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The First Female Lawyer in America Took the Bar Illegally. A True Lady in Defiance.

Can you imagine practicing law in this get-up?

Can you imagine practicing law in this get-up?

By Heather Frey Blanton Copyright 2013 Heather Blanton

Arabella Mansfield. You’ve probably never heard of her unless you’re from Iowa, but Arabella was the first woman in America to become a lawyer. She passed the Iowa bar in 1869, illegally. Still, Arabella’s milestone proves that behind many a good woman there often stands a supportive man.

Arabella was actually born Belle Aurelia Babb in in 1846 in Burlington, IA. Only three years later her father left to hunt gold in the west, leaving Mrs. Babb to raise Arabella and her brother Washington on her own. Her father was kind enough, however, to send home some money, enabling both children to attend college. Perhaps since her mother was such a stalwart example of what a woman could do, Arabella never saw a barrier she couldn’t conquer. John Mansfield, her high school sweetheart, was smart enough to realize that and, instead of trying to hold her back, encouraged her to reach for the stars.

After graduating from Iowa Wesleyan College, Arabella taught at Simpson College, but returned home only a year later. She married John and studied law in her brother’s office. Two years later, despite the fact that only white men over the age of 21 were allowed to take the bar, Arabella took the exam and passed it with a high score.

This didn’t sit well with some attorneys in the state and so they did what attorneys do: they challenged Arabella’s status. Fairly quickly, the court ruled women and minorities should not be denied the right to practice law in the state, the first ruling of its kind in the USA. Arabella never used the license she fought so hard to acquire—as she preferred teaching—but she involved herself in the fight for women’s rights till she died in 1911. Not a rabid feminist, she did support the suffragette movement. Arabella resented having her intelligence insulted. Clearly, if women were smart enough to become lawyers, she thought it only reasonable they should have the right to vote.

Thank you, Arabella.

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