Belle Mansfield (later, self-fashioned Arabella) passed the Iowa bar exam in 1868 and then, in 1869, she was called to the bar of the state, thus becoming the first woman ever called to practice law in the world; by some definitions, the world's first woman lawyer.

Born near Sperry Station, Iowa, she moved to California in the Gold Rush but, when her father (John Babb) died in a mine collapse accident, she returned to Iowa. She attended the Iowa Wesleyan University and in 1862, moved to Indianola and soon after, Des Moines to take teaching jobs, and then to Mount Pleasant.

In about 1868, she began to study law at her brother's practice in Des Moines. He was two years older and later became Mr. Justice Washington Irving Babb. Their love of the law inspired each other.

In 1868, she married John Mansfield, a university professor and a dedicated supporter of her legal aspirations. By this time, she was preferring the given name of Arabella.

Along with her brother, she applied for membership, and both were called to the Iowa bar on June 15, 1869, a full three years before Charlotte Ray performed a similar feat in DC, and four before Belva Lockwood, also in DC.

Belle "Arabella" MansfieldThere is no known record of any other woman being called and licensed to practice law elsewhere in the history of the world on an earlier date. Thus, this was a first and a historic moment in the law generally and specifically as regards the status of women.

The official record of her examination by the District Court of Henry County in Mount Pleasant on June 2, 1869 speaks volumes of this courageous pioneer:

"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."

The breakthrough received but scanty press coverage, limited to specialized publications.

Mansfield never actually used her license and practiced law. Instead, she left the USA to accompany her husband on a trip to Europe and on her return, she went back to teaching history and, later Dean of the Faculty of Music at DePauw University in Indiana.

Belle Mansfield, Esquire, turned her attention to the cause of women's rights, especially the right to vote, women's suffrage.

She died in 1911after a long struggle with heart disease.

She inspired Myra Bradwell of Chicago to apply for admission and when she was rejected in Illinois, to appeal all the way to the United States Supreme Court where the highest court blinked and said they would not interfere with the position of the State of Illinois.

REFERENCES: