Partner Marion Talbot, Edith Abbott
Wellesley College, 106 Central St, Wellesley, MA 02481
Hull House, 800 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60607
Lexington Cemetery Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, USA
Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (April 1, 1866 – July 30, 1948) was an American activist, Progressive Era social reformer, social scientist and innovator in higher education. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in political science and economics then the J.D. at the University of Chicago, and she was the first woman to pass the Kentucky bar. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 sent her as a delegate to the 7th Pan-American Conference in Uruguay, making her the first woman to represent the U.S. government at an international conference. She led the process of creating the academic professional discipline and degree for social work. An important academic wealthy spinster, Sophonisba Breckinridge, came from a prominent Kentucky family and was the great-granddaughter of a U.S. Senator. She, too, was not a Yankee, but she was pretty clearly a lesbian. Unhappy as a lawyer in Kentucky, Sophonisba went to the University of Chicago graduate school and became the first woman Ph.D. in political science in 1901. She continued to teach social science and social work at the University of Chicago for the rest of her career, becoming the mentor and probable long-time lesbian companion of Edith Abbott. Edith Abbott, born in Nebraska, had been secretary of the Boston Trade Union League and had studied at the London School of Economics, where she was strongly influence by the Webbs, leaders of Fabian Socialism. She lived and worked, predictably, at a London Settlement House. Then Edith studied for a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago, which she earned in 1905. Becoming an instructor at Wellesley, Edith soon joined her slightly younger sister Grace at Hull House in 1908, where the two sisters lived for the next dozen years, Edith as social research director of Hull House. In the early 1920s, Edith Abbott became Dean of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and co-edited the school's Social Service Review with her friend and mentor, Sophonisba Breckinridge.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Sophonisba "Nisba" Preston Breckinridge was a member of the politically active and socially prominent Kentuckian elite, Desha family and Breckinridge family. She was the second child of seven of Issa Desha Breckinridge, the second wife of Col. William C.P. Breckinridge, a member of Congress from Kentucky, editor and a lawyer. Her paternal grandfather was the abolitionist minister Robert Jefferson Breckinridge; her maternal grandfather was General Joseph Desha, a U.S. Representative and the ninth governor of Kentucky. Her great-grandfather was John Breckinridge, the United States Attorney General. Her cousin, John C. Breckinridge, was Vice President of the United States during James Buchanan's presidency, and ran against Abraham Lincoln in 1860 presidential election. At fourteen, she attended the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical College (later called the University of Kentucky) when it opened to women in 1880. She was not allowed to be degree-seeking, but she studied there for four years.
Breckinridge graduated from Wellesley College in 1888 and worked for two years as a high school teacher in Washington, D.C., teaching mathematics. She traveled in Europe for the next two years returning to Lexington in 1892 when her mother suddenly died. She studied the legal system in her father's law office and in 1895 became the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar. Since Breckinridge had few clients who would hire a woman lawyer, she left Kentucky to become a secretary to Marion Talbot, the Dean of Women at the University of Chicago. She enrolled as a graduate student eventually receiving a Ph.M. degree in 1897, and a Ph.D. in political science and economics in 1901 from the University of Chicago. Her thesis for the Ph.M. degree 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. In 1904, she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School. "My record there was not distinguished," she later wrote in her autobiography, "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 also became the first woman to be admitted to the 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."
As a social scientist, teaching and conducting research at the University of Chicago, Breckinridge focused on the intersection of the social problems, public policy and social reforms with an emphasis on immigrants, African Americans, child laborers, and working women in American urban centers, among other issues. From the beginning, she took an activist approach and became involved with the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), serving as a factory inspector. In 1907 she joined the Hull House project and began in earnest to work with the leaders of the Chicago settlement house movement, Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, and Margaret Dreier Robins on such issues as vocational training, housing, juvenile delinquency and truancy. Breckinridge also collaborated with Vassar College graduate and social reformer Julia Lathrop, and social gospel minister Graham Taylor, a founder of the settlement house Chicago Commons, to create the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, becoming its first dean. By 1920, Breckinridge and Lathrop had convinced the Board of the School to merge it 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 and Edith Abbott were the founding editors, and Breckinridge worked on its publication every year until her death in 1948. By 1909, Breckinridge had become an assistant professor of social economy, and over ten years later, in 1920, she finally convinced her male colleagues of her research abilities and earned tenure as associate professor at the University of Chicago. From 1923 to 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.
When she came to the University of Chicago in 1895, Breckinridge formed a close relationship with the Dean of Women, Marion Talbot. Although she remained close to Talbot throughout her life, by the 1910s her primary relationship was with Edith Abbott. Breckinridge and Abbott worked together closely at the School of Social Service Administration. The pair also promoted social welfare policy.
Breckinridge and Abbott played an important role in designing, promoting, and implementing several New Deal programs, including the Social Security Act of 1935, which laid the groundwork for the modern welfare state. A lifelong advocate of maximum hour and minimum wage legislation, Breckinridge also helped promote the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Following her retirement from the faculty of the University of Chicago, Breckinridge continued to teach courses in public welfare until 1942. In Chicago, on July 30, 1948, Sophonisba Breckinridge died from a perforated ulcer and arteriosclerosis, aged 82. She is interred in Lexington (Kentucky) Cemetery in the Breckinridge family plot.
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