Just a Woman From Hazlehurst, Mississippi
Until a few months ago, I’d never heard of Hazlehurst, Mississippi—or a woman named Burnita Shelton Matthews, one of the town’s most notable products. And that is a shame.
Matthews died just six months before I was born, but she left behind a legacy that opened more than a few doors for my generation of women. Like many of the women of the National Woman’s Party, she was tireless. Her father, who wanted his daughter to become a proper music teacher, refused to support her legal endeavors. Undeterred, she came to Washington to clerk at the Veterans’ Administration (VA) by day and take law classes by night at what is now the law school of George Washington University.
In 1920, the same year American women finally secured the right to vote Burnita passed the District of Columbia Bar exam. Like most women of her day, the DC Bar returned her application and check. From challenging beginnings, she would go on to become the first woman appointed to the Federal District Court bench, but not until 1949.
The path was not easy or assured. When her nomination for the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia was under consideration, Justice T. Alan Goldsborough mused, “Mrs. Matthews would be a good judge…just one thing wrong: she’s a woman.”
Just a woman who made things happen! Beyond her service to the US judicial system, she was an incredible asset as counsel for the National Woman’s Party. When the Federal government sought to seize the NWP’s headquarters in the Old Brick Capitol to construct the modern-day Supreme Court building, Matthews secured the largest federal eminent domain settlement up to that time—nearly $300,000.
Emily P., Missouri