Sophonisba Breckinridge

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Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge
Sophonisba P. Breckenridge.jpg
Lawyer, educator, social scientist, civil rights activist
Born April 1, 1866
Lexington, Kentucky
Died July 30, 1948(1948-07-30) (aged 82)
Chicago, Illinois

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[edit]

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.[1]

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."[2]

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.[3] 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".[4]

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.

Social activism[edit]

When she obtained an appointment as a part-time professor in the Department of Household Administration which was a part of the Sociology department,[5] 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.[6]

1933 Montevideo Conference[edit]

Breckinridge was the first woman U.S. representative to a high-level international conference, the 1933 Montevideo Conference.[7]


She wrote many books on family, public welfare, and children.

  • The Wage-earning Woman and the State: a reply to Miss Minnie Bronson (191-)
  • The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912)
  • Papers presented at the conferences held during the Chicago Child Welfare Exhibit, The Child in the City (New York, Amo Press, 1970 - reprint of the 1912 edition)
  • The Modern Household (1912, 2nd edition, 1916)
  • Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools: a study of the social aspects of the compulsory education and child labor legislation of Illinois (1917)
  • Madeline McDowell Breckinridge: a Leader in the New South. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1921.
  • New Homes for Old. New York: Harper and Brothers Publisher, 1921.
  • Family Welfare Work in the Metropolitan Community: selected case records (1924)
  • Public Welfare Administration in the United States, select documents (1927)
  • The Illinois adoption law and its administration (1928)
  • Marriage and the Civic Rights of Women: separate domicil and independent citizenship (1931)
  • Women in the Twentieth Century: a study of their political, social and economic activities (1933)
  • The Family and the State, select documents (1934)
  • The Ohio poor law and its administration ... and appendixes with selected decisions of the Ohio Supreme Court (1934)
  • Public welfare administration, with special reference to the organization of state departments; outline and bibliography; supplementary to Public welfare administration in the United states: select documents (1934)*Social work and the courts; select statutes and judicial decisions (1934)
  • The development of poor relief legislation in Kansas, by Grace A. Browning... and appendixes with court decisions edited by Sophonisba P. Breckinridge (1935)
  • The Michigan poor law: its development and administration with special reference to state provision for medical care of the indigent / by Isabel Campbell Bruce and Edith Eickhoff, edited with an introductory note and selected court decisions by Sophonisba P. Breckinridge (1936)
  • Indiana poor law; its development and administration, with special reference to the provisions of state care for the sick poor (1936)
  • The Tenements of Chicago, 1908-1935 (New York: Arno Press, 1970; reprint of 1936 edition)
  • The illegitimate child in Illinois, by Dorothy Frances Puttee ... and Mary Ruth Colby ... edited by Sophonisba P. Breckinridge (1937)
  • State administration of child welfare in Illinois (1937)
  • The Illinois poor law and its administration (1939)
  • The Stepfather in the Family (1940)

Organization involvement[edit]


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.


  1. ^ Fitzpatrick, Ellen F. "Academics and Activists: Women Social Scientists and the Impulse for Reform, 1892-1920." Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1981.
  2. ^ The Bourbon News, Paris, Ky., June 17, 1904, col 3, p. 5. Digital Record. KUK-bn1904061701-5, Kentuckiana Digital Library.
  3. ^ See the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy Files, 1903-1922, in the Graham Taylor Papers, 1820-1975, bulk 1866-1940, Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections, The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Fitzpatrick, Ellen F. Endless Crusade: Women Social Scientists and Progressive Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  6. ^ Joanne L. Goodwin, Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform: Mothers' Pensions in Chicago, 1911-1929 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 133-135.
  7. ^ From colony to superpower: U.S. foreign relations since 1776, by George C. Herring, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 499. Online at Google Books. Retrieved 2011-09-20.

Further reading and external links[edit]

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