Born in 1846, Arabella, known in childhood as Belle, lived with her mother and brother after her father abandoned their family to take part in the California Gold Rush. Young Belle was particularly close to her brother, Washington. Because many men were going to fight in the Civil War, colleges began to admit more women. This opened doors for Arabella to follow in her brother's footsteps and begin her studies at Iowa Wesleyan College in 1862. Washington left school briefly to enlist in the Eighth Iowa Century. He returned to school in time to graduate the same year as Arabella. Arabella was valedictorian and Washington was salutatorian of their graduating class.
Arabella accepted a teaching position at Simpson College, but only stayed for a year before returning home to marry her childhood sweetheart, John Melvin Mansfield. After they married, John encouraged Arabella to continue her studies and pursue her interest in law. She apprenticed at Washington's law offices. In 1869, Arabella passed the Iowa Bar Exam. It's unclear how she was able to take the exam as it was only open to men over the age of 21. Regardless, she passed and challenged the Iowa state bar to allow her to be admitted.
When Iowa agreed to admit Arabella, they became the first state in the union to permit female lawyers. Arabella did not go on to a career as a lawyer, but her act opened up the world of law to women in the United States.
Rather than working as a lawyer, Arabella went on to teach and work as an activist for women's rights. She earned an M.A. and another B.A. at Iowa Wesleyan College and went on to teach English Literature at the school.
She and her husband both became active in the women's rights movement. In 1870, Arabella began working with the Iowa Women's Rights Convention and became president of the Henry County Woman Suffrage Association.
In 1876, Arabella and her husband moved to Indiana where they both taught for eight years at Ashbury University (now called DePauw University). Arabella took a break from teaching to care for her ailing husband. After he passed, she resumed her career and became one of the first female college administrators in the United States serving first as the Dean of the School of Art and next as the Dean of the School of Music.
Even late in her career, Arabella worked to further women's rights and open doors for other women. She joined the National League of Women Lawyers in 1893. Her entire career was one mostly unimaginable to women of her era. She didn't let that stop her. She forged forward, ignoring barriers and remaining studious. She fought for the right to be a lawyer. She earned her place in academia. She fought for the right to vote.
Arabella passed away in 1911 before the 19th amendment passed granting women the right to vote. She didn't see all of the fruits of her labor, but many women after her have benefitted from them. In 1980, Arabella was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. The Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys introduced in 2002 the Arabella Mansfield Award which recognizes the accomplishments of female lawyers in Iowa.