Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

From New World Encyclopedia

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (May 20, 1872 – November 25, 1920) was an American reformer and social activist, leader of the women's suffrage movement and one of Kentucky's leading Progressive reformers. Breckinridge also lobbied for women’s voting in Kentucky school board elections, and helped create a state library along with many other prestigious institutes. She also helped found the Kentucky Tuberculosis Commission. She was active in the fight for women’s right to vote which resulted in the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Its ratification by the Kentucky legislature in January 1920 was largely due to her efforts. Breckinridge's efforts contributed to the advance of human society in recognizing the human rights of all people and establishing a world in which all people can be treated fairly and have the opportunity to achieve their potential and attain happiness.

Early life

Madeline McDowell, also known as Madge, was born on May 20, 1872, in Woodlake, Kentucky and grew up at Ashland, the farm established by her great-grandfather, Henry Clay. She was a cousin of Ephraim McDowell and American Civil War Union General Irvin McDowell. Coming from such a distinctive family, she was raised in the spirit of emancipation and social justice.

She received her education in Lexington, Kentucky, and at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut. After that she studied from 1890 to 1894 at the State College (now University) of Kentucky. In 1898, Madeline McDowell married Desha Breckinridge, the editor of the Lexington Herald and brother of the pioneering social worker Sophonisba Breckinridge. The Breckinridges were a notable American family whose members included John C. Breckinridge and Bunny Breckinridge.

Breckinridge suffered from tuberculosis, and on that account decided to found an association that would gather people with similar problems. In 1912, she helped found the Kentucky Tuberculosis Commission, and was the group’s vice president until 1916. The Blue Grass tuberculosis sanatorium was opened, in large part due to her efforts.

Madeline Breckinridge died in Lexington, Kentucky on November 25, 1920. She had no children.


In 1908, Breckinridge became chairman of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, performing that duty until 1912. She successfully lobbied to allow women to vote in Kentucky school board elections, and helped secure legislation to create a state library commission and a forestry commission.

In 1912, Breckinridge became president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) succeeding her cousin, Laura Clay, who founded the organization. The association became Kentucky’s leading women’s suffrage organization, advocating for women’s right to vote.

By the mid-1910s, KERA membership reached 10,522 and organizations existed in 119 of the 120 Kentucky counties. In 1914, Madeline Breckinridge and Laura Clay spoke in front of the Kentucky Legislation, introducing a suffrage amendment. The attempt failed; however they become first women to address a joint session of the Kentucky Legislature. She carried the duty of KERA’s president until 1915, and again from 1919 to 1920.

During World War I it became increasingly difficult for women to propagate their cause, as the eyes of the nation were focused on the war. Suffrage members thus increased their effort to re-evoke the interest in women’s rights. Breckinridge traveled across the American South, giving a series of speeches in all major cities there.

From 1913 to 1915, Breckinridge served as vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. About the same time, she founded a social settlement in Proctor, Kentucky, similar to Chicago’s Hull House. She also advocated to establish playgrounds and kindergartens, and spoke out against child labor. Breckinridge was also a vocal supporter of the newly formed League of Nations.

After a long battle for the right to vote, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which allowed women the right to vote under official constitutional protection, was finally passed by Congress. Its ratification in Kentucky in January 1920 was largely credited to Breckinridge's efforts. She lived to cast her first and only vote in the November 1920 election, dying that month at the age of 48.


Madeline McDowell Breckinridge was one of the leaders of suffrage movement in the United States. She was a vocal advocate of women’s rights, and fought for child welfare as well as different health issues. Her work influenced change in child labor laws and state juvenile court systems. The tuberculosis sanitarium, the park system in Lexington, Kentucky and the settlement house in Proctor, Kentucky, are also results of her work.

She gave numerous public speeches for the cause of women's suffrage, and it was said that she was an eloquent speaker. She was active in the fight for woman’s right to vote, which resulted in the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified in time for her to vote before her death in 1920.


  • Breckinridge, Madeline M. 1905. A Mother's Sphere. New York: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baker, Jean H. 2002. Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195130170
  • Bolin, James Duane. 2000. Bossism and Reform in a Southern City: Lexington, Kentucky, 1880–1940. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813121507
  • Breckinridge, Sophonisba. 1921. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge: A Leader in the New South. University of Chicago Press.
  • Harrison, Lowell H., and James C. Klotter. 1997. A New History of Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 081312008X
  • Spartacus Schoolnet. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge. Retrieved July 9, 2007.
  • Wheeler, Marjorie S. 1995. One Woman One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. New Sage Press. ISBN 0939165260
  • Women in Kentucky. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge. Retrieved July 9, 2007.

External Links

All links retrieved November 5, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.