Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Sophonisba Breckinridge, 1866-1948

By Dr. Dorene Huvaere, Lewis University

Sophonisba Breckinridge was born to a wealthy and politically active family in Lexington Kentucky on April 1, 1866. Her father was a lawyer, a US Congressman and a steadfast supporter of women's education. Her grandfather had been governor of Kentucky and her great-grandfather a US Senator and US Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson.

Miss Breckinridge attended and graduated from Wellesley College in 1888. After graduation, she taught Mathematics in Washington, D.C. for two years and then traveled in Europe until her mother suddenly died. She returned to Lexington to work alongside her father in his Lexington law office. She was formally admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1895. Finding few prospects to practice law due to gender discrimination, Miss Breckinridge journeyed to Chicago. Shortly after her arrival in Chicago she earned a Ph.D. in political science and economics from the University of Chicago; and three years later, 1904 she was the first woman to graduate from their newly formed law school. Miss Breckinridge then joined the University of Chicago faculty as a part-time faculty member in the Department of Household Administration.

Miss Breckinridge continued to teach and work at the University of Chicago, refining her research and interest in social issues and how to better the lives of the disadvantaged. She joined the Hull House staff in 1907 furthering her work related to social services and welfare programs, particularly those focused on women and children. While at Hull House she became involved in the Women's Trade Union League and the suffrage movement. A supporter of women's rights and a staunch advocate for political equality, Breckinridge recognized the need for women to be fully active in government in order to harness their potential and influence government policy issues. In her article, "Political Equality for Women and Women's Wages," Breckinridge spoke about the right to vote and its impact for women on political, social and economic justice. She supported the League of Women Voters and joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In addition to serving as NAWSA national secretary, she worked alongside Jane Addams to spearhead NAWSA's opening of the Midwest regional office, providing access to NAWSA materials for the local community. As a member of NAWSA, she spoke at rallies, and edited "A Handbook for Women Voters of Illinois" providing information about government functions and serve as a source to help women understand the purpose and power of enfranchisement.

Breckinridge's attention focused on educating women about the benefits of political participation and improving their lives. She became a recognized name in the field of social work. She started working at the Chicago Institute of Social Science, which later became the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (CSCP). She led the effort to merge the CSCP with the University of Chicago, creating the Graduate School of Social Service Administration (SSA) in 1920. She was awarded full professor in the SSA in 1925 and her ideas about a rigorous curriculum and training techniques set the standard for social-work education.

As a fighter for progressive reforms and an advocate for the disadvantaged Miss Breckinridge served in numerous positions such as a city health inspector, a probation office for the Chicago Juvenile Court, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and secretary of the Immigrants' Protective League. In these positions, she fought for civil rights and reforms to protect children and worker and minority rights.

Miss Breckinridge authored several books that emphasized legal, economic and social issues impacting women, children and immigrants. One of her earliest writings The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912) examined the connection between criminal activity, its consequences and the type of communities in which the children lived. A prolific author, Miss Breckinridge used her voice to advocate for social welfare with works such as, Family Welfare Work in a Metropolitan Community, Public Welfare Administration, The Family and the State, and Social Work and the Courts.

Miss Breckinridge's extraordinary career significantly contributed to the suffrage movement, the field of social work, and the concept that the state should be involved in social-welfare programs. She died in Chicago on July 30, 1948 at the age of 82.


Barr, Nancy Ellen (1993). A Profession for Women: Education, Social Service Administration and Feminism in the life of Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, 1886-1948. Emory University, Atlanta, GA.

S. P. Breckinridge, "Political Equality for Women and Women's Wages," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 56, Women in Public Life (Nov. 1914), 122-33.

Deutsch, Samuel. "Sophonisba Breckinridge, Ph.D. (Political Science) 1901, J.D. 1904." The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Retrieved [June 25, 2018] from

Hansan, J. (2011). "Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (1866-1948): Social worker, activist, educator and attorney." Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [June 25, 2018] from

Klotter, James, C. (1986). Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston. In the Kentucky Encyclopedia (pp. 120-121). Lexington, KY.

Lenroot Katharine. (1949). "Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, Social Pioneer." Social Service Review. Vol. 23, No. 1 pp. 88-92. Taken from

Jabour, Anya. (2012). "Relationship and Leadership: Sophonisba Breckinridge and Women in Social Work." Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work. Volume: 27 issue: 1, page(s): 22-37. Retrieved from

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