A Commanding Presence
Belle Aurelia Babb was born on the family farm near Burlington, Iowa, in 1846 and was called Belle by her family and friends. She was the second child born to Mary Moyer and Miles Babb. Her brother, Washington Irving Babb, was born two years earlier and would be her lifelong friend. When the children were young their father left Iowa to follow the gold rush to California. He became superintendent of the Bay State Mining Company and died when a mine caved in on him in 1852.
Mary Babb moved her children to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in order to provide them with the best education possible. Belle attended local schools and graduated from the Howe's Academy where she showed an early interest in studying law.
In 1862 Belle enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant and began using the name Arabella. She began college at a time when academic institutions were opening their enrollment to women since many men were away fighting during the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery). Belle graduated in three years and was the valedictorian (top ranking student of his or her class) at graduation. Her brother was salutatorian (second highest ranking student) of the same class. Belle went on to teach at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, for a year before she returned to Mount Pleasant to marry her college sweetheart, John Melvin Mansfield.
John was a professor at Iowa Wesleyan. He encouraged Belle in her legal studies as well as her suffrage work. Suffrage was the women's movement that worked to earn American women the right to vote. Belle was active at the state level and became a part of the national effort led by Susan B. Anthony (see sidebar). In canvassing Mount Pleasant to promote women's rights, Belle she was joined by Alice Bird, who soon became her sister-in-law.