Matthews, Burnita S. (1894–1988)

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Matthews, Burnita S. (1894–1988)

American jurist . Born Burnita Shelton in Burnell, Mississippi, on December 28, 1894; died in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 1988; daughter of Burnell Shelton and Laura Drew (Barlow) Shelton; National University Law School, LL.B., 1919, LL.M., 1920, LL.D., 1950; married Percy Ashley Matthews, on April 28, 1917.

Born in rural Burnell, Mississippi, in 1894, Burnita S. Matthews proved an adept student of law, and received LL.B. and LL.M. degrees from the National University Law School (now a part of George Washington University) in 1920. Following her graduation, Matthews sought employment in the legal department of the Veterans Administration, but was told that the agency did not hire women. She then founded her own legal practice in Washington, D.C., although she was denied membership in the local law association due to her gender.

American women received the right to vote in 1920, and Matthews subsequently became a lawyer for the National Women's Party. In this position, she played a leading role in expanding the legal rights of women. In 1949, she was appointed by President Harry S. Truman to the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, thus becoming the first woman in America to serve as a federal district judge. Among her cases was the bribery prosecution against new Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa in 1957. Matthews became a senior judge (meaning one who is semi-retired, with a reduced caseload) in 1968, but remained an active jurist until her death in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 1988.

Grant Eldridge , freelance writer, Pontiac, Michigan