Burnita Shelton Matthews: Pioneer, Lawyer, Feminist, Judge

by Angela N. Johnson

Christine Wade’s biography of Burnita Shelton Matthews provides valuable insight into the life of a pioneer, lawyer, feminist, and the first woman judge of the Federal District Court Bench. Burnita fought for suffrage, jury service, and women’s equality. She was born in Mississippi on December 28, 1894. Burnita’s father, Burnell Shelton served as Clerk of the Chancery Court and Tax Collector for Copiah County, Mississippi. Burnita often accompanied her father to his office in the courthouse and became comfortable in that environment from an early age. Her mother died when Burnita was just 16, leaving Burnita to care for her four brothers and father. She married Percy Matthews in 1917, the same year Burnita started law school at what is now George Washington University. Percy was a lawyer serving as a judge advocate general in the U.S. Army and supported Burnita’s decision to go to law school. Burnita’s father, despite sending two of his sons to law school, refused to finance her legal education. Thus, Burnita took a job as a clerk in Veteran’s Administration – where she worked all day and attended night classes. During this time, Burnita spent many Sundays picketing the White House for woman suffrage (she was a member of the National Women’s Party). This was a risk in light of her ambitions to become a lawyer. Realizing an arrest record would keep her from practicing law, she would not speak during her protests (it was against the law to speak without a permit). Nevertheless, Burnita passed the District of Columbia Bar in 1920. However, the DC Bar Association returned her application and check for dues (as was the typical practice for women applying for membership despite being licensed to practice law).

Despite her years of service with the VA, she was unable to secure a position working as a lawyer and decided to open her own firm – Matthews, Berrien, and Greathouse. Laura Berrien served as an officer of the Woman’s Party while Burnita was their counsel. Rebekah Greathouse served as U.S. Assistant Attorney. “While serving as counsel to the National Women’s Party, she researched laws that were discriminatory to women in the states. When she uncovered a law that put women of that state at a disadvantage, she promptly drafted a bill that would rectify the situation and sent it off to the appropriate legislative committee in the state government” (Wade 1996).

According to Wade, “In 1927 the U.S. government sought to condemn the Party’s headquarters, along with some other properties, in order to construct a new building for the U.S. Supreme Court. Burnita represented the Woman’s Party and many of the other property owners in the proceeding. Some of the property owners had asked a local restaurant owner who knew all about the properties, who would be the best man to represent them. He responded, “The best man for the job is a woman, “and that woman was Burnita. . . This attempt was unsuccessful though and the Supreme Court eventually got their new building, but not before Burnita had secured for her clients the largest award in such a condemnation proceeding up to that date. For the Women’s Party alone she got $300,000. As a result of this case, she was well-known in real estate circles bringing in many future clients to the firm of Matthews, Berrien, and Greathouse” (Wade 1996).

Burnita later devoted her work to women’s inclusion on juries which brought her to testify in front of House Judiciary Committee and members of Congress. Her efforts were extremely organized; by the time she had testified she had already identified which states allowed women to serve on juries (about half of the states automatically allowed women to serve with the passage of the 19th Amendment), and which states allowed for automatic exclusions, as well as which states continued to exclude women altogether. Moreover, she spent a many hours examining women’s behavior when called to serve in the DC courts; she wanted to know the number of women who exercised their option to be automatically excluded. Burnita “also sent a letter to judges in jurisdictions that allowed women on juries requesting “their experience and observations with respect to women jurors,” in order to pass this information on to the Committee. The responses she received generally expressed a positive attitude toward women jurors, but were not always filled with glowing praise” (Wade 1996). The bill putting women on federal judiciaries was passed and signed into law by the President in March of 1937 – public sentiment was mixed.

Burnita became the president of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) in 1934 and in 1949, when 30 new judgeships were created on the Federal District Courts, Burnita’s name was presented to President Harry Truman. Burnita was the only women appointed of the 30. Burnita’s nomination was supported by many women’s groups, including NAWL, but also in thanks to her extensive lobbying and other legal work around Washington, D.C., Burnita became known and respected by numerous senators, congressmen, and other politicians who also rallied to support her for the position (Wade 1996). With the exception of Judge T. Alan Goldsborough, who said “Mrs. Matthews would be a good judge, but there is just one thing wrong with her: she’s a woman,” all others were quite welcoming – including the Chief Judge, who gave up his own chambers until Burnita’s were ready. The Washington Post focused on what to do about a “powder room” rather than questions about her qualifications (Wade 1996). Though she did not think it was proper to continue her work for women’s rights once she began to serve on the bench, she continued to help women in the legal field by hiring exclusively women as her law clerks and conducting herself with the utmost skill and integrity (Wade 1996). “Judge Matthews never retired from the court but took senior status in 1968, and continued to serve in a limited capacity. During that time, she also occasionally was asked to sit with the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, and was the first woman to do so. Burnita Matthews died after a stroke in 1988; she was 93” (Wade 1996).

Source Citation: Wade, Christine L. “Burnita Shelton Matthews: The Biography of a Pioneering Woman, Lawyer and Feminist.” Women’s Legal History Stanford Law. Spring 1996. http://wlh-static.law.stanford.edu/papers/MatthewsBS-Wade96.pdf (accessed 2011 1, March).

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