Arabella Mansfield: First Female Lawyer in America. (5/10)

Topic for Assignment: Representation of women in judicial positions and the impact of their presence in the Judicial system historically


Primary Source (1869): The evening telegraph. (Philadelphia [Pa.]), 01 July 1869. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

Primary Source (1869): Nashville union and American. (Nashville, Tenn.), 25 June 1869. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <;

Secondary Source:

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Arabella Mansfield, The First Female Lawyer in United States History

Arabella Mansfield was the first woman in the United States to pass the bar examination–allowing her to become the first female attorney in the history of the United States. One of the most impressive aspects of the court case of Arabella Mansfield is the response from the bar committee after her application was submitted and reviewed:

“The undersigned committee, appointed by the court, to examine and report 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 counsellor of this court, beg leave to report: That Mrs. Mansfield has passed a most eminently satisfactory examination, giving the very best evidence of a 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 who 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 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.”

While there is a sense of tokenism in the acceptance of Mansfield to the Iowa bar (the committee seems more amused than sincerely impressed in the response above), it’s interesting to note how well she was treated by the courts in comparison to Lavinia Goodell who followed suit a decade after her–one would think that Mansfield would have had to fight even harder than Goodell because she was breaking gender roles at an earlier point in time. However, it may be that Mansfield experienced a smooth acceptance to the bar because she wasn’t necessarily applying for as prestigious of a position as Goodell or even Florence Allen almost a hundred years later. It was, in a sense, an entry-level position that didn’t rock the patriarchal boat (or masculine judiciary) too much–especially since she was just one woman, not a group. Even more so, after she was accepted to the bar she never actually practiced law (she devoted the rest of her life to the suffrage movement)–perhaps another factor in her reception as a lawyer and acceptance to the bar being relatively positive. In other posts, I’ve talked about how women often have stereotypes placed upon them by society, thus affecting how they are perceived within judicial roles regarding capability and credibility (the story of Florence Allen, the story of Lavinia Goodell, and the Bremer article) . In the case of Arabella Mansfield, the same is true. While she received what appears to be little to no backlash within the court itself, as news of her application and acceptance to the bar spread, the remarks from members of society exhibit how cultural perceptions of gender affect the reception of women into the judicial system.

While I was searching for primary sources for this post, I came across 1869 newspaper articles from various states that mentioned Arabella Mansfield’s admittance to the bar. In all of the newspapers, her story was never front page news and often was nothing more than a sentence of two. The standard posting about her admittance was “Mrs. Arabella Mansfield Esq. is the beauty of the Iowa bar.” While this could be interpreted as a positive reaction to her admittance, it is relatively problematic when looked at from a feminist perspective and when considering the gender expectations placed upon women during this time period. The fact that they note she is the “beauty” of the bar almost detracts from the accomplishment itself and denotes tokenism. Additionally, when considering that she was the first female lawyer in United States history, it’s troubling that the event wasn’t considered newsworthy enough to be on the front page or even to have earned at least a paragraph of coverage instead of a sentence. Some newspapers used humor to address her admittance, seemingly in an attempt (intentional or not) to undermine the significance of her accomplishment and even her gender as well. For example: “Mrs. Arabella Masfield Esq. is the beauty of the Iowa bar. This is a bar-rowed item.” or “Mrs. Arabella A. Mansfield has just been admitted to practice at the Iowa bar. Nothing new in this. We have heard of barmaids before.”Aside from a majority of brief mentions in state newspapers, there were two instances I could find where Mansfield’s admittance was given a paragraph (or more) of attention. While it still wasn’t front page news, the fact that she was being acknowledged in more than a dismissive matter is significant to understanding how her breakthrough into the judiciary was perceived. Interestingly, the two articles mentioned earlier are nearly polar opposites regarding how they viewed Mansfield’s breaking of gendered barriers.

The The first article I found was done by “The Daily Evening Telegraph” in Philadelphia (see image below). While “Petticoats at the Bar” appears to be a positive review of the events that happened in first article I found was done by “The Daily Evening Telegraph” in Philadelphia (see image below). While “Petticoats at the Bar” appears to be a positive review of the events that happened in

The first article I found was done by “The Daily Evening Telegraph” in Philadelphia (see image below).

Original 1869 article from “The Daily Evening Telegraph”

While “Petticoats at the Bar” initially appears to be a neutral review of the events that happened in Iowa in it’s first paragraph, after reading through the entire piece (or simply reading it’s satirical title) it can be easily deduced that the mindset of the individual who wrote is aligns with that of Justice Ryan and prevailing beliefs from this time (from the story of Lavinia Goodell). Essentially, the author is trying to establish that women do not belong in the courts due to their feminine nature and that they would not find the work to be “satisfactory”. Building off of that and becoming more aggressive, the author then states that women who seek to become lawyers are not doing it out of interest, but rather to cause social upheaval. Additionally, the author suggests and implies that work in the judiciary causes for women to become unattractive–belittling their impact to the way they look and how men perceive them. Expanding on their previous (and incredibly superficial) point, they go as far as to state that: “We do not believe that any woman could practice a year at the bar without losing every quality that makes a woman charming.” As proof of evidence to their claims, the article is finished off by retelling the story of a female lawyer in Britain who, after fourteen days of speaking before the court, swooned from exhaustion. Following this, the author concludes by stating that: “When women undertake to argue cases before a jury, how often will the experience of Miss Sheden be repeated? An address fourteen days long and only cut off at last by hysteria! Need we say more?”

The second article I found was from “The Nashville Union and American” in Nashville (see image below).

Original 1869 article from “The Nashville Union and American”

When comparing this article to the one before it, the differences between the two are resounding. Not only does this author provide the court report on the matter, but also goes as far as to wish “the couple success” (Arabella was admitted at the same time as her husband to the bar). While this article suggests that it was acceptable for Arabella to pursue a path into the judiciary because she was married (as does the one before this as well) and she was accepted to the bar with her husband’s approval; it’s impressive that the notions of gender and gender expectations aren’t played upon as much as was done in other articles that I found. Additionally, while the author wished success to the couple and not Arabella as an individual (a subtle example of gender perceptions from this era), the stance of this newspaper is surprisingly progressive given the time period and the overwhelmingly sexist or dismissal views of fellow newspapers on the matter (the title denotes this as well).

The 1869 articles about Arabella Mansfield’s admittance to the Iowa bar provide proof that gender does and has always played a role within women’s representation in the judiciary. While most of the gendered remarks were subtle, they show that society as a whole saw Mansfield as a woman first and the first female lawyer second. Her gender caused for people to not take her seriously, to suggest that she was unfit for judicial work, and that she could only be successful with the help of her husband. While she experienced a much more pleasant experience in court than her successors, it can be deduced that tokenism probably is to blame for this. She was a novelty, but those who followed her became a threat to the masculine nature of the institution and the patriarchal nature of society as representation of women in the judiciary started to grow in number (Myra Bradwell was rejected later that same year from the Illinois state bar because of her gender). Overall, the story of Arabella Mansfield proves that gender ultimately does matter when becoming involved in the judiciary and that society has gendered perceptions of women’s roles that are often difficult for women to remove themselves from.


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