Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Sophonisba Breckinridge

(April 1, 1866- July 30, 1948)

by Nicolle Bettis


Sophonisba Preston was born second of seven to Issa Desha and William Campbell Preston Breckinridge, a lawyer, Confederate colonel, journalist and a Congressman (1971). Sophonisba was the great-granddaughter of John Breckinridge who was a Senator of Kentucky and Attorney General under Jefferson. He was also a cousin of John C. Breckinridge who ran against Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (1971).

William Preston was a Southern Liberal who believed that women had a right to education and emphasized to his daughter that she should continue the family tradition "for good thinking and courageous utterance" (1971, 233). He told her that "the name has been connected with good intellectual work for some generations-for over a century;-you must preserve this connection for the next generation," (1971, 233). Her father, although successful and wealthy, expected his Sophonisba to either marry or support herself when she was older (1992). It was in 1888 that Sophonisba graduated from Wellesley (1992). After this she felt uncertain about what it was that she was going to do so she decided to teach high school math in Washington D. C. while her father was in Congress (1971). After this, she traveled throughout Europe until 1892 when she returned to Lexington at the death of her mother (1998). In 1894, when her father lost in an election she decided to study in his law office. Both Sophonisba's father and her brothers did not agree with her decision to study the legal system but did allow her to continue (1971). In 1894 she became the first woman to pass the bar exam in Kentucky, although she did not continue in this field.

Young Adulthood

It was during this time when yet again she became confused about what it was she was going to do when May Estell Cook, an old classmate from Wellesley came into the picture. May suggested Sophonisba come to Oak Park Illinois to live with her and become a secretary to Marion Talbot who was to dean of women at the University of Chicago. With Miss Talbot's help, in 1901 Sophonisba became the first women to receive a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Chicago (1971). After accomplishing all this Sophonisba entered into law school graduating J. D. in 1904 (1971). It was in 1906, along with Edith Abbott that Sophonisba looked at U. S. census data to observe longitudinal industry employment patterns of women. They also researched court records to observe problems in the households of delinquent children. These observations include the mothers work and support of the father (1998). Regarding the family Sophonisba states, "public interest justifie[s] the enforcement of . . . obligations on the part of the husband" she continues by explaining how society is effected by these children who are raised by mothers who are not supported by the fathers. They suffer the "double burden of earning the support and of performing the domestic duties" (1998, 250)

In 1906 she wrote two articles in the Journal of Political Economy which included the legalities of women in the work force. In 1911, along with Edith Abbott, Sophonisba created an article titled "Back of the Yards" which combine photographs, maps, verbal descriptions, interviews, physical measurements of room size and number of windows, statistical profiles of ethnicity and occupation, and analysis of housing codes to present a multi-dimensional account of life in a desperately poor area (1998, 247).

In the article they describe the area referred to as "back of the yards" as complete disgust. They write:

In the Stockyards . . . are the mingled cries of the animals awaiting slaughter, the presence of uncared-for-waste, the sight of blood, the carcasses naked of flesh and skin, suggestion of death and disintegration-all of which must react in a demoralizing way, not only upon the character of the people, but the conditions under which they live" (1998, 245).

She discusses this lifestyle of the poor immigrants and the cultural differences, and language barriers they are forced to deal with, placing them at a disadvantage. In this observation she yet again lets her readers know that the problems need to be recognized and dealt with by the government. She states, "When the community conscience has been sufficiently aroused to demand changes in the content of the law, it seem little short of dishonest not to make possible its enforcement. To substitute the shadow for the substance in dealing with the problem of city housing leads quickly to criminal neglect" (1998, 252).

She began publishing in the American Journal of Sociology as early as 1901 and soon began teaching. It 1907, the same year she took up residency at Jane Addams Hull House, Beatrice was teaching in the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy to train social workers and in 1908 she was the head its research department, assisted by Edith Abbott, a friend from when she was in graduate school (1971). In 1907 she was also introduced to the Women's Trade Union League which enabled her to be involved with those individuals in Chicago promoting change within the social structure. She became a resident at the Hull House which she stayed part of every year until 1920 (1971). It was in this same year she founded the Immigrant's Protective League. In her writings titled New Homes for Old she discuses keeping the cultures of immigrants present in the United States (1998). It was in 1909 she became an assistant professor in Marion Talbot's new department of household administration, classes included legality and economics as it relates to the family. Incorporated into Sophonisba's course was Miss Talbot's book, The Modern Household.

As Sophonisba became more involved in social work she looked at the administration of welfare and the direction social reform was heading. She became so involved in "meetings, conferences, interviews, campaigns, and causes" that she rarely had time for herself. In comment on her social life outside of work she stated, "I would rather have a good fight any afternoon, even if I get beaten, than to go to a party any time!" (1971, 234).


Along with others such as Jane Addams, Sophonisba created the Woman's Peace Party, which she was a secretary. In 1915 and attended the International Congress of Women at the Hague in which the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was created (1971, 235). It is suggested that she chose not to pursue a career in law because she felt the impact first hand on how difficult it is for a woman to earn a doctorate (1992). It was in 1925 when she became a full professor . As a result of this she chose to teach at the University of Chicago where she began the School of Civics and Philanthropy, later renamed the Department of Social Service Administration (1992). It was her where she later started a women's course (1992). In the courses she taught her students about women in the family, business, and professions (1992). In her courses she used her works Family Welfare Work in a Metropolitan Community (1924), Public Welfare Administration (1927), and The Family and the State that was published in 1934 (1971). Even though she became dean at the university, she realized that men usually took care of the administration at schools even though education is considered a woman's area (1992). It was in the Graduate School of Social Service Administration where Sophonisba taught (1997).

Even though Sophonisba's beliefs about the role of government were not shared by many she did help create the Social Service Review in 1927 which focused on the role the government plays in society (1971). She was acknowledged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for all the social work she had done such as city health inspector, prepared information concerning previous information on the juvenile court system, executive committee on the states Consumer's League, and campaigned for federal child labor laws (1998, 1971). She had also researched such subjects as housing, immigration, blacks, and the work of women along with the wages they were paid (1998).

When observing or researching quantitatively Sophonisba often interviewed and measured physical characteristics of items that was not uncommon during this time. When she was gathering public data she often looked at documents such as the U. S. census data are court records. She states that, " public interest justifie[s] the enforcement of ...obligations on the part of the husband" to the wife and family, for the public is affected by the educational limitations and possible delinquency of children raised by "the unsupported mother," who, bearing "the double burden of earning the support and of performing the domestic duties," is often forced into conditions of "poverty, the crowded home, the congested neighborhood (1998, 250). She along with Edith Abbott started the Journal of Social Science Review in 1927 (1997). It was in 1929 when she became Samuel Deutch Professor of Public Welfare Administration (1998). Along with Kelley, Addams, and Wells-Barnett, Breckinridge helped in the creation of the NAACP (1998). This group of women combined with several more were the "first full generation of women to be active in the government of the United States at city, state, and federal levels (1998, 69).


She was finally given the recognition she deserved when in 1933 she was named by President Roosevelt to be a delegate to the Pan-American Congress in Monte-video. Not only was this an honor but she was the first women to be awarded. It was in 1934 when she was elected to be the president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work (1971).

Organization Participation


On April 30, 1948 Sophonisba died from a perforated ulcer and a arteriosclerosis (1971).



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