Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge
Social Work Pioneer and Progressive Era Reformer
Cathy Coghlan, MSSW
Texas Woman's University
January 21, 1999
Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, a tireless social scientist, social work educator, and advocate for social reform in the Progressive Era left an indelible mark on the profession of social work although few social workers are aware of her name much less her contributions to the discipline. Sophonisba Breckinridge came to social work from sociology. She studied at the University of Chicago and remained there after completing her doctorate in political economy and a law degree. Breckinridge was a part-time resident at Hull-House, living there off and on for almost fifteen years. She was very much a part of the Hull-House "inner-circle" and was active in many of the same reform activities in which the better known residents of Hull-House engaged.
Family and Educational Background
Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge was born in Lexington, Kentucky on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1866 to a prominent Kentucky family. A descendent of Patrick Henry, Sophonisba Breckinridge was from a long line of influential and powerful people (New York Times 1948). Her great-grandfather, John Breckinridge was attorney general in Thomas Jeffersons cabinet. Her grandfather, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge had been an outspoken unionist. Her fathers cousin, John C. Breckinridge, was a U. S. Senator, Vice-President under Buchanan, ran for President on a pro-slavery platform against Lincoln and held a high office in the Confederacy. Her father, William Breckinridge was a U.S. Representative (Abbott 1948; Fitzpatrick 1990).
Her mother, Issa Desha Breckinridge, was also from a prominent Kentucky family. Sophonisbas maternal great-grandfather had been governor of Kentucky in the early nineteenth century (Fitzpatrick 1990). Looking at this long heritage of political activism, it is not surprising that Sophonisba focused on changing systems rather than individuals as she carved out her niche in the world.
With strong support form her father Sophonisba Breckinridge attended Wellesley College, graduating in 1888. Uncertain of her future after graduation from Wellesley, Breckinridge studied law in her father's law office and after passing the bar exam with flying colors and swearing in a courtroom that she "had never borne a challenge and had never fought a duel with deadly weapons", Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge became the first woman admitted to the bar in Kentucky (Abbott 1948, p. 418; Fitzpatrick 1990).
Ironically, her father also inadvertently prompted her eventual move to Chicago where she remained for the rest of her life. An embarrassing political scandal for her father that rivals today's headlines led to a surge of anti-Breckinridge sentiment in Kentucky and took a toll on Breckinridge's health. When a former Wellesley classmate invited Breckinridge to Chicago and encouraged her to enter graduate school there, Breckinridge leapt at the chance.
Breckinridge found her calling in Chicago and thus began the journey that places her among social work's most influential pioneers. 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 which was a part of the sociology department (Fitzpatrick 1990). This part-time appointment made it possible for Breckinridge to stay in Chicago and preserved her relationship with the University. By necessity, it also forced her to look for other means of income. She found this means through the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (although it was not always reliable--she and other staff are reported to have gone without pay on several occasions).
Industrialization, Immigration, and Urbanization
The world was a rapidly changing place when Sophonisba Breckinridge began her academic career. Industrialization, immigration, and urbanization were important influences on the life and work of Sophonisba Breckinridge. The effects of urbanization and industrialization were the focus of much of her work. The cost of industrialization was particularly high in Chicago. The population had grown from three hundred thousand in the late 1870s to over one million by 1890. Near the stockyards, approximately thirty-five thousand people lived in one square mile (Fitzpatrick 1990).
Immigration, particularly its impact on women, was another area of concern for Breckinridge. Women immigrants were much more likely to experience inequality and to have their contributions to society go unnoticed than were men (Sarvasy 1992). Immigration was a pressing concern in Chicago where, around the turn of the century, four-fifths of Chicagos residents were either foreign born or were the children of immigrants (Fitzpatrick 1990).
Progressive Era Reformer and Active Citizen
Like others interested in and committed to social reform, Breckinridge was involved in the settlement house movement. She lived at Hull House at various times, worked with and was influenced by Jane Addams and the other residents there and belonged to the community of women committed to progressive causes. Breckinridge lived there off and on from 1907 through 1921 (Fitzpatrick 1990).
Sophonisba Breckinridge was an active citizen in local, state, national, and international affairs. She was active in the Progressive Party and even ran for alderman (but was defeated) on the Progressive ticket in 1912. She was a member of the Womens Peace Party, a delegate to the International Congress of Women in 1915, a member of the Womens International League of Peace and Freedom and active in the National American Womens Suffrage movement (Fitzpatrick 1990; Costin 1983). Breckinridge was an early and active member of the Chicago NAACP, was involved in the Association for Colored Women and served on a fact-finding commission on Chicago race relations after the 1919 riot (Fitzpatrick 1990).
Breckinridge was one of the founders and an officer of the Immigrants Protective League. She was a factory inspector in Chicago in 1906 and also served for a time as a non-salaried "Tenement Inspector" in the Department of Health. With fellow University of Chicago faculty members, George H. Mead and Charles Henderson, Breckinridge participated on a citizens committee formed to investigate the garment workers strike and played a pivotal role in that affair in 1911 (Fitzpatrick 1990).
Breckinridge was also active in the Association for Collegiate Alumnae, which became the American Association of University Women, and served as General Secretary for the group in 1908 (Abbott 1948; Deegan 1991; Fitzpatrick 1981). She was a charter member of the National Womens Trade Union League and involved in the Womens City Club of Chicago where she served one of its early presidents (Costin 1983; Deegan 1991). Breckinridge was also elected as Vice-President of the National Womans Suffrage Association in 1911 (Abbott 1948; Costin 1983; Deegan 1991). In addition, she served on the board of directors of the Juvenile Protective Association and on the executive committee of the Chicago Consumer League (Fitzpatrick 1990). Breckinridge also participated in three White House conferences on children (Lenroot 1948) and became the first woman to represent the United States at an international conference when she represented the United States at the first Pan-American conference in 1933 (Fitzpatrick 1990).
Some of her more notable reform accomplishments include helping to obtain congressional support for a national study of women and children wage earners which resulted in the study "Investigation of Woman and Child Wage Earners" (Costin 1983) and helping to draft legislation regulating womens wages and hours of employment (Abbott 1948). Breckinridges legal training and background gave her a strong foundation for the reform activities that would follow and made her the natural author of numerous legislative bills in the reform arena.
Social Work Educator
Breckinridge also had several major accomplishments which shaped and molded social work as an academic and professional discipline. With her training as a social scientist, Breckinridge left an indelible sociological stamp on social work. With her constant intellectual companion Edith Abbott, Breckinridge co-founded a professional journal, the Social Service Review, in 1927 (Costin 1983; Diner 1977) and helped to establish the first national association of schools of social work in 1919, which later became the American Association of Schools of Social Work (Costin 1983). She served as president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work from 1933-1935 (Johnson 1948) and as an active officer and committee member of the National Conference of Social Work (Deegan 1991). She also served as two-time president of the Illinois Conference on Social Welfare (Abbott 1948).
Undoubtedly, the greatest accomplishment of her career was the merger of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy with the University of Chicago in 1920 (Abbott 1948; Costin 1983; Diner 1977). Sophonisba Breckinridge had joined the Social Science Center for Training and Practical Training in Philanthropic and Social Work in 1907 as assistant to Julia Lathrop, then Director of Research and co-director of the Institute. The school went through several name changes and finally became the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Breckinridge became director of the Research Department when Lathrop stepped down from some of her duties in 1908. Breckinridge became dean of the school in 1909 (Fitzpatrick 1990).
Because the school was constantly in financial crisis, Breckinridge, Abbott, and Taylor went without pay on several occasions (Diner 1977; Fitzpatrick 1990). Taking advantage of a leave of absence by founder Graham Taylor, Breckinridge re-opened negotiations with the university regarding a merger in the spring of 1920. By the time Taylor returned from leave in June, the decision to merge the school with the university was almost final. On August 10, 1920, the University of Chicago Board of Trustees agreed to establish the "Graduate School of Social Service Administration". This merger resulted in the first graduate school of social work to be affiliated with a major research university (Fitzpatrick 1990).
At the School for Social Service Administration (SSA), Breckinridge and Abbott created an institution committed to social knowledge and social advancement. They infused social work with values and principles grounded in their training as social scientists. Breckinridge and Abbott "emphasized the importance of scientific analysis and scholarlyresearch" and believed that inquiry should be directed to thealleviation of "practical social problems" (Fitzpatrick 1990, p. 212).This approach was reflected in the curriculum that they developed atSSA. They rejected the "purely vocational approach to social workeducation" and were sometimes criticized by other social workers asbeing too academic (Fitzpatrick 1990, p. 212).
Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge was a dedicated scholar and completed a number of works that are classics in social work. Because her career was intricately intertwined with that of Edith Abbott, several of her major works are co-authored with Abbott. Her works reflect her life long interest in policy and social action. Major works include:
The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912)
Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Public Schools (1917)
The Tenements of Chicago, 1908 1935 (1936)
New Homes for Old (1921)
Marriage and the Civic Rights of Women (1931)
Women in the Twentieth Century (1933)
Family Welfare Work in a Metropolitan Community (1924)
Public Welfare Administration in the United States (1927, revised 1938)
Social Work and the Courts, (1934)
The Family and the State (1934)
The Illinois Poor Law and Its Administration (1939)
Breckinridge and Abbott pioneered and used mapping and canvassing extensively in several works that explore the effects of industrialization and urbanization on Chicago. "Housing Conditions in Chicago, Ill.: Back of the Yards" (1911), in the American Journal of Sociology, and "Women in Industry: The Chicago Stockyards" (1911), in the Journal of Political Economy, are two early studies examining these issues. These works represent the better known studies that Breckinridge authored or co-authored and represent her primary areas of interest. They are but a few of the numerous articles and books she published which scholars today continue to find relevant and insightful.
Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge died July 30, 1948. Her passing was noted in the New York Times, Time, the American Sociological Review and the Social Service Review. The Social Service Review devoted its December 1948 issue to her. She was very esteemed as a scholar and described as one who created other creators and who worked for a better and more peaceful world (Branscombe 1948; Johnson 1948; Merriam 1948; Wright 1948). Perhaps the best compliment came from her students who throughout the years said of her "Miss Breckinridge made us think" (Abbott 1948, p. 422).
Sophonisba Breckinridge was a scholar and academician committed to the idea that social research could be used to improve society. She conducted comprehensive research on the pressing social issues of her day and provided rich documentation on these issues not only for her contemporaries, but also for future generations. Future generations of social workers can thank Sophonisba Breckinridge for capturing those moments in history with her extensive documentation of the effects of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization on society in the United States in the early twentieth century thereby preserving that time for future study. Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge is a scholar, social worker and social scientist worthy of emulation. Social workers today are privileged to count her as one of their own.