Arabella Babb Mansfield, Cheryl Thomas, and the Fertile Ground of Iowa
By Darcy Berglund July 7, 2021
It is a thrill to announce that Cheryl Thomas, Founder and Executive Director of Global Rights for Women, has been chosen by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) to be the confirmed recipient of the 2021 Arabella Babb Mansfield Award.
Prior recipients of this prestigious award include U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, Professor Anita Hill, and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). All who are familiar with Cheryl, and with her nearly 30-years of work around the world in the advancement of women’s human rights through legal reform and systemic change, know that this NAWL Arabella Babb Mansfield award represents a well-deserved honor.
I learned of Arabella Babb Mansfield in December of 2019 on a trip to my home state of Iowa. Inspired by Manfield’s bravery and intellect, and moved by the legacy she put in place for future leaders like Cheryl Thomas–not to mention the coincidence of Iowa childhoods and educations–I wrote, at the time, about the impromptu road-trip detour that taught me some wonderful Iowa “herstory:” GRW board member Becky Bentzinger and I were driving north from Donnellson, Iowa, where Becky, who has family, and family history in Donnellson, had arranged for Cheryl Thomas to speak at the public library the night before.
As we neared the town of Mt Pleasant, Becky informed me that this southeastern Iowa town was home, on its Iowa Wesleyan University campus, of a statue of its own Arabella Babb Mansfield, the first female lawyer in the United States. “The first female lawyer?” I asked. “In the U.S.? HERE?!”” I was struck by this bit of history.
Becky, Cheryl and I each lived in Iowa for a period of our youths—Becky and I in Des Moines, Cheryl in Indianola, after which she and Becky attended Simpson College (Indianola) together—and with this news, I not only felt proud that an Iowan had broken through the long-standing nation-wide barrier to the heady world of the law, but I felt instantly, keenly aware of the direct line from this pioneering feminist to Cheryl and to the other female lawyers at GRW.
Becky and I marveled over this (well, I marveled, and she concurred, since this bit of history was not new to her), and we took the Mount Pleasant exit. It was a December day, a weak winter sun made weaker by thin wisps of cloud. The small town was quiet. Once we arrived on campus, we found things even quieter; it turned out the school had just started winter break. Becky directed me to the center of campus where, in the middle of a small plaza, stood the slightly larger-than-life statue of Mansfield…long skirt, puffed sleeves, high collar, head slightly bent forward, gaze gently focused on the open book in her hands.
We parked, put on our winter coats, and got out for a closer look. The campus around us remained silent, bare branches of shade trees casting criss-crossed shadows across pale green and brown lawns. “It is beautiful,” I said aloud, as Becky and I slowly circled the statue. The muted sunlight reflected off of the smooth folds of the metal skirt, a woven texture stamped onto its surface. Only a talented hand could make bronze look this much like cotton twill. “A friend of mine who is a sculptor says this is a good one, expertly done,” Becky informed me.
The sculpting talent belongs to Benjamin Victor, a respected artist and professor whose works stand in public buildings and spaces all over the country. Fulfilling multiple commissions when still in his 20’s, Ben Victor was only 28 years old when he completed this statue of Mansfield, installed here in 2008. The statue’s wonderful skirt, hemmed at its bottom by a decorative ruffle, encircles the figure and gives her presence, feminine power, and sets the figure squarely in the late 1800s.
It was 1869, to be exact, when this brilliant young woman changed history. In 1869 women were not allowed to take the bar exam. Anywhere. That changed when Belle Babb Mansfield (Belle her given first name, before she changed it to Arabella, and Mansfield her married name; she had married John Mansfield by this time) took the Iowa Bar Association to court over its gender discrimination…and won.
Wikipedia tells us: “Shortly after her court challenge, Iowa amended its licensing statute and became the first state to accept women and minorities into its bar.” And it gets better: Mansfield not only took the bar exam, but passed it with high scores. This college valedictorian, who had interned at her brother’s law firm, as well as “read the law” on her own, had had all the prep she needed. She was sworn in later that year in the Union Block building in downtown Mt. Pleasant, and with this became, officially, the first female lawyer in the United States.
As for what came next, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa gives us a brief summary of Mansfield’s life after passing the exam: 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.
That, I have to say, is one progressive, mutually supportive couple. They did not have children. At the age of 47 Mansfield joined the National League of Women Lawyers, which now honors recipients with an award in her name. Becky and I circled the statue a second time, this time for the purpose of reading each of the four plaques set in the cement of the plaza.
—One plaque gives us Belle’s birthdate of August 23,1846. Later it tells us she died in 1911. In between it informs us that Mount Pleasant was known as “The Athens of Iowa” when Belle’s family moved there in 1860. —Another plaque refers to Mount Pleasant’s “forward-thinking legal community” and its support of Belle’s overcoming obstacles to become the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States.
—A third plaque refers to Belle’s “strong social conscience,” and states “the example she set as a successful student, educator, orator, art historian, journalist, and leader continue to inspire us today.”
—And a fourth plaque, the most eloquent of all, offers the words of the sculptor Ben Victor: “As Belle turns a page in her book, the symbol for education, she becomes a metaphor. Belle’s life turned a page in women’s history and made the world a better place. Calm, focused, and deep in thought, Belle wears the face of determination as she pursues her path of intellectual achievement. She challenges us to strive for greatness. The countless young women who look up to Belle in the years to come will see that with education and perseverance they too are capable of changing their world.”
Becky and I headed back to the car, not just moved by the strength and courage of Arabella Babb Mansfield, but enthralled by the multiple connections between this early feminist and our own Cheryl Thomas. Iowa, known for its educational history, has produced a plethora of talented and accomplished individuals, in everything from literature to the sciences to the arts, but with that trip I became aware of something else Iowa has produced: a remarkable history in the struggle for women’s equality.
In one brief trip to the southeastern corner of the state, Becky and I had observed a 150-year continuum of women’s human rights leadership—now international in scope, thanks to Cheryl Thomas and her organization, Global Rights for Women—based on passions nurtured in the same midwestern soil. If you think Iowa’s most valuable export is corn, think again.
Darcy Berglund is a volunteer with Global Rights for Women, serving as a member of its Development and Communications Committee. She resides in Minneapolis.
Global Rights for Women is a leading voice in the global movement to end violence against women and girls. GRW builds international partnerships that advance laws, values, and practices to create communities where all women and girls live free from violence and threats of violence. In times of greater resistance to human rights from regressive forces, GRW makes an uncompromising commitment to the universal acceptance of women and girls’ human right to be free from violence.