July 29, 2020 Feature

Arabella “Belle” Babb Mansfield: The First Woman Lawyer—Celebrating Her Legacy

By Judge Emily Chafa

Exactly 150 years later, in the very room where it happened, the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys (I.O.W.A.) celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first woman admitted to practice law in the United States.

On June 15, 1869, Arabella Babb Mansfield took the bar examination, passed, and was formally admitted to the Iowa bar. These events happened in the third-floor public meeting room in the Union Block Building on the town square in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

On June 15, 2019, the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys celebrated this achievement by reenacting Mansfield’s historic swearing-in and telling her life story in the third-floor public meeting room in the Union Block Building on the town square in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. I.O.W.A. Annual Meeting Co-Chair Emily Chafa portrayed Arabella Mansfield. Iowa State Bar Association President Bill Boyd read the Bar Examination Committee’s statement describing their decision to admit Mansfield to the Iowa bar. U.S. Magistrate Judge Celeste Bremer swore Arabella/Emily in as a new Iowa lawyer.

A group of I.O.W.A. members walked to the statue of Belle Babb Mansfield on the Iowa Wesleyan University campus for a photo. Most of them wore white dresses, as the women suffragists did, in honor of her work in the women’s suffrage movement.

The celebration included discussion of these questions: What do we, as women lawyers and judges, owe to Arabella Babb Mansfield? What can each of us do to honor her legacy? Many of the answers to these questions appear in the accompanying article.

In 2002, I.O.W.A. established an annual award in honor of Arabella Mansfield. This award goes to an outstanding Iowa woman attorney who exemplifies Arabella Mansfield’s spirit, promoting and nurturing women in the legal profession. The 2019 Arabella Mansfield Award was presented to Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran. Two of her colleagues on the Iowa Court of Appeals, Mary Tabor and Amanda Potterfield, nominated her for this award.

The celebration included another award in honor of another trailblazing Iowa woman lawyer. Gertrude Rush became the first African American woman lawyer in Iowa in 1918. Much like Mansfield, Rush studied law for several years, but under the tutelage of her husband, James Rush. She passed the Iowa bar examination in August of 1918. Rush cofounded the National Bar Association in 1925, along with four other black male lawyers, after they were denied membership in the American Bar Association due to their race. Rush was active in many church and civic organizations in Des Moines, Iowa.

In 2003, I.O.W.A. and the Iowa Chapter of the National Bar Association (INBA) established the Gertrude Rush award, which honors a lawyer who manifests the pioneering spirit of Gertrude Rush, demonstrates leadership in the community and in the legal profession, and demonstrates concern for human and civil rights. The 2019 Gertrude Rush Award was presented to Vicky Long Hill, an Iowa attorney who was and is active in her community and in the legal profession. Hill is a longtime active member of the National Bar Association at the state and national levels. Her INBA colleague, Henry Hamilton III, nominated her for this award.

In 2020, the I.O.W.A. annual awards banquet is scheduled on August 18 to celebrate the exact 100th anniversary of the Tennessee legislature’s action becoming the 36th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. The celebration may include a portrayal of Carrie Chapman Catt’s life story and her strategic role in the ratification rollercoaster ride in Nashville, Tennessee, during the summer of 1920.

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By Judge Emily Chafa

Des Moines, Iowa

Emily Chafa served as an administrative law judge for the State of Iowa for several years. She is an active member of several local, state, and national bar associations. She serves on the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Administrative Law Judiciary.