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First Female Lawyer in the United States: Arabella Mansfield

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Arabella Mansfield

Arabella Mansfield

Arabella Mansfield accepted a position at Simpson College during the 1860s to teach. The college was located in Indianola, Iowa. After a year of teaching at Simpson College, she went to Mount Pleasant to attend Iowa Wesleyan and get her master's degree. This was a time when Arabella would spend hours in her brother's law office reading cases and legal publications. She had a desire to take the Iowa bar exam. There was a state law limiting those who could take the bar exam to only white males. Arabella took it anyway. She got high scores. After winning a court case on the matter, Arabella Mansfield became the first female in the United States to be a lawyer. As a result of this case, Iowa amended its attorney licensing statutes. It was the first state to accept the right of women and minorities to practice law as members of its bar.

Early Years

Belle Aurelia (Arabella) Babb was born on May 23, 1845, in Benton Township, Des Moines Iowa. Her mother's name was Mary, and her father's name was Miles. At the age of four, Arabella's father left the family to pursue the California gold rush. He was killed in 1852 as he worked in a mining tunnel. It was the Malmeluke Hill mine located in El Dorado County in California. Before he left, Miles made a will to provide for the education of his children. After the death of her husband, Mary Babb took Arabella, and her son named Washington Irving moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Arabella and her brother became students at local schools.

Iowa Wesleyan College

Arabella started attending Iowa Wesleyan College in 1862. It was located in Mount Pleasant. This is when she started going by the name Arabella rather than Belle. During this time many men were leaving Iowa to go and fight in the American Civil War. Universities were desperate for students. Admitting women was becoming common and many women also were hired as teachers. Arabella graduated in three years and was the valedictorian of her class. Her brother Washington was also part of Arabella's class. He was the salutatorian of the class. After they graduated, Arabella was hired for a teaching position at Simpson college located in Indianola Iowa. Her brother Washington continued his education focusing on the field of law.

Arabella Mansfield

Arabella Mansfield

Bar Exam

Arabella Married John Melvin Mansfield who was her college sweetheart. He was a professor at Iowa Wesleyan. John was supportive of Arabella's desire to study law. Her brother passed the Iowa bar exam and established a law practice. Arabella would spend time at her brother's law office reading legal documents as an apprentice. In the state of Iowa, taking the bar exam was limited to only white males over the age of 21. Arabella was determined. She took the bar exam in 1869. Arabella got very high scores on the exam.

Law Challenged

Arabella challenged the Iowa law that excluded her from taking the bar exam. The state court ultimately ruled women would no longer be denied the right to practice law in the state of Iowa. The judge in the case was Judge Francis Springer. He stated that the affirmative declaration that white males can take the test and practice law does not imply a denial of the right of females to do the same. Judge Springer officially certified Arabella as an attorney at the Henry County Courthouse in Mout Pleasant, Iowa.

Arabella Mansfield

Arabella Mansfield

Didn't Practice Law

After being admitted to the bar, Arabella did not practice law. She focused her talents on teaching at colleges and being an activist. Arabella taught at Depauw University in Indiana, Iowa Wesleyan College. At DePauw, she was made Dean of the School of Art. In 1893, Arabella joined the National League of Women Lawyers.


Arabella and her husband were active in the women's rights movement. She was made temporary chair and permanent secretary for the Iowa Women's Rights Convention. Arabella was elected president of the Henry County Woman Suffrage Association. Her husband was made secretary of the organization. Arabella also attended the Iowa Women's Suffrage Convention in 1870. It was during this time she was able to work with Susan B. Anthony.

Personal Tragedy

In 1884, Arabella's husband John collapsed from a nervous breakdown. He traveled to California for treatment. Arabella continued working so they could pay medical expenses. She spent this time going around the country giving talks on women's suffrage. Arabella's husband John died in 1894. She then returned to DePauw University where she had various positions including dean of the School of Art and Music.


Arabella and her husband had no children. When she retired, Arabella moved to Illinois to live with her brother Washington. She died on August 1, 1911, in her brother's home. Arabella was buried in Mount Pleasant at the Forest Home Cemetery in Iowa.

Statute of Arabella Mansfield at Wesleyan College

Statute of Arabella Mansfield at Wesleyan College


*Arabella Mansfield was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1980.

*The Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys created the Arabella Mansfield Award in 2002. It recognizes Iowa's outstanding women lawyers.

*Wesleyan College commissioned a commemorative sculpture of Arabella Mansfield and had it installed on the campus.

*The most prestigious award given by the National Association of Women Lawyers was named after Arabella Babb Mansfield. Past winners have included all females sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court and more.


History of American Women

Pieces of the Past

Wander Women Project

Arabella Mansfield

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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