Same-sex couples have been in American politics way longer than the Buttigiegs have been married

Since openly gay South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced his bid for the presidency, news outlets have been full of stories about Buttigieg and his husband.

By highlighting the novelty of an out presidential candidate, such stories obscure the long participation of LGBTQ people in American politics.

U.S. history is full of examples of politically active people in same-sex relationships. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge were one such couple.

‘A life partnership’

Breckinridge and Abbott met in 1903 at the University of Chicago, one of the first U.S. universities to admit women to graduate programs.

Breckinridge earned her doctorate in political science in 1901 and a law degree in 1904; Abbott completed her doctorate in political economy in 1905.

In 1908, the two women joined forces at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, where they became pioneers in the new profession of social work. At the same time, they formed a close, personal relationship.

Sophonisba Breckinridge. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
Looking back on that pivotal period in their lives and careers, a former student mused: “I wonder if they foresaw that they were starting a life partnership that would enrich their personal lives and make their professional careers so intertwined that they would always be thought of together.”

Advocates for public welfare

For 40 years, Abbott and Breckinridge conducted social science research and promoted social welfare policy at both the state and the national level.

In Illinois, they used research on Chicago’s Juvenile Court to promote the nation’s first “mothers’ pension” program. Established in 1910, the program provided financial support for single mothers and their children.

In 1920, they co-founded the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, the nation’s first social work program affiliated with a research university.

Working closely with the U.S. Children’s Bureau, a federal child welfare agency established in 1912, they made the school a platform to promote public welfare policy at the national level.

Breckinridge and Abbott conducted studies of state welfare programs for the Children’s Bureau. They also promoted its innovative programs, including the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided federal funding for health care for poor women and their children between 1921 and 1929.

Staffed and led by women – including Abbott’s sister, Grace Abbott – the agency functioned as a “female dominion” in American government.

Edith Abbott. Wikimedia Commons

Responding to the Great Depression

When the nation plunged into the Great Depression, Abbott and Breckinridge focused their attention on national policies.

Breckinridge agonized over the plight of poor Americans. Years later, in a letter to Abbott, one of their former students vividly recalled a remark Breckinridge made about “being so troubled sleeping in her good warm bed. She seriously thought that she really ought to give it to someone who needed it, when the need was so dire and so widespread.”

In their journal, the Social Service Review, Abbott and Breckinridge called attention to “the inadequacy of private relief” and asserted that “federal aid” was “clearly necessary in this emergency.” They demanded “national funds for a national crisis.”

In 1931, they launched a study of the Chicago Renters’ Court, which heard cases in which tenants were subject to eviction for nonpayment of rent. They used evidence from this study to advocate for federal relief for impoverished Americans.

In her memoirs, Abbott maintained that Colorado Sen. Edward Costigan’s inspiration for the nation’s first federal relief bill was a conversation he had about homelessness in Chicago with her and her sister in the summer of 1931.

“Our schools are full of hungry children, our streets are full of tired and resentful men,” Abbott told Costigan. “The Renter’s Court,” she continued, “was a nightmare —- women crying, children crying, everyone in despair.”