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Cartoon showing a woman revising statement on a wall; she changes "Woman's sphere is the home" to "Woman's sphere is wherever she makes good--"; she is holding a list of places, such as "The home" "The Law" "Industry", that can be used to complete the revised statement.
Kenneth Russell Chamberlain. April 14, 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Arabella Mansfield, First Female Lawyer

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The following is a guest post by Grace Hogan, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress and undergraduate student at George Washington University.

On June 15, 1869, in the town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Arabella “Belle” Mansfield took the bar examination for the state of Iowa and became the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States. Despite a long history of women being placed into a more supportive role to their husbands and families and resistance to women in the legal world (including juries), Belle paved the road for future women to break into the legal profession.

Arabella Aurelia Babb was born on a farm in Iowa in 1846. She graduated from Iowa Wesleyan University in 1866 as valedictorian with her brother, Washington, as salutatorian. After her graduation in 1866, she became a professor of English, history, and political science at Simpson College for one year. Then she served as an apprentice for her brother’s law firm and studied law. Encouraged by her brother and new husband, John Mansfield, an Iowa Wesleyan graduate and professor, she continued her studies and felt prepared to take the bar exam in 1869.

Although the official state legislation only permitted white men of “good moral character,”[Iowa Code § 114.2700 (1860)] to sit for the bar, Judge Francis Springer, an advocate of women’s rights, used Iowa Code § 3.29(3) (1860) that stated, “words importing the masculine gender only may be extended to females.” He interpreted the word “male” in the bar admission statute was not meant to exclude women. With this legal loophole, Judge Springer granted Mansfield access to take this exam, and he appointed two bar examiners to conduct her test. She passed the exam and was admitted to the bar, with the examiners attesting to the qualifications of Mansfield. They stated:

“[t]hat Mrs. Mansfield having passed a most eminently satisfactory examination, giving the very best evidence of long and careful study, of excellent application, and a thorough acquaintance with the elementary principles of law… Your committee takes unusual pleasure in recommending the admission of Mrs. Mansfield, not only because she is the first lady who has applied for this authority in this state, but because in her examination, she has given the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law.”

Many newspapers covered the story of the “beauty of the Iowa Bar.” Amusingly, one newspaper reported, “Mrs. Arabella Mansfield is one of the brightest ornaments of the Ohio[sic] bar. As she took possession of a Mansfield matrimonially, there is no reason why she should not occupy man’s field professionally.”

The New York Tribune, however, in a column republished around the country, “Petticoats at the Bar” had a different view:

“[t]here are many functions of an attorney for which Mrs. Mansfield is admirably qualified. There is no reason in the world why the great bulk of what is known as office work in the legal profession should not be performed by women, and of course, whatever enlarges women’s opportunities of earning an honest living, without detracting from her natural position in society, must be looked upon as a benefit to the community at large…If Mrs. Mansfield will mind the office while Mr. M. attends to the courts, perhaps no two other lawyers in Iowa may be able to compete with them.”

This article continued:

“[w]e fear there is a lurking ambition among the feminine students of Chitty and Blackstone to be barristers rather than attorneys, and we confess that the substitution of the chignon for the horse-hair wig is not an attractive prospect… We do not believe a woman could practice a year at the bar without losing almost every quality that makes woman[sic] charming.”

Belle Mansfield’s achievement directly preceded the amendment of the Iowa code to sit for the bar the following year. The state legislature removed the words “white male” and named the chapter “Women and Colored Persons May Be Attorneys at Law.”[Chapter 21]. Belle Mansfield went on to pursue a career in academia rather than practicing law and continued to support women’s suffrage, even establishing the Iowa Woman Suffrage Society and chairing its convention in 1870.

For more information, please look at our blog post that highlights women in the legal field around the world.

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Comments (2)

  1. Correction: Iowa is the state (not Illinois)

    • Thank you. This correction has been made.

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