Time Machine

Time Machine: 'Petticoats at the bar' as nation's first female lawyer was an Iowan

This drawing accompanied an Aug. 29, 1894, article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the commitment of professor J.M.
This drawing accompanied an Aug. 29, 1894, article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the commitment of professor J.M. Mansfield to the insane asylum in Napa, Calif. Mansfield, the Iowa Wesleyan graduate who married Arabella Babb, had been found living in an abandoned house in San Francisco. He died three days later at the asylum at age 51.

Arabella Babb Mansfield, an Iowan, became the first woman lawyer in the United States in 1869, but she never practiced law. Instead, she became a college administrator whose life was filled with travel and, where her husband was concerned, tragedy.

Arabella Aurelia Babb, also known as Belle, was born on a farm near Burlington in 1846. She graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1866 and began teaching at Simpson College in Indianola. She returned to Iowa Wesleyan to teach, where she married John Melvin Mansfield, a Civil War veteran and also a teacher at Wesleyan, on June 23, 1868.

They both studied law and were admitted to the Iowa bar together in 1869, an expected event for John, but not Arabella. She had to sue to gain admission to the bar, which previously had been limited to men over the age of 21.

She was 24 years old at the time and “a lady of a strong mind,” according to newspaper accounts published across the country, many of which carried the headline, “Petticoats at the Bar.”

‘Eminently satisfactory’

The bar committee that examined her reported, “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.”

A group of New Yorkers who had come to Mount Pleasant to observe the solar eclipse on Aug. 7, 1869, passed on their high opinions of Arabella to the New York Independent: “She is said to be a young woman of a bright, quick, confident intellect, of a very pleasing presence, refined in manners, educated not in the school-girl system, but on the strong meat of a regular classical and scientific course, and to possess every qualification for success in her chosen profession.”

The author of the item even asked, “Will not somebody out that way kindly do something unlawful to us ... by which we can have the opportunity of hearing Mrs. Mansfield make a plea to the jury?”

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Soon after they passed the bar, Arabella and John went to Europe, returning to their alma mater in 1871 to teach, John as professor of natural sciences and Arabella as chair of political science.

When the Iowa Woman’s Suffrage Society convened in Des Moines in 1871, Arabella became its secretary.

John Mansfield, after a study trip to Leipzig, Germany, was elected to a professorship in 1879 at Asbury University (which became DePauw University) in Greencastle, Ind. John dove into the work of making the department more efficient and improving its laboratories.

In 1883, John began to show signs of mental stress. He resigned his professorship and moved to Napa, Calif., where he worked as a geologist for large land companies in the area.

Arabella remained in Indiana, taking a job as registrar at DePauw in 1886 to supplement their income, often commuting to California. She became a professor of history and preceptress of the Ladies’ Hall in 1890, and in 1894, she became dean of the School of Art and the School of Music.

In the wilderness

John’s friends and acquaintances in Greencastle were stunned to hear that he had possibly drowned in a flood in December 1888. He had been exploring the geology in Ventura County that summer and stopped in at the offices of the Ventura Vidette newspaper for information.

“He was a gentleman of easy address, very intelligent, fluent in conversation, polite, and apparently a gentleman,” according to the Vidette employee. He also showed signs of mental illness.

After promising to reconnect with the Vidette office, John moved on to Pasadena, then to Santa Paula. He made frequent trips into the mountains but then suddenly disappeared.


In December, he walked into the drillers’ camp at the Tar Creek Oil Wells. Because of the snow-capped mountain peaks and recent heavy rains, the drillers advised John not to take the trail toward Bakersfield, but he set out anyway. The men later found him on the wrong trail, set him on the right one, and no one saw him after that.

In late June 1889, some men on a camping trip found the bones of a man they believed could the professor. They took photographs and buried the bones.

An Indianapolis News account said, “Should this prove to be the remains of Dr. Mansfield, there are thousands who will mourn his untimely departure. He was a man of fine education and had had the advantage of foreign travel.”

In July, though, a letter arrived from him from San Francisco proving he was alive. Arabella said he had been in that area since the previous summer, working at the State University at Berkeley and trying to regain his health. She said she had gotten letters from him on a weekly basis.

John’s fate

Around 1892, John began aimlessly walking the streets of a San Francisco neighborhood. He kept to himself for a while, but then began to tell stories to neighborhood children. When he started telling the stories in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the children no longer wanted to listen.

By 1894, John had taken up residence in a vacant house at 1012 Clay St. John fashioned scraps of paper and cloth into a bed. He lived on handouts from shopkeepers and residents.

His mental condition had so deteriorated that he began showing up at the Mission in San Francisco, where he began lectures that drifted aimlessly. Listeners assumed he was mentally unbalanced and called police.

He was taken to the hospital, identified as J.M. Mansfield and declared insane. Not deemed dangerous at first, his confinement caused him to become frightened and violent. He was committed to the Asylum for the Insane at Napa, Calif., on Aug. 28, 1894.

John was 51 when he died several days later on Sept. 1. He is buried in Tulocay Cemetery in Napa.

Arabella’s fate

Arabella stayed at DePauw as dean of the Schools of Music and Art.


In 1893, she delivered a paper, “Admission to the Iowa Bar in 1869,” to the Congress of Women Lawyers in Chicago. The number of women lawyers in the country had increased to 75 by 1891.

Arabella fell ill after a summer 1909 trip to Japan, and her failing health prompted her to resign from the School of Music in 1910 and devote herself to the School of Art. She was 64 when she died Aug. 1, 1911. She is buried in Mount Pleasant.

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