Mississippi History Now-Burnita Shelton Matthews: Suffragist, Feminist & Judicial Pioneer

The newest article for Mississippi History Now is now available online.  “Burnita Shelton Matthews: Suffragist, Feminist, & Judicial Pioneer,” was written by Kathanne (Kate) W. Greene, an associate professor of political science at University of Southern Mississippi.  Dr. Greene has written extensively on the life and career of Judge Burnita Shelton Matthews.  Some of her articles can be found in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives edited by Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, and Marjorie Julian Spruill and in the Journal of Mississippi History, vol. 56, no. 3 (August 1994).

Burnita Shelton Matthews: Suffragist, Feminist, & Judicial Pioneer

On December 28, 1894, Burnita Shelton Matthews was born into an educated, civic-minded family, in Copiah County, Mississippi.  Although she aspired from a very young age to pursue a legal career, her father insisted that she pursue the study and teaching of music which he believed was a more ladylike profession.  Following her marriage to Percy A. Matthews, she taught music for a short while in Georgia before moving to Washington, D. C. to accept a job with the Veterans Administration.  She strategically chose to live and work in Washington, D. C. so that she could pursue a law degree at one of the few law schools that would accept women at the time, the National University Law School.  While in law school, Matthews became involved with the National Women’s Party’s suffrage movement.  Upon graduation, she operated a legal practice in Washington, D. C., and she continued her work with the NWP as head of their Legal Research Department.  In 1949, President Harry S. Truman nominated Matthews to the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  She became the first woman ever appointed to a federal trial court and only the second woman ever appointed to a federal constitutional court.  After a long career on the bench, Matthews died of a stroke in 1988.  Her headstone in the Shelton Family Cemetery in Copiah County marks her contribution to women in American society.  Her epitaph notes that she was the first woman to become a U. S. district court judge and the “author of laws advancing the status of women.”

To read “Burnita Shelton Matthews: Suffragist, Feminist, & Judicial Pioneer,” go to http://mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/.

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Established in 2000, Mississippi History Now produces articles on various topics concerning Mississippi history, along with corresponding lesson plans. The publication is funded by donations from individuals and businesses, as well as grants from the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), and the Mississippi Historical Society.  MDAH also provides the server and the webmaster for the site.