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Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (April 1, 1866July 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. President Roosevelt in 1933 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 Campbell Preston 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.

Breckenridge 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 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, 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, Breckenridge 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.

Breckinridge was active in many national social and political causes, including: women's suffrage, African-American civil rights; she helped establish the NAACP, and chaired the Subcommittee on Colored Children that was a part of the State Department of Public Welfare, labor conditions; charter member of the Chicago branch of the Women's Trade Union League, immigration, children's protection and labor laws reform, Progressive Party, and pacifism.

In 1907, when Breckinridge obtained an appointment as a part-time professor in the Department of Household Administration which was a part of the Sociology department of the University of Chicago, she became a resident of Hull House. She lived in Hull House during her yearly vacations, as well as while teaching and conducting research at the University of Chicago. In collaboration with her colleague Edith Abbott, Breckinridge helped establish the Wendell Phillips Settlement House on the West Side (at 2009 Walnut Street) where African-American social workers were trained. It held a day nursery, a Boy Scout division, a division especially for women and girls, a large public meeting space, and served as a center for 25 different community groups. The settlement house was put under the supervision of the Chicago Urban League in 1918.

She served as vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1911. When the women of Chicago gained limited voting rights in 1913, Breckinridge ran for alderman in Chicago on the Progressive ticket, however unsuccessfully.

In 1915 she participated in the American delegation that attended the Women's Peace Congress at The Hague. There she served as a close associate and assistant for Jane Addams, who had served as chair of the Congress. Breckinridge spoke before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January 1916, along with other members of the Woman's Peace Party to lobby for a joint resolution to establish a "commission for enduring peace."

Following her retirement from the faculty of the University of Chicago, Breckinridge continued to teach courses in public welfare until 1942. In Chicago, on July 30, 1948, Sophonisba Breckinridge died from a perforated ulcer and arteriosclerosis, aged 82. She is interred in Lexington (Kentucky) Cemetery in the Breckinridge family plot.

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