Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge - Champion of Peace and Nonviolence

Randolph Hollingsworth (she/her) Blog Post

The National Women's History Project recently called for nominations for 2019 honorees for "Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence."  I submitted a nomination for Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, originally from Lexington, Kentucky, with the following information:

Sophonisba “Nisba” Preston Breckinridge

November 30, 1865 – November 30, 1947

Public intellectual, diplomat, suffragist, scholar, co-founder of the Woman’s Peace Party

In 2-3 sentences explain the nature of your nominee’s work and accomplishments:

A great scholar, Sophonisba P. Breckinridge earned a Ph.D. in political science and economics as well as the J.D. at the University of Chicago – the first woman to do so. She served as the personal assistant for Jane Addams who chaired the Women’s Peace Congress at The Hague in 1915, and Breckinridge spoke before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January 1916 to lobby for a joint resolution to establish a “commission for enduring peace.” The Woman’s Peace Party, of which Breckinridge was a co-founder, emphasized that peace was a women’s issue, working both for women’s rights and world peace. Her contributions in the fields of politics, law, economics and social services all point to her fundamental belief in the possibility of a better world in which the most vulnerable in our societies might lead richer lives.

Do your nominee’s accomplishments/contributions have a positive impact on the lives of women? (Limit your response to 2-3 sentences.)

Breckinridge is a powerful role model for women in areas of the U.S. still plagued by violence and endemic poverty. Her intellectual efforts, hard fought and finally honored despite the prejudices against her sex, led to very real and practical reforms in the study of social welfare systems, and we can point to the many degree programs in social work across the country that grew out of her efforts to professionalize this important professional discipline. Social workers continue to rely on her pedagogical innovation of using the “case method” in social work programs – and women and children today benefit from her leadership and far-reaching impact of her work in the early 20th century.

Write a short essay (limited to 250 words) expressing how your nominee’s work and life exemplifies the theme of "Revolutionary Women, Champions of Peace & Nonviolence:"

Sophonisba Breckinridge, co-founder of the Woman’s Peace Party and of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, led a life of intentional progress toward her vision of peace and prosperity for all. From the time of her first winning legal defense of an abandoned mother, she fought against the violence of poverty and injustice. She supported all women’s rights, serving as a vice-president for the NAWSA, an early member of the Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago, and a co-founder of the NAACP chapter in Chicago. Given her background of privilege, and the strict segregationist proclivities of her sister-in-law Madeline McDowell Breckinridge in Kentucky, one might imagine that she focused more on the needs of white women of some means. However, she continued to fight for women and children of color, joining in the Urban League and the Association of Colored Women. Together, they established the Wendell Phillips Settlement for African-Americans in Chicago – and when race relations continued to devolve and violence erupted, she served on a city-wide commission to develop strategies for all Chicagoans to improve racial injustices. When the war in Europe escalated, she was a crucial personal support for the elderly Jane Addams at The Hague and then in lobbying Congress amidst controversy and derision. At the same time she taught the first class in the U.S. on public welfare administration, an important profession that – even today – stands on the brink of solving the systemic race disproportionality for services to women and children.

Resources for additional information:

The Eagle and the Dove: The American Peace Movement and United States Foreign Policy, 1900-1922. Edited by Chambers II, John Whiteclay. Second Edition. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Goan, Melanie Beals. "Establishing their place in the dynasty: Sophonisba and Mary Breckinridge's Paths to Public Service," The Register of The Kentucky Historical Society 101 (Winter/Spring 2003): 45-73.

Goodwin, Joanne L. Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform: Mothers' Pensions in Chicago, 1911–1929 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997): 133-135.

Hammond, Claire Holton. "Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866-1948)" in A Biographical Dictionary of Women Economists, edited by Robert W. Dimand; Mary Ann, Dimand; and, Evelyn L. Forget (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2000): 81–89.

Hollingsworth, Randolph. “Sophonisba P. Breckinridge: Activist for Human Rights and Higher Education Reform,” H-Kentucky Network (January 18, 2017).

Jabour, Anya. “Relationship and Leadership: Sophonisba Breckinridge and Women in Social Work,” Affilia 27 (February 2012): 22-37.

-----------------. “Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (1866-1948): Homegrown Heroine,” pp. 140-167. In Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Melissa A. McEuen and Thomas H. Appleton, Jr. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2015.

“Peace Delegates on NOORDAM – Mrs. P. Lawrence, Jane Addams, Anna Molloy [Breckinridge is 5th from right in front row],” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

"Sophonisba Breckinridge," pp. 232-245. In Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 1, edited by Edward T. James, et al. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

“Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Records, 1915-current.” Collection DG 043. Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, PA.