Women’s History Month: Arabella Mansfield and Equality in the Legal Industry

Some may be familiar with the Mansfield Rule certification, a program introduced in 2017 by Diversity Lab to increase the representation of diverse lawyers in leadership positions, including women and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Fewer people, however, may be as familiar with Arabella Mansfield, the woman after whom the program was named and the first woman admitted to the legal profession in the United States in 1869. At a time when women were denied the right to vote, Arabella created a legacy of academic achievement and social equality for generations of American women.

Arabella was born in 1846 as “Bella Aurelia Babb” in Des Moines County, Iowa. After graduating as valedictorian from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1866, she became a professor of English and history at Simpson College. About a year later, she began studying law at her brother’s law office.

In June 1869—when only “males over 21” were allowed to take the bar exam—Arabella applied for admission to the Iowa state bar. The examiners, who were sympathetic to the suffrage movement, permitted her to sit for the bar. She passed with high scores, which the examiners deemed “the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law”.

Despite having passed the bar exam, however, Arabella was not automatically admitted to the Iowa bar as the then-state law restricted admission to “any white male person” (Iowa Code § 114.2700 (1860)). Challenging the statute in Federal Court, Arabella argued before District Court Judge Francis Springer, and won. Judge Springer held that “the affirmative declaration that male persons may be admitted is not a denial of the right of females,” and approved her application.

The Iowa Supreme Court let Judge Springer’s decision stand, and, on March 8, 1870, the Iowa Legislature changed the law and removed the words “white male” from the statute (Act of Mar. 8, 1870, ch. 21, 1870 Iowa Acts 21). This was no small feat during an era where some in the judiciary still clung unabashedly to the notion that women—because of their “emotional impulses”—were ill-suited for the courtroom, and were intended by the law of nature for “the bearing and nurture of the children of our race” (In re Goodell, 39 Wis. 232, 245 (1875)).

Arabella passed away in 1911, nine years before women’s suffrage was achieved. During her lifetime, she received honorary memberships in the National League of Women Lawyers, and the Delta Chi fraternity, a fraternity for male law students at DePauw University. In 1980, she 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 and celebrate outstanding women lawyers in the state.

This Women’s History Month, Hoagland Longo celebrates Arabella Mansfield for her professional accomplishments, devotion to equality, and indelible contributions to the legal profession that paved the way for myriad aspiring women attorneys across the nation. Since 2021, Hoagland Longo has been a proud participant of the Mansfield Rule certification program as we stay committed to fostering a more diverse and inclusive environment.

Julie Alicino is Chair of the firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee.