How alum Sophonisba Breckinridge’s ‘passionate persistence’ shaped social work, feminism

New book illuminates life of Law School’s first female graduate, SSA co-founder

It wasn’t easy being a female lawyer in the late 19th century, but that didn’t stop Sophonisba Breckinridge from trying. 

About a decade before she became the University of Chicago Law School’s first female graduate in 1904, the future activist and social reformer—who later co-founded UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration—litigated a few cases in her home state of Kentucky, where she was admitted to the bar in 1892.

But as much as she strived to break down barriers, practicing law ultimately wasn’t how Breckinridge wanted to make change. She preferred policy reform and education—and she valued collaboration over individual recognition. In fact, her short and little-known foray into legal practice stood in contrast to her future approach.

Working as a policy consultant rather than an “in-the-streets activist,” Breckinridge was involved in nearly every reform campaign of the Progressive and New Deal era—but never attained the fame of people like Hull House founder Jane Addams, a friend and close colleague.

“She shied away from the spotlight,” said University of Montana historian Anya Jabour, who has spent the past decade researching Breckinridge. “She was second in command virtually everywhere she went.”

Last fall, Jabour published the first full-length biography on the enigmatic figure, one that aims to “reclaim Breckinridge from historical amnesia.”

Breckinridge hasn’t been forgotten at UChicago, where she helped build a curriculum at SSA based on the Law School’s case method. (SSA’s doctoral program is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary.) 

She became the first woman to earn a PhD in political science at UChicago in 1901, and was later the first woman at the University to be granted a named professorship. In 1905, she began teaching what may have been the first women’s studies course in the United States—a class in the University’s Department of Household Administration that focused on the legal and economic status of women.

But outside of Hyde Park, Breckinridge—who was internationally known before her death in 1948—has largely faded from memory.

Jabour hopes to change that. Her book, Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America, traces Breckinridge’s life and work to better understand American feminism.

As she pieced together the story, Jabour was fascinated by Breckinridge’s response to the limited professional opportunities available to women during her life. Rather than continue in the male-dominated profession her father had pursued, Breckinridge pioneered a new field—social work—that was friendly to women.

“This discovery prompted me to reexamine my assumptions about ‘feminized’ occupations, especially when I learned that Breckinridge taught what was arguably the first women’s studies class in the United States,” Jabour wrote in the book’s preface. “Who was this woman who persisted despite sex discrimination and transformed gender ghettos into feminist strongholds?”

It wasn’t an easy question to answer. Jabour found a handful of articles about Breckinridge by sociologists or social workers, as well as brief mentions in broader discussions about social reform. But it was nearly impossible to find comprehensive work on Breckinridge’s life.

“I found that, despite her long association with Jane Addams and Progressive reform, books on these subjects routinely omitted Breckinridge—or, if they included her, they misspelled her name,” Jabour wrote.

Jabour dug further, poring over Breckinridge’s extensive personal papers and correspondence and other troves of information. Her work often brought her to the University of Chicago. (During one visit four years ago, Jabour shared some of her findings about Breckinridge’s life and the activist’s two great loves: Marion Talbot, UChicago’s dean of women; and Edith Abbott, the dean of SSA.)

What Jabour uncovered was the story of a complicated and influential woman. It was one that shed light on a variety of aspects of women’s activism, including the important roles played by collaboration, personal relationships, and behind-the-scenes research and scholarship.

“For me, Sophonisba Breckinridge’s story is really about the power of perseverance and the importance of public service,” Jabour said. “Breckinridge’s persistence in the face of obstacles and setbacks not only allowed her to achieve higher education and professional success for herself, but also promoted equality, justice, and opportunity for all Americans.

“Her combination of determination and inspiration—what she called ‘passionate patience’—was the key to her absolutely indefatigable fight for social justice on multiple fronts. Her example gives me hope, and I hope it also will give hope to future generations of activists.”

—A version of this story was originally published by the University of Chicago Law School.