Madeline McDowell Breckinridge was a remarkable woman. The well-bred daughter of one of Kentucky's first families, she grew up to be not a pampered southern belle but a prominent social reformer. In her tragically short life (1872-1920), she worked tirelessly to advance child welfare, woman suffrage, public education, recreational facilities, and medical services in her home state. Publicizing her causes in the Lexington Herald, lobbying the state legislature, organizing charitable and civic associations, pressuring women's clubs to engage in reform, presiding over the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, speaking around the country, and fundraising constantly, Breckinridge was one of Kentucky's most well-known and effective reformers in the Progressive era.
Biographer Melba Porter Hay contends that Breckinridge "provides the best example of the Progressive movement in the state" of Kentucky (p. 248). Indeed, Breckinridge's career epitomized both the promise and the pitfalls of Progressivism. Like other Progressive reformers, Breckinridge walked a fine line between social justice and social control. While the model school that she helped establish in Lexington's Irishtown provided children and community members not only with modern educational facilities but also with fresh-air programs, a playground and swimming pool, and even laundry facilities, Breckinridge's advocacy of manual education—domestic science for girls and industrial training for boys—left both gender conventions and class differences intact.
Particularly where race was concerned, Breckinridge struggled to reconcile her personal commitment to African American equality [End Page 75] with prevailing racist beliefs and political realities. For instance, Breckinridge belonged to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, yet she excluded black children from the free summer playground and kindergarten she established in the Lexington West End in 1901. Both a pragmatist and a paternalist, Breckinridge tolerated racism at the same time that she demanded reform. Indeed, at times she even used racism to promote her causes. This was especially evident in her long campaign for woman suffrage. Like other suffrage leaders, Breckinridge subordinated African American rights to white women's rights, favoring literacy qualifications and arguing that woman suffrage would ensure "Anglo-Saxon supremacy," because the white population was so much larger than the black population (p. 155). Although willing to sacrifice racial justice in favor of political expediency, Breckinridge was more liberal than some southern suffragists, who opposed the federal suffrage amendment on states'-rights grounds and openly challenged the capacity of African Americans for citizenship.
Breckinridge's life work was both fueled and compromised by her lifelong struggle with tuberculosis, a disease that caused her foot to be amputated when she was only twenty-four years old and forced her to take periodic vacations from her reform work to rest and recuperate. Yet for the most part, Breckinridge's poor health goaded her on to ever more strenuous efforts. "When you are killing yourself anyway, you might as well kill yourself a little deader, I suppose," she once remarked (p. 190). Breckinridge even used her travels to seek treatment as fodder for her reform activities, studying other communities and applying the insights gained on her trips to her campaigns for woman suffrage, school reform, public health, juvenile justice, and even a local settlement house modeled on Hull House in Chicago.
Breckinridge's personal life also both furthered and hindered her public life. Her marriage to Desha Breckinridge was a love match, undertaken despite both families' reservations, and in many ways the couple had a strong partnership. They shared a commitment to Progressive reform—although Desha was a late convert to woman [End Page 76] suffrage—and jointly used Desha's newspaper, the Lexington Herald, to promote their common political agenda. They also displayed mutual affection both within their social circle and in their private correspondence. Yet the couple never had children, a circumstance Hay repeatedly alludes to but never fully explains. Whether Breckinridge was unable to become pregnant, or—as seems more likely—the couple remained celibate to avoid a life-threatening pregnancy, Breckinridge's childlessness played a key...