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July 29, 2020 Feature

Two Trailblazing Women Their Legacy and Lessons for Us Today: Arabella Babb Mansfield and Carrie Chapman Catt

By Judge Emily Chafa

This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. Many women and men throughout the nation supported this effort with their time, talent, and treasure. Some are household names, some are less well known. This article highlights two trailblazing women with Iowa roots who courageously and strategically accomplished their goals. One of these women became the first woman lawyer in the United States. The other created and successfully executed the winning plan for the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification. Here are their stories.1

Arabella “Belle” Babb Mansfield was the first woman formally admitted to practice law in the United States, on June 15, 1869, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Arabella’s mother secured a college scholarship in her name when Arabella was five years old, after her father died, to ensure her education and independence. After graduating in 1866 at the top of her class at Iowa Wesleyan College, and teaching at Simpson College for a year, she prepared for the bar examination by reading the law with her brother, Washington Irving Babb, and with her husband, John Mansfield.

District Court Judge Francis Springer, who was sympathetic to the women’s suffrage movement, opened the door for Arabella Mansfield to take the bar exam by interpreting the pertinent Iowa statute as gender neutral. At the time, Iowa Code § 114.2700 (1860) required that Iowa lawyers be white, male, and at least 21 years old; reside in Iowa; be of good moral character; and possess the requisite learning to satisfy an Iowa district court of his qualifications. Judge Springer found support in the statutory construction section of Iowa Code § 3.29(3) (1860), which stated, “words importing the masculine gender only may be extended to females.” He construed the word “male” in the bar admission statute to mean either gender, which meant a woman could take the bar exam and be admitted to practice law if deemed qualified.

Judge Springer appointed two bar examiners and informed them of his statutory interpretation, which gave them confidence in conducting Arabella Mansfield’s bar examination and then admitting her to the Iowa bar the same day. The bar examiners’ statement says it all:

Mrs. Mansfield has passed a most eminently satisfactory examination, giving the very best evidence of long and careful study, of excellent application, and a thorough acquaintance with the elementary principles of law. Your committee take unusual pleasure in recommending the admission of Mrs. Mansfield, not only because she is the first lady that has thus 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 themselves 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 the entire members of the bar, when we say that we heartily welcome Mrs. Mansfield as one of our members, and most cordially recommend her admission.

Newspapers around the state and nation reported on this historic and momentous occasion. Her husband, John Mansfield, was examined and admitted to the Iowa bar the same day. His bar admission did not gain anywhere near the notoriety that hers did. Interestingly, neither John nor Arabella Mansfield actively practiced law. They both pursued careers in academia, teaching at Iowa Wesleyan College and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

Arabella Mansfield was publicly active in the women’s suffrage movement at the local and state levels. She helped draft a constitution for the local women’s suffrage association and served as its president in 1870. She chaired the 1870 Iowa Woman Suffrage Convention and helped found the Iowa Woman Suffrage Society. She was a prolific speaker on women’s rights for many years. She was a modest woman, but, when speaking of her bar examination and admission, she admitted to the thrill of victory, a feeling that she made a great splash in the puddle of the world. She also stated that she took that great step on June 15, 1869, not to secure fame, but to open a path for others and to show others how the virtue and power of the law can open the door for everyone.

Arabella Mansfield’s achievement did indeed open a path for others. The pertinent statute (renumbered as § 9.208 in the 1873 edition of the Iowa Code) was soon amended to state that any person who is at least 21 years old, a resident of Iowa, and of good moral character and who satisfies any court of record that he or she possesses the requisite learning may be licensed to practice as an attorney. This statutory change explicitly allowed otherwise qualified women and persons of color to be admitted to practice law in Iowa.

The University of Iowa began admitting women and African American men to its law school in the early 1870s. These women and men of color were then admitted to the Iowa bar. Most of the first women lawyers in Iowa were active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Carrie Chapman Catt served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900–1904 and again from 1915–1920. She is generally credited with the winning strategic plan and the fortitude and resilience needed to push and pull the Nineteenth Amendment over the victorious finish line. She also founded the League of Women Voters in 1920, several months before the constitutional amendment became the law of the land.

Carrie grew up on a farm near Charles City, Iowa, where her father and mother both worked to contribute to the family’s income. Carrie became a suffragist and an outspoken feminist in 1872 at age 13, when she learned that her well-informed mother could not vote in the presidential election, but her father, her brother, and their uninformed hired men could vote. Soon, Carrie’s mother heard her debating the injustice of the current voting laws with a male friend and with her father. Her father became a suffragist after hearing and considering Carrie’s arguments. Her life’s work began then and there.

Carrie attended the State Agricultural College in Ames, Iowa (now Iowa State University), graduating at the top of her class in 1880. She was the only woman in the class. She worked before and during her college years to pay for her education. She decided to become a lawyer and prepared by reading the law while working in an attorney’s office to earn money. This plan was interrupted when she received an offer to serve as principal of the high school in Mason City, Iowa. At age 24, she became the superintendent of the Mason City Schools, one of the first women in the nation to do so, and most likely the youngest. Any doubts of her ability and qualifications for the job were soon disproved. This experience served her well in her later suffrage work.

She soon became Carrie Chapman, marrying a local newspaper publisher and editor. Leo Chapman brought her in as co-editor and publisher, a true partnership. He supported her suffrage work. Sadly, he died soon after they married, leaving Carrie to bounce back and push forward, using the resiliency she would demonstrate again and again for the rest of her life. She founded the first local women’s suffrage group, and soon became a paid field organizer for the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. Susan B. Anthony, along with others in national suffrage circles, noticed Carrie Chapman’s organizational skills and her prowess as a dynamic speaker.

Carrie married George Catt in 1890. They lived in New York City, where she was based the rest of her life. Throughout their 15-year marriage, he fully supported her suffrage work, giving her ample time and funds to travel wherever needed for suffrage organizing nationwide. They were a team for the suffrage cause.

In 1900, Susan B. Anthony chose Carrie Chapman Catt as her successor as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her vision for success, her organizational skills, and her speaking ability were celebrated. However, her first four years as president did not see much success moving the needle toward nationwide suffrage. She learned some hard lessons that would be helpful later. Sadly, her husband George Catt became ill and died in 1905. Carrie lost interest in the suffrage movement for a time as she grieved.

Soon, Carrie Chapman Catt cofounded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and traveled around the world surveying conditions and helping to organize new suffrage organizations. Then, she focused her energy on a 1915 New York state suffrage referendum, which was unsuccessful, but showed her, once again, the importance of bouncing back and moving forward. The New York referendum succeeded in 1917. This victory may have paved the way for the federal amendment to finally pass through Congress, convincing nervous politicians and others that women’s suffrage was a winning proposition.

Carrie Chapman Catt reclaimed presidency of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in December 1915. She unveiled her winning plan in September 1916, with the primary goal of a federal constitutional amendment. The state suffrage organizations were divided into groups to accomplish one of four specific tasks. The plan demonstrated Catt’s organizational skills, strategically using resources where successes were most likely to occur. One task focused on Congress advancing the federal amendment. The second task focused on state constitutional amendments where it appeared possible. The third task focused on presidential election suffrage. The last task, in southern states, focused on gaining primary election suffrage.

The four-pronged approach of this winning plan relied heavily on local suffragists who understood their own local political culture. The wisdom of this part of the plan became apparent in July and August of 1920 in Tennessee.

The first task was achieved when the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Nineteenth Amendment on May 23, 1919. The U.S. Senate approved the Nineteenth Amendment on June 4, 1919. Meanwhile, several more states allowed women to vote at some level, for president, in primaries, or in other elections.

Thirty-six states needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. After 35 states did so, and a few states failed to ratify, the focus turned to Tennessee, where a special legislative session was called to begin on August 9, 1920, its sole purpose to consider ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In July, Carrie Chapman Catt gathered her troops and put a winning plan into action, relying heavily on the local Tennessee suffragists for the lay of the land. She utilized her prior newspaper experience, writing press releases and editorials to keep the main purpose in the public eye throughout the state. She appropriately responded to negative press. She trusted the local suffragists, women and men, to approach and persuade the legislators they knew and understood. She bounced back from adversity many times, switched gears, and moved forward with effective strategies to procure and retain every essential vote.

One notable result of Carrie Chapman Catt’s persuasive skills: Phoebe Burn, a college-educated woman, was in favor of women’s suffrage and admired Mrs. Catt. Her son, Harry Burn, was the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature. He personally believed women should have the right to vote but knew many of his constituents were against it. Political powers tried their best to persuade him to vote against it. Suffragists tried their best to persuade him to vote for it. In the end, his mother’s letter, received the morning of the vote, tipped the scale to a yes vote. Phoebe Burn wrote this letter to her son: “Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. . . . I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “Rat” in Ratification. With lots of love, Mama.”

The Tennessee legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920. The amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920. Carrie Chapman Catt reminded the women of the United States,

That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. The vote has been costly. Prize it. Understand what it means and what it can do for your country. No soldier in the great suffrage army has labored and suffered to get a place for you. Their motive has always been the hope that women would aim higher than their own selfish ambitions; that they would serve the common good. The vote is won. Seventy-two years the battle for this privilege has waged, but human affairs with their eternal change move on without pause. Progress is calling on you to make no pause. Act.

These remarkable women accomplished the seemingly impossible in 1869 and 1920—so long ago, yet their courage and determination remain relevant to us today. We can honor their legacy by applying the lessons we learn from their personal stories in our own personal and professional lives.


1. Primary sources for this article came from Louise Noun, Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (Iowa State Univ. Press 1969: Elaine Weiss, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote (2018); Carrie Chapman Catt: Warrior for Women (Iowa PBS documentary 2020). Other sources were newspaper articles from 1869; Iowa Code (1860 & 1873); and the author’s personal knowledge.

What lessons can we learn from Arabella Mansfield’s experience?

  • Step up, apply yourself to a momentous task, and see it through.
  • Prepare to be the first in a seemingly impossible professional position.
  • Graciously accept support from family, spouse, and friends to achieve your goals.
  • Appreciate a mother who plans for a daughter’s college education.
  • Earn a stellar reputation with powerful people in your community who can open doors for you.
  • Presume that women are qualified to be lawyers, judges, and leaders in the legal profession and in our communities.
  • Use your legal education, and the virtue and power of the law, to open doors for others.
  • Pay it forward by reaching a hand down to the law student or young lawyer.
  • Mentor the next generation by encouraging them to blaze a new trail.

What lessons can we learn from Carrie Chapman Catt’s experience?

  • Speak up for justice and fairness, using undisputable facts and logic.
  • Choose a spouse who respects and supports your work.
  • Learn from each setback, bounce back, and move forward.
  • Understand local differences and respect those who understand local culture.
  • Think before you speak: Words may have unintended consequences.
  • Apply lessons learned from previous jobs to momentous tasks.
  • See the big picture but understand the value of each detail of the plan.
  • Utilize teamwork and individual strengths to reach goals.
  • Listen to a wise mother’s advice.
  • Realize it’s not over until you cross the finish line.
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By Judge Emily Chafa

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.