Born just after the Civil War to a distinguished Kentucky family that included a number of elected officials, Sophonisba Preston, a.k.a. “Nisba,” Breckinridge was one of many successful women who were clearly influenced by their fathers. A liberal lawyer, William Campbell Preston Breckinridge supported both abolition and women’s suffrage, and paid his daughter’s tuition at Wellesley College.
After graduating in 1901, Breckinridge taught high school mathematics in Washington D.C. while her father was a congressman, and then read law upon their return. In 1895 she became the first woman to pass the Kentucky bar exam, but was not really interested in practicing law. At the invitation of a friend, she attended the University of Chicago and became the first woman in the world to earn a Ph. D. in political science.
In 1907, Breckinridge moved into Jane Addams‘ Hull House (the first Settlement House, birthplace of modern Social Work) and befriended Grace and Edith Abbott. There she found her life’s work and, with Edith Abbott, began to write and publish several books on various aspects of social study. The Delinquent Child and the Home came first (1912), and she published an average of one book every other year in an age when that was the average of births for many other women. Two books, Women and the Twentieth Century, and Marriage and the Civil Rights of Women were written specifically on women’s issues.
Dr. Breckinridge focused mainly on her academic career at the University of Chicago, however, and was awarded with a full professorship in 1925. Many of her students were the innovators behind Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, but she remained in Chicago to teach, despite being appointed by Roosevelt to the 1933 Pan-American Congress in Uruguay. She taught a full course load until her retirement in 1942 at the age of seventy-six. Dr. Breckinridge died on April 30, 1948.