By Kate Greene
Associate Professor, University of Southern Mississippi
Suffragist, feminist, lawyer, and the first woman to serve as a judge on a U. S. District Court.
Burnita Shelton was one of six children of Burnell Shelton and Lora Drew (Barlow) Shelton in Mississippi. From a young age Burnita wanted to pursue a legal career, but her father pushed her toward the study and teaching of music, sending her in 1915 to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where she received a teaching certificate. However, Burnita never deviated from her desire to become a lawyer. In 1917, against her family’s wishes, she married a lawyer, Percy A. Matthews, whom she had known in high school and who by this time was planning to join the U.S. war effort in World War I. He immediately enlisted and Burnita Matthews then lived independently, supporting herself by teaching music in a small town in Georgia and later moving to Washington, D.C., to work with the Veterans Administration. She purposely chose Washington because it had one of the few law schools that would accept women. She rejected her father’s offer to pay for her law school and instead sent herself at night. Attending National University Law School, she graduated with an LL.B. degree in 1919 and LL.M. and Master of Patent Law degrees in 1920.
While at law school, Matthews became involved with the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Although her suffrage activities were limited to weekend picketing at the White House for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Matthews continued with the NWP after the amendment’s passage and her graduation from law school. Throughout the 1920s, Matthews headed up the Legal Research Department of the NWP. This department engaged in a decade-long project of identifying legal discrimination against women in state laws. States passed several pieces of legislation drafted by Matthews, among them laws that removed the disqualification of women as jurors in the District of Columbia; eliminated the preference of men over women in inheritance in Arkansas, the District of Columbia, and New York; gave women teachers in Maryland and New Jersey equal pay with men teachers for equal work; and allowed South Carolina married women to sue and be sued without a husband’s rejoinder. During this time Matthews also assisted Alice Paul, head of the NWP, in drafting the original version of the Equal Rights Amendment and she became actively engaged in the organization’s effort to secure its passage. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Matthews was the legal expert for the NWP when testifying before Congress in support of the amendment. As legal counsel for the NWP she also secured the largest government condemnation award ever granted when the United States acquired the Woman’s Party house and land to build the Supreme Court building. Her success against the government in that case cemented her reputation as one of the best lawyers in Washington, and her private practice grew. She eventually joined two other women lawyers with NWP ties, Rebekah Greathouse and Laura Berrien, in the firm Matthews, Berrien, and Greathouse. As her affiliation with the NWP receded during the late 1930s and 1940s, Matthews’s activities gravitated toward work with legal and professional organizations such as the District of Columbia Bar Association, Woman’s Bar Association, American Bar Association, and National Association of Woman Lawyers. She also taught at the Washington College of Law, which later became part of American University.
In 1949 President Truman appointed Matthews to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. She was the first woman ever appointed to a federal trial court and only the second woman ever appointed to a federal constitutional court. She hired only women law clerks and counseled them against having children if they intended a career in the law. Matthews herself had no children, never actually living with her husband, Percy, for any length of time until his retirement in 1955. During her twenty-eight year tenure on the bench she presided over several major trials. In 1955 she refused to order the State Department to issue a passport to the African American actor and political activist Paul Robeson, ruling that he had first to exhaust all administrative remedies. In 1957 she presided over the bribery trial of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, in which he was acquitted. In Fulwood v. Clemmer (1962), Judge Matthews upheld the right of Black Muslims in the local prison to conduct religious services. She took senior status in 1969 and heard cases at both the district court and court of appeals (by designation) until her retirement in 1977. She died in 1988 of a stroke and was buried in the Shelton family cemetery in Copiah County, Mississippi.
The Burnita Shelton Matthews Collection is housed at the Schlesinger Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the Mississippi Department of History and Archives, Jackson, Mississippi. Kate Greene, "Torts over Tempo: The Life and Career of Judge Burnita Shelton Matthews," Journal of Mississippi History 56, no. 3 (Aug. 1994): 181-210, primarily chronicles the legal career of Judge Matthews prior to her appointment to the U.S. District Court. An obituary is in the New York Times (28 Apr. 1988). “Burnita Shelton Matthews: Pathfinder in the Legal Aspects of Women,” a transcript of a 29 April 1973 interview by Amelia R. Fry, is part of the Suffragists Oral History Project, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.