On September 14, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) bestowed a posthumous award on WBA co-founder Ellen Spencer Mussey in furtherance of their 19th Amendment celebrations. WBA President Jill Dash accepted the award, and several WBA board members and past presidents were in attendance for the ceremony.
The group was also honored to be joined by Susan Mussey Huffman, the greatgranddaughter of our co-founder. It was a deeply meaningful and moving morning for all involved.
Amanda Murphy, Historian of the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Chapter, gave remarks about the legacy of Ellen Spencer Mussey. With her permission, her remarks are printed here:
“A woman of deeds.” That is how Mrs. Mussey was described by her contemporaries. She was praised in newspapers as one of the most prominent women of her time, but little is known today about of Mrs. Mussey’s enumerable deeds to improve the lives of women and children. As I kept uncovering more and more about her, I simply wondered if she ever slept. Perhaps one can accomplish all of these things if possessed with an iron strong will and sense of civic duty, a brilliant mind, and no Netflix to binge watch episodes of Friends.
The daughter of the renowned originator of the Spencerian System of Penmanship, young Ellen began teaching in one of her father’s schools in Ohio at the age of 12. After the death of both parents, she lived with siblings until she moved to Washington, DC in 1869 to take charge of the ladies in a Spencerian Business College. In DC, she met and married a lawyer and former Civil War General Reuben Mussey. As his health began to fail, Mrs. Mussey assisted in his legal practice, thus began her long career in law – without a formal degree.
After 16 years of legal experience, Mrs. Mussey became a widow in her early 40s, with two children, Spencer and William, to financially support. In 1892, she applied to two law schools in DC, and her applications were refused solely on account of her gender. She found other ways to study the law, passed the bar exam, and became 13th woman certified to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
She would practice law until she was in her 80s. She was first female counsel for the American Red Cross. She also was counsel to Sweden and Norway for 25 years. In 1911, nearly a decade before ratification of the 19th amendment, she was suggested for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Mrs. Mussey was not content to just be a successful lawyer in her own right. She wanted to make sure other women had the same opportunity. That is why in 1898, along with Emma Gillet, Mrs. Mussey founded the Washington College of Law. It was the first law school in the world established primarily for women, and to have women faculty. Mrs. Mussey has the significant distinction of the being the first female law dean in America. In 1949, the school was incorporated into American University. Over 120 years later, women and men from all backgrounds studying at American University’s Washington College of Law are enduring testament to Mrs. Mussey’s ideals and tenacity.
At the same time she was practicing law, establishing the Washington College of Law, and teaching other pioneering women lawyers, she had a couple of other things one her plate too. Mrs. Mussey became the champion of a law to improve the legal status of women in the District of Columbia. The Mussey Act of 1896 provided married women guardianship rights over their children and property rights equal to those of their husbands. She also served at this time as acting chair of the DC Red Cross Committee during the Spanish-American War. In that capacity, she established diet kitchens to prepare specially prescribed food for ailing soldiers at Fort Myer. In the same year she founded the Washington College of Law, she co-founded the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Chapter. 121 years later, I am beyond proud to be a part of an organization founded by such a remarkable woman.
In the early 20th century, Mrs. Mussey began 16 years of serving on the District of Columbia School Board. In this role she was instrumental in obtaining funds for the first Kindergartens in the District and establishing the first public schools for children with various mental and physical disabilities. She also spearheaded the movement for compulsory education laws, and to end child labor in the District. During her time on the school board, she also was Vice President General at the national level of the DAR. With DAR support, she secured funds for public playgrounds in the District.
Mrs. Mussey became a well-known and vocal suffragist, and I hope all ladies here today are wearing the “I Voted” sticker in her memory. Among some of her many efforts to get us the right to wear this sticker: she testified before a Senate Committee to plead for the ballot and led a contingent of women lawyers in the massive suffrage rally held on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913. It was her involvement in this march that resulted in the ill-health that forced her resignation as dean of the Washington College of Law. While Mrs. Mussey’s body may have been slowing down, her mind did not. She drafted the Cable Act which became law in 1922 and ended automatic loss of citizenship to American women who married citizens of other countries.
Her participation in the 1913 suffrage parade had additional effect. Four years after the event, women members of the DC Bar assembled at a meeting held in honor of four men who marched with the women in the parade. At the gathering, the women lawyers expressed a desire to form a permanent organization, since the DC Bar Association did not admit women. In 1917, she co-founded the Women’s Bar Association, and served as the first President. She kept the title for two years, and after was elected honorary president for life.
Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said of Mrs. Mussey and her Women’s Bar Association co-founder in 2016: “That very action – the establishment of a bar association for women was a tremendous act of faith in the ultimate progression of our times. It was an act of faith in the law. It was ultimately an act of faith in the women who picked up the legal banner then, and to come.”
Today, 102 years later, we have Jill Dash, current president of the Women’s Bar Association, past presidents, and other WBA members here to accept the Women in American History Award in Mrs. Mussey’s honor. Thank you.