Mussey, Ellen Spencer

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Mussey, Ellen Spencer

At a time when women in the United States were often excluded from higher education, Ellen Spencer Mussey helped found a coeducational law school to promote the social and economic advancement of women.

In 1896, Mussey and colleague emma m. gillett sponsored a series of lectures in Washington, D.C., aimed at attracting and training female lawyers. The lectures were primarily for local women whose professional goals were frustrated by the men-only admission policies of most law schools in the District. After two years of well-received lectures, Mussey and Gillett expanded their curriculum and formally established Washington College of Law, a coeducational institution that later became part of American University. Mussey was the law school's first dean; she was succeeded by Gillett in 1913.

Mussey was born May 13, 1850, in Geneva, Ohio, to Platt Rogers Spencer and Persis Duty Spencer. After attending Lake Erie Seminary, in Painesville, Ohio, and Rockford Seminary, in Rockford, Illinois, Mussey moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a principal for the Spencerian Business College. She married lawyer Reuben Delavan Mussey in 1871 and had two children, Spencer Mussey and William Hitz Mussey. Under her husband's tutelage, Mussey read law and eventually attended the Law School of Cornell University in the summer of 1896.

When Mussey's husband became seriously ill, she took over the daily operation of his law office. After his death in 1892, Mussey was admitted to the D.C. bar. (At that time, a law degree was not required for bar admission.) She became one of very few women from her generation to be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Claims. In private practice, Mussey specialized in international and real estate law. At the request of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, she became the Red Cross's first staff attorney.

A social reformer, Mussey was a major force behind new legislation giving women the same rights as men over children, property, and earnings. She also pushed for laws allowing women to keep their U.S. citizenship after marrying foreign citizens.

Mussey served as editor of American Monthly magazine, committee chair for the National Council of Women, and delegate to the 1911 International Council of Women held in Stockholm. She also helped organize the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

Mussey died April 21, 1936, in Washington, D.C., at the age of eighty-five. She had overcome long-standing societal barriers to pursue her professional interests and social agenda. Washington College of Law was the crowning achievement of her illustrious career.

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At the turn of the last century, when opportunities for women in the legal profession were practically non-existent, two pioneering leaders - Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett - changed everything, and overcame the injustices of their day, by establishing this institution.