Mussey, Ellen Spencer (1850–1936)

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Mussey, Ellen Spencer (1850–1936)

American lawyer, reformer, and founder of the Washington School of Law. Born Ellen Spencer on May 13, 1850, in Geneva, Ohio; died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 21, 1936, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Platt Rogers Spencer and Persis (Duty) Spencer; attended schools in Oberlin and Geneva, Ohio, Rice's Young Ladies' Seminary, Poughkeepsie, New York, Lake Erie Seminary, Painesville, Ohio, the Rockford Seminary, Rockford, Illinois, and Cornell University; married Reuben Delavan Mussey (an attorney), on June 14, 1871 (died 1892); children: two sons; two stepdaughters.

Admitted to the Washington, D.C., bar (1893); practiced alone and in occasional partnership in probate and commercial law; with Emma M. Gillett, formed the Washington College of Law (1898); served as dean of the law school (1898–1913); drafted and helped pass the Cable Act (1922).

Ellen Spencer Mussey was born on May 13, 1850, in Geneva, Ohio. The tenth of eleven children, she was the daughter of Persis Duty Spencer and Platt Rogers Spencer, an abolitionist and temperance advocate who was also the proponent of the widely used Spencerian script. (This penmanship style was the standard method used in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century.) When her mother died in 1862, her father turned to Mussey to run the household as well as to teach classes for him at his school on their Geneva farm. She was only 12 at the time, and after the deaths of her father and younger sister some two years later she became seriously ill. She then lived with different brothers and sisters in New York, Ohio, and Illinois until 1869, when she went to Washington, D.C., to live with her brother Henry and her sister-in-law.

In Washington, she worked at her brother's Spencerian Business College until 1871, when she married Reuben Delavan Mussey, a successful attorney who had been a brigadier general in the Union army. In 1876, when her husband experienced an attack of malaria, she began to help him in his law practice. She worked with him for the next 16 years. Following his death in 1892, Mussey applied to two different local law schools. She was refused admission to both because of her sex. Finally she was allowed to take a special oral examination and was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia in 1893. She would be admitted to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, and before the U.S. Court of Claims in 1897. Mussey worked briefly in partnership with Judith Ellen Foster , but during most of her law career she practiced alone, specializing in probate and commercial law. She also worked in international law, serving as counsel to the Swedish and Norwegian consulates for 25 years.

In 1896, with Washington lawyer Emma M. Gillett (1852–1927), Mussey formed law classes for several young women. When all were refused admission to law schools because of their gender (one school noting that "women did not have the mentality for law"), Mussey and Gillett opened their own institution, the Washington School of Law. Thanks largely to Mussey's efforts, the school, which accepted both women and men, prospered and grew in reputation. It was eventually affiliated in 1949 with American University, but has retained its own name.

Mussey was also involved in 1896 in the passage of the Married Women's Act, a bill which gave women guardianship rights over their children and property equal to those of their husbands. She also helped to create a juvenile court system in the District and served on the District's Board of Education. In her six years on the board, she worked to establish mandatory education rules as well as a model school for mentally impaired children. She was also instrumental in the passage of the Teachers' Retirement and Pension Bill.

In 1913, as a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Mussey led a group of lawyers in a Washington suffrage parade. Mocked, harassed, and shoved by the crowds in attendance, she suffered a stroke brought on by the stress of the event. Frail health then forced her retirement as dean of the Washington College of Law that year. Her last act of public service was to draft the Cable Act, which ended the automatic loss of citizenship for American women who married citizens of other countries. With Maud Wood Park , she helped secure passage of the act in 1922. Mussey died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Washington, D.C., in 1936, less than a month before her 86th birthday.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

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

Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer, Murrieta, California