Arabella “Belle” Babb Mansfield (May 23, 1849-August 1, 1911) – is best known for being the first woman in the United States to pass the bar examination and the nation’s first female attorney. At the time she sat for the bar, Iowa law required applicants for bar admission to be white, male, and over the age of 21. She challenged the legality of that restriction and won her appeal, making Iowa the first state to admit women to its bar.
Mansfield was born near Burlington, Iowa in 1846. In 1850 her father moved west to find gold, leaving the family behind. He was killed in a mining accident. After his death, Mansfield’s mother decided to move the family to Mount Pleasant, Iowa. She had an appreciation of the value of education and the self-reliance her children would learn from obtaining an education. Mansfield graduated from the Mount Pleasant High School, and then entered Iowa Wesleyan University. Following her graduation from Iowa Wesleyan, she taught political science, English and history at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa until her marriage in 1868 to John M. Mansfield, who was a professor of natural history at Iowa Wesleyan.
Mansfield’s husband, being a dedicated supporter of her legal aspirations, encouraged her to prepare for the bar examination. She began to study law at her brother’s law practice. Both she and her brother were called to the Iowa bar on June 15, 1869. This was three full years before Charlotte Ray was called to the DC bar, and four years before Belva Lockwood was called to the DC bar. As there are no earlier records of any other woman being called and licensed to practice law anywhere else in the world, Mansfield’s admission to the bar was a historic moment both in law and as to the status of women generally.
The official record of her examination before the District Court in Henry County, Iowa speaks volumes as to her capability and courage:
“The undersigned Committee, appointed by the Court to examine and report upon the qualifications of Mrs. Arabella A. Mansfield, who has this day applied for authority to perform the duties and have and receive the benefits of an attorney and counselor of this Court, beg leave to report, that Mrs. Mansfield has passed a most eminently satisfactory examination, giving the very best evidence of long and careful study, excellent application and a thorough acquaintance with the elementary principles of law….
We feel justified in recommending to the Court that construction which we deem authorized not only by the language of the law itself, but by the demands and necessities of the present time and occasion. Your Committee takes unusual pleasure in recommending the admission of Mrs. Mansfield, not only because she is the first lady who has applied for this authority in the State, but because in her examination she has given the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law; and we feel confident from the intimation of the Court, given on the application made that we speak not only the sentiments of the Court and of your committee, but of the entire membership of the bar, when we say that we heartily welcome Mrs. Mansfield as one of our members, and we most cordially recommend her admission.”
Following her admission to the bar, she completed her M.A. at Iowa Wesleyan, gave public lectures on women’s rights, was an officer in the Iowa Peace Society, served as chair and permanent secretary of the first Iowa Women’s Rights Convention, and was elected president of the Henry County Woman Suffrage Association. She became a professor of English literature at Iowa Wesleyan University, and toured Europe with her husband as he gathered new science curriculum.
Mansfield’s husband experienced a nervous collapse in 1884, at which point she was responsible for supporting the couple and paying for his medical expenses. In addition to lecturing around the country, she served as president of the Mount Pleasant High School, taught mathematics at Iowa Wesleyan, and following her husband’s death returned to DePauw University where she served in various roles including Registrar and Dean of the School of Art and Music.
Although Mansfield set precedent in the State of Iowa for the admission of women to the bar, the United States Supreme Court declined to extend the Equal Protection Clause of the 14 th Amendment to women when examining a similar case involving Myra Bradwell of Chicago. In declining to extend the protections of the United States Constitution to women seeking equal protection in pursuing lawful employment for a livelihood, the U.S. Supreme Court archaically stated:
“It certainly cannot be affirmed, as an historical fact, that this has ever been established as one of the fundamental privileges and immunities of the sex. On the contrary, the civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood.
It is true that many women are unmarried and not affected by any of the duties, complications, and incapacities arising out of the married state, but these are exceptions to the general rule. The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases.“
— Bradwell v. The State, 83 U.S. 130. 140-41 (1872).
Mansfield’s legacy is one of having moved the needle toward equality between the genders, both in legal vernacular and in practice, even in modern times. The Iowa Supreme Court recently revisited Mansfield’s legacy in a case finding a non-birthing spouse in a lesbian marriage must be included on their child’s birth certificate, stating:
“When the statute refers to only one gender and the gender referenced is masculine, section 4.1(17) extends the statute to include females. The Henry County District Court observed this legal truth in an early decision concerning whether it should admit Arabella Mansfield to the Iowa bar. At that time, the Iowa statute regulating the bar admission of attorneys referred to only “white male person[s].” Iowa Code § 2700 (1860). The court relied on a prior version of section 4.1(17) and found “not only by the language of the law itself, but by the demands and necessities of the present time and occasion,” that masculine terms include feminine words. Mary L. Clark, The Founding of the Washington College of Law: The First Law School Established by Women for Women, 47 Am.U.L.Rev. 613, 622 n. 45 (1998). As a result, Mansfield became the first woman to secure a state law license in the United States.”
— Gartner v. Iowa Dept. of Public Health, 830 N.W.2d 335, 349 (Iowa 2013).
Written by Angie Schneiderman (she/her) from Sioux City, Iowa, USA. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
- Duhaime, Lloyd, The Law’s Hall of Fame http://www.duhaime.org/LawMuseum/LawArticle-418/Mansfield-Belle-1846-1911.aspx
- Young, Donald E. “Mansfield, Arabella ‘Belle’ Babb” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009.