Mansfield, Arabella

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Arabella Mansfield

Born May 23, 1846 (Burlington, Iowa)

Died August 1, 1911 (Aurora, Illinois)

Attorney, social activist

Arabella Mansfield sought equal opportunities for women in all aspects of U.S. society. She was an activist in the nineteenth century women's rights movement that spanned a range of issues from voting rights for women to the right of practicing law. As a result she became the first female lawyer in the United States. She passed the Iowa bar exam in 1869 and opened the way for other women to practice law. Within the year the Iowa legislature amended its statute to allow women and minorities to practice law in the state.

Although Mansfield never practiced law herself, she maintained her interest in legal proceedings and joined the National League of Women Lawyers in 1893, leading the way for others into careers in the law profession. A lifelong educator, Mansfield also campaigned for equal educational opportunities for women. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1980.

"The theory of this Government from the beginning has been perfect equality to all the people."

Arguments of the Woman-Suffrage Delegates to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary on January 24, 1880

A commanding presence

Belle Aurelia Babb was born on the family farm near Burlington, Iowa, in 1846 and was called Belle by her family and friends. She was the second child born to Mary Moyer and Miles Babb. Her brother, Washington Irving Babb, was born two years earlier and would be her lifelong friend. When the children were young their father left Iowa to follow the gold rush to California. He became superintendent of the Bay State Mining Company and died when a mine caved in on him in 1852.

Mary Babb moved her children to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in order to provide them with the best education possible. Belle attended local schools and graduated from the Howe's Academy where she showed an early interest in studying law.

In 1862 Belle enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant and began using the name Arabella. She began college at a time when academic institutions were opening their enrollment to women since many men were away fighting during the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery). Belle graduated in three years and was the valedictorian (top ranking student of his or her class) at graduation. Her brother was salutatorian (second highest ranking student) of the same class. Belle went on to teach at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, for a year before she returned to Mount Pleasant to marry her college sweetheart, John Melvin Mansfield.

John was a professor at Iowa Wesleyan. He encouraged Belle in her legal studies as well as her suffrage work. Suffrage was the women's movement that worked to earn American women the right to vote. Belle was active at the state level and became a part of the national effort led by Susan B. Anthony (see sidebar). In canvassing Mount Pleasant to promote women's rights, Belle she was joined by Alice Bird, who soon became her sister-in-law.

Barred from law practice

The opening of colleges to women in the nineteenth century was not without controversy. Much debate existed over the place of higher education in women's lives. Women were seen as physically and mentally inferior to men in traditional education, including the study of law.

Prior to 1900, the most common way for anyone to study law was as an apprentice or clerk to a practicing attorney. After

Susan B. Anthony

Susan Brownell Anthony (1820–1906) was not only a famous activist for women's suffrage (voting rights) but a famous criminal defendant in her pursuit of the cause. She was an educator in upstate New York when she became convinced of the need to work for women's rights full time. She resigned from her job and began volunteering in temperance societies, to help women and children who suffered abuses from alcoholic husbands.

Anthony also devoted her time to the antislavery movement from the early 1850s until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. She served as an agent for the American Antislavery Society. In 1851 Susan met Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), a national leader in social reform for women. She joined forces with Stanton and others to promote women's rights, which included the right to vote.

From 1868 to 1870 Anthony published the weekly magazine, The Revolution. The publication centered on the Women's Suffrage Association agenda and featured editorials written by Stanton. The magazine called for women's rights, including equal pay and the right to vote. Campaigns for women having a voice in the courtroom and at the ballot box were occurring simultaneously across the nation. When Arabella Mansfield became the first American woman admitted to the bar, The Revolution celebrated her achievement in print and praised her contribution to the women's movement.

In 1869 the women's rights movement split into two factions with Anthony and Stanton heading the more radical National Woman's Suffrage Association (NWSA) out of New York. They argued that full citizenship for women included the right to vote guaranteed to women in the U.S. Constitution. Their objective was to achieve voting rights for women through an amendment to the Constitution.

The NWSA did not use membership to promote its cause but attracted recruits through publications and annual conventions. Anthony herself made personal appeals for signatures on petitions and traveled the lecture circuit giving interviews to local newspapers.

Some women had actually been successful in registering to vote but had been turned away by officials when they had tried to cast their ballots. On November 1, 1872, Susan B. Anthony and several others registered to vote in Rochester, New York. On November 5, Anthony showed up at the polls and the inspectors agreed to accept her vote. Two weeks later she was arrested at her home and charged with illegal voting.

Anthony was indicted on January 24, 1873, and entered a not guilty plea. While awaiting trial she engaged in a highly publicized lecture tour to draw attention to the issue. Her trial was held before Judge Ward Hunt on June 17 and 18 in Canandaigua, New York. Anthony was found guilty of violating the voting laws and fined one hundred dollars plus the cost of prosecution. Although tried and convicted, Anthony succeeded in her refusal to pay the fine.

Susan B. Anthony spent the rest of her life as a political reformer, working to guarantee women in the United States the right to vote. She wrote the Federal Woman Suffrage Amendment that was introduced in Congress in 1878. She took the fight to a larger audience when she organized the International Council of Women in 1888 and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1904.

Anthony did not live to see the consummation of her efforts. She died at her home in Rochester, New York, on March 13, 1906. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing American women the right to vote was not adopted until August 26, 1920.

sufficient study the prospective lawyer would take an oral exam administered by a local bar committee (a group of law officials responsible for testing new prospective lawyers to determine if they qualify to practice). If successful, he (the practice was not available to women) would receive a license to practice law in that state. Though standards in licensing varied greatly from state to state, states consistently excluded women from joining the bar.

A first for women

After her marriage, Mansfield joined her husband as a faculty member at Iowa Wesleyan where she taught English and
history. She and John began studying law together in hopes of passing the bar exam. Mansfield spent additional hours preparing for the exam as an apprentice at Ambler's law office where her brother Washington worked before his own admission. When she felt confident she had mastered the material, the twenty-three-year-old Mansfield applied to be admitted to the Iowa bar in June of 1869. She passed the exam with high scores but had to take her situation before a judge in order to be admitted to the Iowa bar.

Iowa law stated only white men over the age of twenty-one were allowed to receive a law license. Judge Francis Springer was an advocate of women's rights and was looking for a way to support professional women. He interpreted the word "men" in the state statute to mean all humans. He declared that including males did not mean excluding females.

In 1869 Arabella Mansfield became the first woman lawyer admitted to the practice of law in the state of Iowa, as well as the United States. By March 1870 Iowa became the first state to officially amend its attorney licensing code as three other women were admitted. Mansfield's accomplishment was highly praised and a major achievement of the women's rights movement.

Educator and administrator

Mansfield continued her academic career at Iowa Wesleyan. Belle earned a master's degree in 1870 and a bachelor of laws (LLB) degree in 1872 from the same institution. She was a charter member of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Society whose convention met in Mount Pleasant in 1870. Using her law degree as a badge of respect, Mansfield went on the lecture circuit for the Iowa Peace Society, speaking about government and women's rights. She billed herself as "Belle Mansfield, Esq." for the tour.

In 1879 the Mansfields moved to Greencastle, Indiana, to join the faculty at DePauw University. John suffered a mental breakdown around 1883 and Belle took a leave of absence to care for him. He was eventually institutionalized in Napa Valley, California, and died in 1894. Belle never spoke of his illness in public. She returned to DePauw in 1886 where she taught but also devoted her energy to administration of the school. Mansfield eventually became dean of women and dean of the schools of art and music at DePauw.

End of an era

Mansfield continued her campaign for educational reform and equal opportunities for women. As a skilled debater, she was tireless in her efforts to ensure women received the right to vote. She was active in the Methodist Church in Greencastle and held a lifelong commitment to volunteer work in her community. In the summer of 1909 Mansfield took a voyage to Japan. While there, she discovered she had cancer. She returned to DePauw to complete one more year at the university before she was forced to retire due to ill health.

Arabella "Belle" Mansfield died at her brother's home in Aurora, Illinois, on August 1, 1911. She was buried next to her mother at Forest Home Cemetery in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Mansfield died nine years before women in the United States obtained the right to vote.

For More Information


Drachman, Virginia G. Sisters in Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Edwards, Thomas G. Sowing Good Seeds: The Northwest Suffrage Campaigns of Susan B. Anthony. Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1990.

Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. Women in Law. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Web Sites

"Arabella Mansfield." The State of Iowa. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

"Arabella (Belle) A. (Babb) Mansfield—Timeline." Stanford University. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

"Stanton and Anthony Papers Project Online." Rutgers University. (accessed on August 13, 2004).

"The Susan B. Anthony Trial: A Chronology." University of Missouri. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

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