Arabella Mansfield (May 23, 1846 – August 1, 1911), née Belle Aurelia Babb, became the first female lawyer in the United States when she was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869. She was allowed to take the bar exam and passed with high scores, despite a state law restricting applicants to white males over 21. Shortly after Mansfield passed the exam, Iowa amended its bar licensing statute and became the first state to allow women and minorities into its bar.
She was born on a family farm in Burlington, Iowa as the second child to Mary Moyer and Miles Babb. Her older brother, Washington Irving Babb, born in 1844, was Mansfield’s lifelong friend. While she was still young, her father left to California for the gold rush. In 1852, he became superintendent of the Bay State Mining Company. The two children and their mother then moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa. (Clara Foltz, the first female west coast lawyer, also grew up in Mount Pleasant around this time.)
In 1862, Mansfield began college at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant and began using the name Arabella (previously, she had gone by Belle). With many men leaving to fight in the civil war, universities were admitting more women students and teachers. She graduated in three years as valedictorian; Washington was salutatorian in the same class.
Mansfield then taught at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, before returning to Mount Pleasant one year later to marry her college sweetheart John Melvin Mansfield. He was a professor at Iowa Wesleyan, and encouraged her in her legal studies. Arabella Mansfield studied law in brother's law office before passing the bar in 1869.
In 1869, Iowa became the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law, with the Court ruling that women may not be denied the right to practice law in Iowa and admitting Mansfield to the practice of law. Mansfield was sworn in at the Union Block building in Mount Pleasant that year. Although admitted to the bar, she never actually practiced law, instead focusing on teaching and other activist work. She taught at Iowa Wesleyan, then at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where she became Dean of the School of Art in 1893 and Dean of the School of Music in 1894. In 1893, she joined National League of Women Lawyers.
Mansfield was also active in the women's suffrage movement, chairing the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1870, and worked with Susan B. Anthony. Dying in 1911 in Aurora, Illinois, Mansfield did not live to see the movement’s ultimate achievement, passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920.
In 1980, Arabella Mansfield was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. In 2002 the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys established the Arabella Mansfield Award to recognize outstanding women lawyers in Iowa.
- Carrie Chapman Catt, contemporaneous Iowan leader of women's suffrage movement
- Gertrude Rush, Iowa's first African-American lawyer
- History of feminism
- "JRank". Arabella Mansfield - A Commanding Presence. Retrieved 2010-12-16.
- Iowa Judicial Branch Early Civil Rights Cases, http://www.iowacourts.gov/Public_Information/Iowa_Courts_History/Civil_Rights/
- IHPA Most endangered, http://www.preservationiowa.org/programs/endangeredItem.php?id=221&year=2008
- Iowa Women Attorney's Biography
- American Law & Legal Information Biography
- Encyclopædia Britannica entry
- Dustin Oliver (Jun 29, 2005). "Arabella Mansfield". Lawyer, Suffragist. Find a Grave. Retrieved Aug 18, 2011.