Born this day in 1850: Ellen Spencer Mussey (1850–1936), lawyer, educator, women’s rights activist
Mussey was born Ellen Spencer in Geneva, Ohio. Her father operated a penmanship school and promoted his method of handwriting (Spencerian penmanship). At a very young age, Mussey helped her father teach classes. Her father died while she was still a teenager, and Mussey lived with several different siblings and attended various seminaries for the next several years.
In 1869 Mussey moved to Washington, D.C. and managed the women’s department of her brother Henry’s business school (Spencerian Business College). The school trained young women for government work and was well-known in Washington.
In 1871 she married Reuben Mussey, a lawyer, and eventually began assisting him in his practice. After her husband’s death in 1892, Mussey wished to formally practice law in order to support herself and her family. No law schools in the area would accept her as a student because—really, do I have to tell you? She took the bar exam anyway the following year and qualified to practice law. She was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1876 and to practice before the U.S. Court of Claims the following year. Her practice included probate law, general commercial law, and international law. She also served as counsel to the American Red Cross and to the Norwegian and Swedish legations for 25 years.
Discovering young women who wished to study law (and who, like her, were denied admission to law schools on the grounds that they had lady parts), Mussey, along with lawyer Emma M. Gillett, established a law school—the Washington College of Law (1898)—that accepted both women and men as students.
Mussey was also active in the fight for women’s rights, including playing a prominent role in securing married women’s property rights, and drafted the Cable Act of 1922, which granted independent citizenship to married women.
Mussey’s other contributions included playing a leading role in establishing public kindergarten and the juvenile court system in the District of Columbia. She also established a school for developmentally disabled children.
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