Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, the daughter of a lawyer, William Breckinridge, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on 1st April, 1866. Her mother, Issa Desha Breckinridge came from a political family and her grandfather had been governor of Kentucky in the early nineteenth century.
After graduating from Wellesley College in 1888 she worked as a school teacher in Washington before studying law. Although the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar, Breckinridge decided to continue her studies at the University of Chicago.
In 1901 Breckinridge she received a Ph.D. in political science and three years later, became the first woman to graduate from its law school. After completing her doctoral and law degrees from the University of Chicago, Breckinridge obtained an appointment as a part-time professor in the Department of Household Administration.
In 1907 Breckinridge became a resident of Hull House and joined other women interested in social reform such as Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Mary McDowell, Edith Abbott, Mary Kenney, Grace Abbott, Alzina Stevens, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop and Alice Hamilton.
While living at Hull House (1907-1920) Breckinridge played a leading role in the development of the Immigrants' Protective League, National Consumer's League, the Women's Trade Union League and the Children's Bureau. A strong supporter of women's suffrage she was a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. An advocate of African American civil rights, Breckinridge helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1909.
Breckinridge was active in the Progressive Party and ran for the post of alderman in Chicago in 1912. A committed pacifist, Breckinridge opposed USA involvement in the First World War and was a member of the Woman's Peace Party (WPP) and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
Breckinridge also worked with Edith Abbott at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. In 1920 it was moved to the University of Chicago and Breckinridge helped establish it as the country's first university-based school of social work. The two women also established the Social Service Review in 1927.
Breckinridge was the author of several books including The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912), Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Public Schools (1917) Public Welfare Administration in the United States (1927), Marriage and the Civic Rights of Women (1931) Women in the Twentieth Century (1933), Social Work and the Courts (1934), The Family in the State (1934) and The Tenements of Chicago (1936).
Sophonisba Breckinridge died in Chicago on 30th July, 1948.