Breckinridge, Sophonisba P. (Sophonisba Preston), 1866-1948

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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. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt 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.

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 (theologian), 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.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Woman's rights collection, 1853-1958 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Villard, Oswald Garrison, 1872-1949. Papers, 1872-1949 Houghton Library
referencedIn American Association for Labor Legislation. Series 1, Subseries 1, part a. Correspondence (A-H), 1905-1910. [microform] Cornell University Library
referencedIn Eliot, Martha M. (Martha May), b. 1891. Papers, 1870-1978 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn National Women’s Trade Union League of America Records, 1903-1950 Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970. Papers, 1833-1975 (bulk: 1884-1972) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Grace Browning and Mary Houk papers, 1910-1951, (bulk 1928-1951) University of Minnesota Libraries. Social Welfare History Archives
referencedIn McCulloch, Catharine Waugh, 1862-1945. Papers in the Mary Earhart Dillon collection, 1869-1945 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Bureau of Vocational Information. Records, 1908-1932 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Van Waters, Miriam. Papers, 1861-1971 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Hefferan, Helen Maley, 1870-. Series IV of the Mary Earhart Dillon Collection, 1902-1941 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers of Cecilia Razovsky, undated, 1913-1971 American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History
referencedIn Dewson, Molly, 1874-1962. Papers of Molly Dewson, 1893-1962 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Bosworth, Louise Marion, 1881-1982. Papers, 1890-1946 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers, n.d., 1902-1941 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Van Waters, Miriam, 1887-1974. Papers, 1861-1971 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers: Series II, 1894-1948 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Bureau of Vocational Information (New York, N.Y.). Records, 1908-1932 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970. Papers: Series I-II, 1833-1975 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dummer, Ethel Sturges, 1866-1954. Papers, 1689-1962 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn National Women's Trade Union League of America. Records of the National Women's Trade Union League of America, 1903-1950. Library of Congress
referencedIn McCulloch, Catharine Waugh, 1862-1945. Papers, 1877-1983 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Rebecca Shelley Papers, 1890-1984 Bentley Historica Library University of Michigan
referencedIn McCulloch, Catharine Waugh, 1862-1945. Papers, 1877-1983 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn National Women's Trade Union League of America. Records, 1903-1950. [microform] Cornell University Library
referencedIn Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers, 1874-1945 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Woman's rights collection, 1853-1958 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Abbott, Edith, 1876-1957. Edith and Grace Abbott papers, 1870-1967 (inclusive). University of Chicago Library
creatorOf Browning, Grace Alta, 1904-. Grace Browning and Mary Houk papers, 1910-1951 (bulk 1928-1951). University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
referencedIn Dewson, Molly, 1874-1962. Papers, 1893-1962 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Park, Maud Wood, 1871-1955. Papers in the Woman's Rights Collection, 1870-1960 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Edith and Grace Abbott, Papers, 1905-1976 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library
creatorOf Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston, 1866-1948. Papers, 1912-ca. 1940. University of Illinois at Chicago Library, UIC
referencedIn Park, Maud Wood, 1871-1955. Papers in the Woman's Rights Collection, 1870-1960 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers, 1898-1975 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Abbott, Edith and Grace. Papers, 1870-1967 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Talbot, Marion. Papers, 1854-1948 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
creatorOf Taylor, Graham, 1851-1938. Graham Taylor papers, 1820-1975, (bulk 1866-1940). Newberry Library
referencedIn Beard, Mary Ritter, 1876-1958. Papers, 1935-1958 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Breckinridge, Sophonisba P. Papers Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
referencedIn Beyer, Clara M. (Clara Mortenson). Papers of Clara Mortenson Beyer, 1911-1974 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers, 1890-1946 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Breckinridge, Clifton Rodes, 1846-1932. Breckinridge family papers, 1752-1965. Library of Congress
referencedIn Breckinridge Family Papers, 1752-1965 Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Blaine, Anita McCormick. Correspondence and papers, 1828-1958. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn McCulloch, Catharine Waugh, 1862-1945. Papers in the Mary Earhart Dillon Collection, 1869-1945 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston, 1866-1948. Papers, 1908-1949 (inclusive). University of Chicago Library
referencedIn Talbot, Marion, 1858-1948. Papers, 1854-1948 (inclusive). University of Chicago Library
creatorOf Shelley, Rebecca, 1887-1984. Rebecca Shelley papers, 1890-1984. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Ludlow mss., 1898-1948 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
referencedIn Stantial, Edna Lamprey. Papers, 1836-1958 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dummer, Ethel Sturges, 1866-1954. Papers, 1766-1962 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Abbott, Edith, 1876-1957. person
associatedWith Abbott, Grace, 1878-1939 person
associatedWith Addams, Jane, 1860-1935. person
associatedWith American Association for Labor Legislation. corporateBody
associatedWith Beard, Mary Ritter, 1876-1958 person
associatedWith Beyer, Clara M. (Clara Mortenson) person
associatedWith Blaine, Anita McCormick. person
associatedWith Bosworth, Louise Marion, 1881-1982 person
associatedWith Breckinridge family family
associatedWith Browning, Grace Alta, 1904- person
associatedWith Bureau of Vocational Information (New York, N.Y. : 1911-1926) corporateBody
associatedWith Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947 person
associatedWith Dewson, Mary (Molly) Williams, 1874-1962 person
associatedWith Dummer, Ethel Sturges, 1866-1954 person
associatedWith Eliot, Martha M. (Martha May), 1891-1978 person
associatedWith Hefferan, Helen Maley, 1870- person
associatedWith Hull-House (Chicago, Ill.) corporateBody
associatedWith Lathrop, Julia Clifford, 1858-1932. person
associatedWith Ludlow, Louis, 1873-1950 person
associatedWith McCulloch, Catharine Waugh, 1862-1945 person
associatedWith Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970 person
associatedWith National Women's Trade Union League of America corporateBody
associatedWith Park, Maud Wood, 1871-1955 person
associatedWith Razovsky, Cecilia, 1886-1968 person
associatedWith Shelley, Rebecca, 1887-1984. person
associatedWith Stantial, Edna Lamprey. person
associatedWith Talbot, Marion, 1858-1948. person
associatedWith Taylor, Graham, 1851-1938. person
associatedWith University of Chicago. School of Social Service Administration. corporateBody
associatedWith Van Waters, Miriam, 1887-1974 person
correspondedWith Villard, Oswald Garrison, 1872-1949 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Chicago IL US
Lexington KY US
Washington, D. C. DC US
Oriental Republic of Uruguay 00 UY
Subject
Women in social work education
Suffrage
Labor law
Social work education
Pacificism
Women's rights
Children's rights
Civil rights
Social work education--Sources
Progressive Party
Occupation
Diplomats
Political Scientist
Economist
lawyer
Teacher
Suffragists
Activity

Person

Birth 1866-04-01

Death 1948-07-30

Female

Americans

English

Information

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