Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and graduated from Wellesley College in 1888. After working as a schoolteacher in Washington, D.C., she studied law in her father’s office, and in 1895 became the first woman admitted to the Kentucky bar. However, it was an era of discrimination against women in the legal profession and she was unable to practice as a lawyer. She enrolled in the University of Chicago’s graduate school and in 1901 became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in political science, Three years later, she was the first woman to graduate from the law school. She began teaching in the university’s Department of Household Administration, a position she held until 1912.
She was involved in the Women’s Trade Union League and the Hull House settlement. She was influential in the creation of the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Social Service Administration in 1920, where she became a full professor. Her rigorous course work and training techniques set the standards for social work education in the USA. She co-founded and served as the editor of the Social Service Review, a highly regarded journal. She also helped organize the Woman’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).