Women You Missed in History Class: Arabella Mansfield

Arabella Mansfield (1846-1911)

The courts have played a crucial role in the fight for women’s rights.  From Reed v. Reed to Roe v. Wade, landmark court cases have shaped the status of women’s rights for decades, but courts haven’t always been accessible to women.  Until Arabella Mansfield came along, women were not allowed to practice law anywhere in the US.  Mansfield was born May 23, 1846 on a farm in Burlington, Iowa.  Her father abandoned the family for the California Gold Rush, so Mansfield and her brother, Washington Irving Babb, were raised by their mother, Mary.  Mansfield and her brother were extremely close their whole lives and attended the same schools.  In 1862, Mansfield enrolled in Iowa Wesleyan University along with her brother.  The Civil War had taken many young men away from academia, so Iowa Wesleyan was one of many universities that began admitting women to fill those spots.  Mansfield and her brother both graduated in 1866.  She was valedictorian; he was salutatorian.

After graduation, Babb joined a law office in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, while Mansfield taught English, history, and political science at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa as one of the first female college professors in America.  In 1868, she returned to Mount Pleasant and spent two years studying law in her brother’s office.  Her brother and her husband, John Mansfield, both encouraged her to pursue her study of law.  At the time, the Iowa State Bar Exam was restricted by law to “white males over 21,” but Mansfield took it anyway.  She scored very high, which upset several male attorneys who challenged her status in court.  The court ruled that women and minorities could not be excluded from the Iowa state bar, and Mansfield was admitted to the bar.  Iowa became the first state in the nation to allow women to practice law, and Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the United States.

Although she was the first woman to be admitted to a state bar, she never actually practiced law.  Instead, she became a professor of law at Iowa Wesleyan University, and later served as Dean of the School of Art at DePauw University (then Indiana Asbury University), making her one of the first female college administrators in the United States.  She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement and joined the executive committee of the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869.  In 1870, she chaired the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention and later helped organize the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Society.  She served as the group’s secretary, and campaigned for voting rights and educational opportunities for women.

In 1869, Mansfield was the only female lawyer in the United States, but just a few decades later, there were enough women practicing law that they had a National League of Women Lawyers, which Mansfield joined in 1893.  Mansfield died August 1, 1911, nine years before the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote.  Though she didn’t live to see the women’s suffrage movement achieve its ultimate goal, her life and work transformed American society and opened doors for women in law and academia.  Since 2002, the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys has awarded the Arabella Mansfield Award to recognize exemplary female lawyers in the state of Iowa.


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