Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, December 16, 1920


“In such great offices that suit the full grown energies of women.”

The death of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge -- Mrs. Desha -- in Lexington, Kentucky, on last Thanksgiving Day, has left a gap in the ranks of social workers of which many of us will be keenly conscious until we leave the ranks ourselves. We will bear to the end a sense of personal sorrow and a loss of gallant comradeship.

Mrs. Breckinridge represented that most modern type of woman who united with great personal charm and social grace, an abiding interest in the myriad movements which make for social betterment, and the unflagging energy with which to push them forward. Perhaps because she was a great granddaughter of Henry Clay, she possessed an unusual eloquence and power of persuasion; perhaps because her husband was a brilliant newspaper man, she was able in a paramount degree to command the services of the Press, but whatever the reason all of her [beneficent] plans seemed to come to a successful issue. Few women have a larger list of achievements to be placed to their credit, although she was neither a professional social worker nor a promoter.

It was through her long experience in sustained and ardent work in the Charity Organization Society of Lexington, in Civic Leagues, [illegible] ↑in↓ Women’s Clubs, on one State Commission after another, that she formulated and pushed through the General Assembly of Kentucky the bills creating a State Library Commission and a Forestry Commission. [page 2]

As a member of the State Tuberculosis Association she secured the creation of a State Commission of which she was always the most valued member; she was largely responsible for the County School Board Law, the Small School Board Law for second class cities, the juvenile court and compulsory education laws which were practically the first of the kind in any southern state. She secured those latter after she had served as a member of the State Educational Commission appointed under an Act of 1908, to prepare revision of the state school law.

The present advanced Kentucky child labor law stands largely as a monument to her genius and energy, as she was vice president of the Kentucky child labor committee and worked unflaggingly for its passage. She also had a leading part in the passage of the state law limiting the labor of women to ten hours a day.

One of the early activities of Mrs. Breckinridge was that which resulted in the foundation of Lexington’s playgrounds and park system, and she often came to Chicago to get ideas from our small parks and playgrounds of which we were then so proud. She always left us with new suggestions and enthusiasms for what might be done with our wonderful equipment. But the visit to Chicago which I remember most vividly -- for she sometimes honored Hull House by living with us for a few days a week -- was in connection with her enthusiastic efforts to raise a fund of $35,000 to add to a $10,000 appropriation of the school board for the establishment [page 3] of Lincoln School in the poorest part of Lexington. The vivid success of this daring experiment of a genuine social center connected with the public school perhaps better than anything else suggests her method of procedure. Lecturers came to Lexington by the score to educate the public and prepare them for the wider use of this model school plan. The swimming pool, the laundry, the community kitchen, evening recreation of all sorts, lunches and rest periods for the open air department, gradually leading to an improved sewage plant, concrete walks and graded streets with planted shade trees, for the entire distract, band concerts on Sunday and many another recent device.

All of these developed from her surpassing love for the children, which is perhaps best expressed in her own words:

“We send them off to school again today,

This cool September morning. All the street

Is musical with patter of small feet

* * * * *

I wonder if they ever guess or know

With what strange tenderness we watch them go?

Just children on their way to school again.”

I also saw much of Mrs. Breckinridge through our mutual work for Women Suffrage, first as President of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, and later when we served together as Vice Presidents of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. I recall her eloquent speeches before [Congressional] Committees, before doubting and hostile audiences, [page 4] her charm and beauty of speech, always backed by her absolute fearlessness, which in spite of her frail physique, was physical as well as moral and intellectual.

The development of her activities was always organic and keenly alive, and as her work developed from city to state and nation, it was but fitting that she should have taken an active part in the meeting of the National Suffrage Alliance last summer in Geneva, and that her last public work should have been a plea day after day through an arduous campaign for the entry of the United States into the League of Nations. She was but once more taking her part in the age long struggle for a world moved by good will and ordered by law in which those long under social and economic disadvantage might come into their own; certainly no more eloquent voice or more ardent ↑demand for justice↓ desire was ever raised in their behalf.

We are all the poorer for her passing!

Jane Addams [signed]