Ellen Spencer Mussey
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Born Ellen Spencer in May 1850, the tenth child of abolitionists and temperance advocates in Geneva, Ohio. She attended grade school in Oberlin, Ohio, a progressive community. Her father invented the Spencerian system of penmanship and after her mother's death in 1862, she helped her father run his penmanship school, the Spencerian Business College. When her father died in 1864, she lived with several siblings and attended, but did not graduate from, several all-female seminaries -- the Lake Erie Seminary, Rockford Seminary and Rice's Young Ladies Seminary. To pay for her tuition and board, Mussey taught penmanship.
In 1869, at the age of 19, Mussey moved to Washington, D.C. to lead the women's division of the local branch of the Spencerian Business College, which trained young women for government work. She attended her first women's suffrage meeting soon after moving to Washington. On June 14, 1871, she married General Reuben Delavan Mussey ("R.D."), a well-connected Washington lawyer. The
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R.D. was born in Hanover, New Hampshire to a Dartmouth Medical School professor and surgeon in 1833 and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1854. R.D. campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and led African American troops as a general in the Union army during the Civil War. Following the war, he conducted a solo law practice and served as an adjunct instructor at Howard Law School. Mussey enjoyed discussing her husband's law cases with him. Nevertheless, as a newlywed, Mussey believed it inappropriate for women to practice law, instead accepting the prevailing belief that men and women should occupy separate spheres. Despite this belief, Mussey ran her husband's law practice while he was ill with malaria between 1876 and 1878.
"A knowledge of law is essential for everybody, man and woman alike." Ellen Spencer Mussey statement appearing in "Washington College of Law Founded by Women," Washington Evening Star (1921), on file with the D.C. Public Library.
"Absence of occupation is not rest." Ellen Spencer Mussey Diary.
"Brain must command instincts; then he gets a perspective." Ellen Spencer Mussey Diary.
Following his recovery from malaria in 1878, R.D. asked Mussey to continue working in the law practice. Initially, Mussey refused, still believing it inappropriate for women to practice law. She eventually agreed to practice with her husband and they worked together for 14 years until his death in May 1892. Mussey, who was 42 at the time of R.D.'s death did not remarry, rather she assumed full responsibility for running the law practice.
Because Mussey had not become a member of the Washington bar during the 16 years that she had worked in her husband's law practice, upon his death she was required to become a member in order to maintain the law practice. Since graduation for law school brought automatic admission to the bar, Mussey sought admission to the law schools of Columbian College and National University in 1892 as a means to join the bar. Both schools were exclusively male at the time and rejected Mussey on the basis of her sex.
Sally Spencer, Mussey's sister-in-law, brought Mussey's plight to the attention of Judge MacArthur, formerly Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. MacArthur arranged for the Washington bar examiners to waive the written examination requirement for Mussey, which at the time, was the only alternative to receiving a law school degree as a means of entering the bar. In March 1893, Mussey passed an oral bar examination, which was administered in her home and was admitted to the bar.
- Mussey's biography is taken from:
Mary L. Clark, The Founding of the Washington College of Law: The First Law School Established By Women For Women, American University Law Review, Feb. 1998, Vol. 47, Num 3, pg 613. Also found at: http://www.stanford.edu/group/WLHP/articles/gender.pdf.