Mansfield, Arabella (1846–1911)

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Mansfield, Arabella (1846–1911)

First woman admitted to the bar in the United States . Name variations: Arabella A. Mansfield; Arabella Aurelia Babb Mansfield; Arabella Babb Mansfield. Born Belle Aurelia Babb on May 23, 1846, near Sperry Station, Iowa; died on August 2, 1911, in Aurora, Illinois; daughter of Miles Babb (a farmer) and Mary (Moyer) Babb (a farmer); earned undergraduate degree from Iowa Wesleyan University, 1866, M.A., 1870, LL.B., 1872; married John Melvin Mansfield (a professor of natural history), on June 23, 1868 (died 1894); no children.

Arabella Mansfield was born on her family's farm near Sperry Station, Iowa, on May 23,1846. Christened Belle Aurelia Babb, she changed her name to Aurelia as a teenager and later became known as Arabella. Her father was a farmer who left the Midwest during the California Gold Rush of 1850. He was the superintendent of a mine there when a cave-in killed him and left Mansfield's mother, Mary Babb , a widow in Iowa with two young children. When the children were in their teens, Babb moved the family to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where there was a high school. The school's principal, Samuel L. Howe, was a well-known abolitionist and proponent of women's suffrage, and these views probably made an impression on the young Mansfield. Deciding to attend college, she enrolled in Iowa Wesleyan University, also located in Mount Pleasant. After she graduated in 1866, she taught for a time at Simpson College in Indianola.

In June 1868, Mansfield returned to Mount Pleasant and married a professor of natural history named John Melvin Mansfield, and began teaching English and history at Iowa Wesleyan. She had been privately studying the law with her brother for some time, and her new husband joined her studies. (Attendance at law school had not yet become common practice for would-be lawyers.) They applied for the bar two years after their marriage. A liberal judge who was in charge of the district court at the time decided that the state law which indicated that the bar was open to "any white male person" did not necessarily exclude Mansfield, and appointed two examiners similarly progressive in their views. In the summer of 1869, Mansfield passed the exams with high marks and was admitted to the Iowa bar, becoming the first woman lawyer in America. The landmark event attracted little public notice aside from a few mocking newspaper editorials and positive mention in Revolution, a periodical published by women's suffrage movement leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton .

Mansfield, who continued to teach, never practiced as a lawyer. She became involved in the suffrage cause in the 1870s and was one of the founders of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Society. For a time, she traveled through Europe with her husband and studied law in Paris at the Sorbonne. In 1879, both she and her husband were hired by Indiana Asbury University, in Greencastle, Indiana, but he suffered a nervous breakdown not long afterward, and Mansfield spent two years caring for him full-time. His condition deteriorated to the point where he had to be institutionalized, and after that Mansfield returned to her job at Indiana Asbury University, by then renamed DePauw University. She was active in many facets of campus life, and became dean of the school of art in 1893 and dean of the school of music a year later; she held the dual posts until her death. Known for her eye-catching millinery, Mansfield lived in the women's dormitory and gave popular Sunday lectures on a variety of topics. She learned she had cancer while traveling in Japan in 1909, but continued to work until several months before her death on August 2, 1911.


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb, eds. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan