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Burnita Shelton Matthews

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05/30/14 was the last day I modified this page.

Burnita Shelton Matthews was the first woman appointed to the Federal District Court Bench, an event which did not take place until 1949. This fact appears in the history books, but Burnita accomplished many other things throughout her life that made her an exceptional person. She spent a lifetime fighting for women's rights under the law. The issues Burnita tackled spanned from suffrage to jury service, and from property to citizenship. The image of a train steadily making its way uphill exemplifies the way that     she worked for women. She tirelessly and steadily labored first on one issue then on the next, putting together pamphlets, writing articles, making speeches, testifying before Congress and other legislative bodies, even picketing if that was what was called for. She focused much of her energy on educating women about the legal impediments to their equality and was frustrated by the inability of women to stand together on issues affecting them. Not emotional or flamboyant, Burnita was always characterized as intelligent, caring, logical, and sincere.

Burnita was born near Hazelhurst, Mississippi, on December 28, 1894. She had four brothers of whom only one was older, and all of whom she outlived. Burnita's father, Burnell Shelton, served as Clerk of the Chancery Court and Tax Collector for Copiah County, Mississippi, in addition to farming the family's land. Because Burnita often accompanied her father to his office in the courthouse building, she felt comfortable in that environment from an early age, and said that she always wanted to be a lawyer. An old family friend even remarked when Burnita was but a young girl that she should be a lawyer.

Somewhat unusually for the time, Burnita's mother, Lora Barlow, was college-educated, having graduated from Whitworth College in Mississippi. At 16, Burnita took over motherly responsibilities over the four boys and her father after her mother died. This experience kept Burnita from lamenting the fact that she never had children of her own.

Burnita's father sent her to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, so that she could earn a living by teaching music lessons, in his eyes a suitable occupation for a member of the fairer sex. Consistent with this, he sent Burnita's older brother, a gifted pianist, to law school. One of her younger brothers also became a lawyer and worked in her firm for a short time in the 1920s. After leaving Cincinnati, Burnita taught piano in Georgia for a while before getting back on course to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer, a decision supported by her then fiancée, Percy Ashley Matthews. The two wed in 1917, the same year that Burnita started law school at what is now George Washington University. Percy, who also grew up in Mississippi and went to high school with Burnita, was himself a lawyer serving as a judge advocate general in the U.S. Army. The couple did not have any children.

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Burnita Shelton Matthews

05/30/14 was the last day I modified this page.

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