Celebrating Women’s History Month

March 8, 2021

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Eckert Seamans highlights women who have made significant contributions to the legal field and the advancement of women’s rights. These women come from a multitude of backgrounds but share the experience of being trailblazers within their communities.

Please join us as we #choosetochallenge and acknowledge and learn more about Women Legal Trailblazers during Women’s History Month:

Arabella Mansfield

Arabella Mansfield, neé Belle Aurelia Babb, was born on May 23, 1846 on her family’s farm in Benton Township, Des Moines, Iowa. She was the younger of two children born to Mary and Miles Babb, and her older brother, Washington Irving Babb, named after the author, was her life-long best friend. When Arabella was just 4 years old, her father left for California to become superintendent of the Bay State Mining Company. Understanding the risk of this position, he left behind a will that provided for his children’s education, a fortuitous decision as he was killed on December 23, 1852, when a mining tunnel at the Mameluke Hill Mine in El Dorado County, California collapsed.

After the loss of Miles, Mary Babb relocated the family to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, coincidentally where Clara Foltz, the first woman to be accepted to the bar on the West Coast and the originator of the concept of the public defender, was also growing up. In 1862, Arabella Babb enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, where she began to formally use the name Arabella. She graduated three years later as valedictorian, while her brother Washington was Salutatorian of the same class.

After graduating, Babb taught at what was then known as Des Moines Conference Seminary (today called Simpson College) in Indianola, Iowa for one year, but returned to Mount Pleasant, where she married John Melvin Mansfield, whom she dated while in college. John was a professor at Iowa Wesleyan and encouraged his wife in her pursuit to study law. Once her brother Washington passed the bar and opened his own practice, Mansfield joined him in his practice as an apprentice. Iowa law at the time restricted the bar exam to “males over 21,” but Mansfield defied both the law and convention by taking the exam in 1869 and passing with very high marks.

That same year, Mansfield challenged the law that prohibited her from entering the Iowa state bar and won, cementing Iowa’s status as the first state to admit women to the practice of law. While Mansfield was successfully admitted to the bar, she did not practice law, instead focusing on teaching and activism. In 1870, she chaired the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention and remained an active member of the movement, at points working together with Susan B. Anthony. She was also a professor at Iowa Wesleyan alongside her husband, and then at DePauw University, where she was appointed the Dean of the School of Art and the following year, the Dean of the School of Music. She joined the National League of Women Lawyers in 1893.

On August 1, 1911, Mansfield passed away at her brother’s home in Aurora, Illinois. Her legacy lives on, and in 2017, the Diversity Lab established the now-famous Mansfield Rule that measures DEI in Law Firm hiring and retention practices in her name.


Deb Haaland

Debra Anne Haaland was born on December 2, 1960 in Winslow, Arizona to Mary Toya and Major John David “Dutch” Haaland. One of five children of a military family, Haaland attended 13 public schools across the United States before her family finally settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her mother, from New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo, was a driving force behind the location choice, moving to be close to family who also belonged to the Laguna Pueblo. Haaland considers herself 35th generation New Mexican.

Haaland graduated from Highland School and took a job working at a bakery. In 1988, she enrolled at the University of New Mexico, where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1994, just four days later giving birth to her daughter. To support herself and her daughter, Haaland started a salsa company, at times still finding it difficult to support her family. She earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 2006 but did not seek admission to the state’s bar. Instead, she was elected to become the first chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors to help strengthen the local community and economy. She also served as the tribal administrator for the San Felipe Pueblo from January 2013 to November 2015.

In 2018, Haaland ran for the United States House of Representatives in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district and won. With her victory, she became one of the first two Native American women elected to U.S. Congress, along with Sharice Davids of Kansas, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Haaland made history when she wore a traditional Pueblo dress, necklace, and moccasins to her swearing-in ceremony. Two months later, on March 7, 2019, Haaland continued her history-making legacy when she became the first Native American woman to preside over the U.S. House of Representatives. Haaland has since served on the following committees: the Committee on Armed Services (Subcommittee on Military Personnel and Subcommittee on Readiness), Vice-Chair of the Committee on Natural Resources (Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States and Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands), and the Committee on Oversight and Reform (Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties).

On March 15, 2021, Haaland was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the first Native American Cabinet Secretary in U.S. history. She was sworn-in as Secretary of the Interior by Vice President Kamala Harris on March 18, 2021.


Ada Kepley

Ada Harriet Miser Kepley was born to Ann and Henry Miser in Somerset, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. When Ada was 13 years old, her family, including her sister Nora, moved to St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1867, Ada met and married Henry B. Kepley, a successful attorney who established his own practice in Effingham, Illinois. After training his wife to become his legal assistant and recognizing her interest in the law, Kepley encouraged her to attend law school. She enrolled as a student at Union College of Law, today known as Northwestern School of Law.

Kepley graduated with her Bachelor of Laws in 1870, securing her spot as the first woman to graduate from law school in the United States. However, the Illinois state bar denied her admission because she was a woman. Ever her advocate, her husband drafted a bill that banned sex discrimination in professional occupations, which became a state law two years later. Kepley found her niche in social reform and did not apply immediately, though when she did in 1881, she was granted admission with ease.

Kepley was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1892 and did indeed speak from the pulpit. She also established the Band of Hope, a youth group focused on awareness of alcohol addiction. In addition, she published a monthly temperance newsletter titled The Friend of Home, which sought to dissuade people from associating with saloons and their patrons, which almost cost Kepley her life when a disgruntled saloon owner shot at her. She became a prominent figure and advocate of the women’s suffrage movement alongside Francis Willard and Susan B. Anthony until her husband died in 1906.

Kepley relocated to her husband’s family’s farm and wrote her autobiography, A Farm Philosopher, A Love Story. She ultimately lost the farm and moved to a small home in Effingham. She passed away in St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital in 1925 and is buried next to her husband at Oak Ridge Cemetery.


Victoria Kolakowski

Victoria Kolakowski was born in Queens, New York on August 29, 1961 to June and Martin Kolakowski. She attended Stuyvesant High School and became the first person in her family to attend college when she enrolled in New College of Florida. She graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in Natural Sciences in 1982 and went on to earn her Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Tulane University in 1987. In 1990, she earned a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Orleans. In the midst of earning these degrees, Kolakowski earned her Juris Doctor from the Paul M. Hebert Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1989.

During her last semester of law school, she began her transition, ultimately undergoing gender affirmation surgery in 1992. Kolakowski appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court for her right to take the bar exam after the Louisiana Bar Association declared her “not of sound mind” after her transition. In 1997, she earned her Master of Divinity degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.

Kolakowski was an attorney for 21 years in California and Louisiana, where she served as an attorney in a small firm, a sole practitioner, general counsel for a publicly-traded company, a senior government utility regulatory attorney, and as an administrative law judge for two different California agencies. She served as co-chair of the Bay Area Transgender Law Association from 1996-2000 and has been a member of the National Association of Women Judges since 2006. She also served as an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission for four years before being elected to the Alameda County Superior Court in 2011. From 2015-2017, Kolakowski was president of the International Association of LGBT Judges and the first transgender person to serve in the role.

She has won numerous awards and honors throughout her career, including:

  • Equality and Justice Award by Equality California
  • Susan B. Anthony Award by the National Women’s Political Caucus – Alameda North
  • Unity Award by the Minority Bar Coalition
  • Outstanding Woman of Berkeley by City of Berkeley, Commission on the Status of Women
  • Woman of the Year by the East Bay Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club in 1994
  • Named an individual community grand marshal for San Francisco LGBT Pride
  • Named by Equality Forum as one of their 31 Icons of the LGBT History Month

Kolakowski now resides in Oakland with her wife Cynthia Laird and their cat and dog.

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