Arabella Babb Mansfield
She has proven that women can also qualify for the practice of law. Her name was Arabella “Belle” Babb Mansfield, the first woman lawyer admitted to the practice of law in the United States. Belle was born in Des Moines County in 1846. She graduated as valedictorian from Iowa Wesleyan College and joined her brother’s law firm. She got married to John Mansfield, an Iowa Wesleyan graduate and professor in 1868. Though already married, she kept reading law and decided to apply for the bar examination.
The bar exam
Despite the fact that Iowa law allowed only white and male applicants to apply for the bar exam, Belle was allowed to take it. A court ruling stated that “upon appeal, the affirmative declaration that male persons may be admitted, is not an implied denial to the right of females.” Belle passed the bar exam in June 1869, at the age of 23. It was Judge Francis Springer who officially certified her at the Henry County courthouse in Mount Pleasant. She became the nation’s first female lawyer. As a result, the Iowa legislature opened the profession to women in 1870.
Life outside the courtroom
Belle did not commit her entire life to the practice of law, however. Instead, she became more active in the women’s rights movement. She gave public lectures on women’s rights and held positions in various women’s organizations. She was the temporary chair and permanent secretary of the first Iowa women’s right convention in June 1870. A month later, she was elected president of the Henry County Woman Suffrage Association. When Belle took her retirement, she moved to the home of her brother. She died in 1911. Belle Mansfield’s legacy lives on.
In order to recognize outstanding women lawyers in Iowa like her, the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys (IOWA) established the Arabella Mansfield Award. Each year, female lawyers in the state who have promoted and nurtured women in the legal profession are given this prestigious award. In 2013, the award was presented at IOWA’s 28th annual dinner on June 20 at the Sheraton Inn in West Des Moines, IA.