NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866-1948)
Sophonisba Breckinridge, social worker, educator, and social activist, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, into a family with a long history of public service. Her father was a lawyer, a confederate Colonel, a US Congressman, and a staunch supporter of women's education. Her great-grandfather was a US Senator and US Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson.
Breckinridge was graduated from Wellesley College in 1888; became the first woman to be admitted to the bar in 1895 and to practice law in Kentucky; earned a PhD in political science and economics from the University of Chicago in 1901; and was graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1904.
Breckinridge became interested in social work in 1905 after meeting Hull House founder, Jane Addams, and others active in Chicago's era of social reform. She joined the faculty of the University of Chicago and helped develop the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, established in 1903 for the education of social workers. She served as Dean from 1908 to 1920 and prevailed on the university to make this a graduate school of social work. She remained at the University as a contributing, revered professor until her retirement in 1942.
Judith Sealander says of Breckinridge: "Breckinridge, as a social worker, fought for a progressive agenda of reforms. Key to that agenda was advocacy of greater state involvement in social issues. Breckinridge, in roles as a Chicago city health inspector, a probation officer for the Chicago Juvenile Court, a member of the executive committee of the Consumers' League, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as secretary of the Immigrants' Protective League demanded government intervention under the aegis of laws and agencies. She worked hard for civil rights and compulsory education laws, the minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, the eight-hour day, the establishment of a Federal Children's Bureau, and the state's right to remove children from abusive parents."
Breckinridge was a charter member of the American Association of Social Workers, President of the Illinois Conference on Social Welfare, organizer and president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work, managing editor of, and contributor to, the Social Service Review. Her professional writings are legend.
Further information can be found in Lela Costin's Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott (1983).