Sophonisba Breckinridge, the Suffrage Movement, and Social Justice
Most people familiar with the University of Chicago think of Sophonisba Breckinridge in connection with her achievements there. After becoming the first woman to earn her Ph.D. in political science (in 1901) and a J.D. in law (in 1904), she helped to establish the School of Social Service Administration, the nation's first social work school affiliated with a research university (in 1920), and became the first woman to hold a named professorship (in 1929).
In the movement for woman suffrage, Breckinridge was not first; instead, in 1911, she was elected second vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Although she was not first in this instance, Breckinridge's leadership in the suffrage movement was significant for several reasons. Perhaps most significantly, unlike many white suffragists, Breckinridge supported African American rights as well as women's rights.
When Breckinridge took office in NAWSA alongside first vice-president Jane Addams and president Anna Howard Shaw, she became part of the national suffrage movement's "lesbian leadership team." For these women, the personal and the political were closely intertwined. Both in their private relationships and in their public commitments, they promoted women's equality.
In an essay for Women in Public Life (1914), Breckinridge argued that "political equality" was an "efficient tool" for women to achieve "an equal social and economic condition."
As a social reformer as well as a suffrage advocate, however, Breckinridge saw woman suffrage as just one part of a larger struggle for social justice. For Breckinridge, social justice included racial justice. A founding member of the Chicago branch of the NAACP and the Urban League, Breckinridge protested racial violence and demanded racial equality.
Breckinridge saw woman suffrage as a tool to promote social justice. In a 1912 speech excerpted in the Chicago Tribune, she argued that women needed the vote to combat "poverty, disease, unequal distribution of wealth, special privilege, and unequal justice."
Breckinridge's rhetorical strategies were remarkably diverse. At a time when the suffrage movement was moving away from arguments based on natural rights toward arguments based on gender differences, Breckinridge combined both approaches. Invoking natural rights, she intoned: "What we want is the ballot. We demand it and that demand is an unanswerable argument."
Breckinridge also suggested that women had unique contributions to make to American politics. She alluded to the notion of female voters as "social housekeepers" by suggesting that women should "help in the municipal housekeeping."
She also engaged in "maternalist" arguments by using women's role as mothers as a justification for woman suffrage. Conceding, "perhaps many of us women do not know as much about parliamentary law as the men," she insisted: "We do possess intelligence regarding the needs of children. That is far more important."
Although Breckinridge adopted a variety of arguments to promote woman suffrage, as a suffrage leader, she consistently advocated social justice, including racial equality. She challenged the suffrage movement's narrow focus on what African American civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois called "Votes for White Women Only."
At the same time that the suffrage movement laid greater emphasis on gender differences, it increasingly highlighted differences of class, ethnicity, and race. By the time Breckinridge assumed office, NAWSA advocated "educated suffrage," code for literacy requirements that would extend voting rights to educated, white, middle-class women, but prevent many African Americans, immigrants and working-class citizens from casting ballots.
Unlike many of her white counterparts, Breckinridge rejected exclusionary strategies. She protested literacy tests for immigrants and promoted education for working-class youth. She also welcomed African American participation in the suffrage movement. She invited Du Bois to speak at NAWSA's 1912 convention, where he advocated a "Democracy of Sex and Color," combining African Americans' and American women's struggles for full citizenship rights.
As a suffragist, Breckinridge did more than advocate women's rights; she urged women to use the vote to promote social justice for all. Anticipating the adoption of the 19th Amendment, she declared: "Women should at once familiarize themselves [with] the leading issues of the day [and] vote intelligently and so make possible the greatest good for the greatest number."
Breckinridge's advocacy on behalf of both women's rights and social justice remains salient on the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting many—but not all— American women the right to vote, on August 18, 1920. The Amendment was certified into the United States Constitution on August 26, 1920, but it would be several decades before African American, Asian American, and Native American women were able to exercise the right to vote. In light of contemporary voter suppression measures and escalating police brutality against people of color, Breckinridge's insistence on upholding the civil rights of all must continue to inform American activism.
-- Anya Jabour, Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana and author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America
Photos: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center. Top: apf1-02253; Bottom: apf1-02238. Home page: apf1-02252.