useful contribution, she shifted her focus to what she regarded as “the great social issues of the day” and became involved with Jane Addams’ Hull House. She also helped found the Chicago Women’s Trade Union League and the Chicago Chapter of the NAACP.

Within a few years, Miss Breckenridge was tapped to head the research department at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, while continuing in her role at the University. It was under her leadership and guidance that the Chicago School eventually merged with the University of Chicago to become the University’s School of Social Service Administration (SSA).

Until her retirement in 1942, Miss Breckenridge remained a devoted teacher, all the while continuing to shape SSA, define the profession of social work, and accomplish more “firsts.” Influenced by her experience at the Law School, SSA became the first school of social service to implement the “case method.” The University appointed her the Samuel Deutsch Professor of Public Welfare Administration in 1929, making her the first female professor granted a named professorship. She was also the first woman ever chosen to represent the United States at an international conference.

A prolific writer until her death in 1948, Miss Breckenridge authored many books including The Delinquent Child and the Home, Family Welfare Work in a Metropolitan Community, Public Welfare Administration, The Family and the State, and Social Work and the Courts.

In memory of extraordinary career and far-reaching impact, the University named Breckinridge Hall in her honor.


Watch the video: Championing Womens Activism in Modern America with author Anya Jabour (June 2022).


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