Madeline McDowell Breckinridge was born in Franklin County on May 20, 1872, to Major Henry Clay McDowell and Anne Clay. A member of two historic families, Madge would later marry Desha Breckinridge. Given such a heritage, no Kentucky politician could ignore this Progressive Era reformer and woman suffrage advocate.
In 1882, Major McDowell purchased Ashland, the estate of Henry Clay, placing Madge at the center of Bluegrass society during the most important years of her adolescence. She received her formal education at two Lexington girls’ schools. The schools did not emphasize academics: a Clay relative called it an education in “King Arthur and rainbows.” She did, however, learn the social skills required of gentry women.
In 1889-90, she attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. Far from home and family, she made friends and became a leader. Miss Porter’s School was also rather traditional, but the young women read Darwin and Spencer, discussed socialism, and questioned the established church. Major McDowell brought her home after one year. He considered it a risk to separate her during “four impressionable years” from the “community in which she expected to live out her life.”
Returning from Farmington she faced contradictory values. She wondered what she would do with her life. She took classes at the university, studied several languages independently, and read widely. She also maintained a full social calendar. Yet, she found life boring.
In 1895 she published an article about her great grandfather, Henry Clay, in Century magazine. Friends encouraged her to write more. Sophonisba Breckinridge, who had already broken the traditional bonds, invited her to Chicago where she met reform-minded women such as Grace and Edith Abbott, Marion Talbot, and Julia Lathrop. A visit to Hull House led to a life-long friendship with Jane Addams.
Madge also spent an increasing amount of time with another Breckinridge. Desha praised her article on Henry Clay and they shared opinions on books they read. He suggested things she should read, and encouraged her to write for his newspaper, the Lexington Herald. Clearly more progressive initially, she slowly changed his views. A mutual admiration would bring marriage, but not until November 17 1898.
In 1890, McDowell suffered what was thought to be a sprained ankle. She was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone and had her foot amputated on June 22 1896.
Decisions made soon after suggest that the diagnosis helped her find the sense of purpose that had been absent in her life. First, she agreed to Desha’s insistent entreaties to marry him. James C. Klotter, biographer of the Breckinridge family, suggests that they were brought together by hidden scars: Madge’s tuberculosis and a sex scandal involving Desha’s father that had damaged the family reputation. Strong intellectual bonds created a marriage and a partnership that led the progressive movement of Central Kentucky.
In 1899 Madge resurrected a group called the Gleaners affiliated with Lexington’s Christ Church Episcopal and led them in mission activities in Eastern Kentucky. Asked by Lexington’s mayor to help with relief efforts in the harsh winter of 1899-1900, the group participated in the creation of two new organizations, the Associated Charities of Lexington and the Civic League. As parts of a single movement, the organizations sponsored reforms on the eradication of poverty, education, and health care. Madge Breckinridge wedded the call for woman’s suffrage to that tripod and the failure of all-male government to address the issues.
All of Madge’s efforts were interconnected and on-going. Poverty informed her on the horrible state of health care and education, and the need for reform there confronted her with the lack of leadership in state politics. Lack of action by all-male government on education, food quality, health issues and the legal protection of women led her to the cause of suffrage.
Kentucky women were slow to embrace suffrage, but male politicians gave them a powerful weapon in 1902. The legislature revoked an 1894 law that allowed women in second-class cities to vote in school board elections. As legislative chairman of the Federation of Women’s Clubs, Madge fought until 1912 to repeal the action. Finally successful, she urged women to fight for full suffrage. Serving as President of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association from 1912-1915 she increased its membership from 1,779 to 10, 577. From 1913-1915, she served as Vice-President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She spoke throughout the nation, often invoking the name of Henry Clay. In Kentucky she challenged old-school politicians such as Ollie James and J. Campbell Cantrill. She is probably best known for a retort to Governor James B. McCreary: “Kentucky women are not idiots---even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.” However, she also revealed a knowledge of politics worthy of her great-grandfather. In 1918, KERA, under her leadership, hung a banner listing the legislators who had opposed woman’s suffrage. The heading read “Lest We Forget.”
It was not just men who caused problems for the suffrage movement. She had to walk a narrow line between factions that threatened to destroy NAWSA. Kentucky’s Laura Clay and leaders in the South wanted NAWSA to support only state amendments because they believed that a federal constitutional amendment would open the door to African-Americans voting. Breckinridge believed the intent was to divide and destroy the movement. When Kate Gordon created the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference Madge tried to emphasize that the battle was against men and the traditional values that undervalued women. She also tried to avoid the power struggle involved in Alice Paul’s creation of the National Woman’s Party. A true border state politician, she chose middle ground.
A personal animosity Breckinridge could not avoid involved Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, the president of NAWSA. According to Sophonisba Breckinridge, Shaw saw Madge as nothing more than the descendant of a great man and resented her popularity among the membership. A group seeking to defeat Shaw asked Madge to run against her, but she refused. In February, 1915, Madge resigned her position in NAWSA, claiming health issues and overwork. It probably had more to do with her traditional values. She had avoided a complete break with Laura Clay because she respected Clay’s contributions to the movement. Respect for one’s elders and for leaders probably played a role in her reaction to Shaw as well. Had she challenged Shaw she perhaps would have been the president of NAWSA when the Nineteenth Amendment passed.
Madge’s personal life also became an issue. Despite a strong intellectual bond, Desha proved unfaithful to their marriage. Knowing Lexington well, the gossip was certainly costly to such a proud woman. Her health was also declining. Increasingly, she sought treatment in tuberculosis centers around the country.
On November 25, 1920, Breckinridge died of complications from a stroke. Forty-eight years old, she had just voted in her first presidential election. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge fought in the male arena of politics, but she made women’s voices heard.
Apple, Lindsey. “Madeline McDowell Breckinridge: A Sense of Mission,” in Melissa A. McEuen and Thomas H. Appleton Jr. Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015.
Hay, Melba Porter. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for the New South. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.
Breckinridge, Sophonisba P. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge: A Leader in the New South. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921.
Klotter, James C. The Breckinridges of Kentucky: 1760-1981. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.
Madeline McDowell Breckinridge Papers. Special Collections. Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky.