Skip to main content

Matthews, Burnita S. (1894–1988)

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Matthews, Burnita S. (1894–1988)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . 18 Jun. 2019 <>.

"Matthews, Burnita S. (1894–1988)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . (June 18, 2019).

"Matthews, Burnita S. (1894–1988)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.