(May 23, 1846–August 1, 1911)
–the first woman in the United States to pass the bar examination and the nation's first female attorney—was born in Des Moines County, Iowa. Her father left the family in 1850 to join the California gold rush and was killed in a tunnel cave-in in 1852. After his death, her mother, still living in Des Moines County, decided to move the family to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, to provide better educational opportunities for Belle and her brother, Washington. Belle graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1862, then entered Iowa Wesleyan University in that same town in the fall of that year. Washington had enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan in the fall of 1860, but left in 1863 to enlist in the Eighth Iowa Cavalry. After the war, he reenrolled at the college and completed his B.A. in the same class (1866) as his sister, with Belle the valedictorian and Washington the salutatorian. Belle accepted a position teaching at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and Washington continued his education in the field of law.
After a year at Simpson, Belle returned to Mount Pleasant to pursue a master's degree at Iowa Wesleyan, while reading law in her brother's law office in Mount Pleasant. She continued to read law after marrying, in 1868, John Mansfield, an Iowa Wesleyan graduate and professor. In June 1869 she passed the bar exam even though the Iowa Code limited those taking the test to "any white male person."Upon appeal, a court ruling stated that "the affirmative declaration that male persons may be admitted, is not an implied denial to the right of females," and Judge Francis Springer officially certified Belle at the Henry County courthouse in Mount Pleasant.
Belle Mansfield did not devote her life to the legal profession, however. She completed her M.A. at Iowa Wesleyan, then gave public lectures on women's rights, was an officer in the Iowa Peace Society, completed a second B.A. in law at Iowa Wesleyan, became a professor of English literature at the school, and toured Europe with her husband during the 1872-1873 academic year to gather material for a new science curriculum he was preparing for Iowa Wesleyan.
The Mansfields were especially active in the women's rights movement. In June 1870 Belle was the temporary chair and permanent secretary of the first Iowa Women's Rights Convention, which was held in Mount Pleasant. In August 1870 she was elected president of the Henry County Woman Suffrage Association, part of the state group, and her husband was elected secretary.
In 1879 John Mansfield accepted an offer to become professor of natural science at Asbury University (now DePauw University) in Greencastle, Indiana. Belle resigned her position at Iowa Wesleyan to accompany her husband to Indiana.
After a nervous collapse in 1884, John went to California for treatment. Belle worked to support the couple and pay the medical expenses. She lectured around the country, served as principal of Mount Pleasant High School (1884-1885), and taught mathematics at Iowa Wesleyan (1885-1886). After her husband's death she returned to DePauw University in the fall of 1886. There she served as preceptress of the Ladies Hall (1886), registrar (1886-1893), and dean of the School of Art and Music (1893-1911).
She and her husband had no children. On retirement, she moved to the home of her brother, Washington, in Aurora, Illinois, where she died within months of her retirement. She was buried in the Forest Home Cemetery in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Sources This biographical sketch draws on research done by Louis A. Haselmayer, Iowa Wesleyan University; various issues of the Mt. Pleasant Journal; and documents in the archives at Iowa Wesleyan University.
Donald E. Young
Young, Donald E. "Mansfield, Arabella "Belle" Babb" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web.
3 May 2016