Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood was an American feminist and lawyer who was the first woman admitted to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Her work “blazed the way for independent womanhood, often in the face of ridicule as well as contemptuous opposition.” At the time of her death, she was the only woman* who had ever been a candidate for president of the United States, running on behalf of the National Equal Rights Party, a minor party based in San Francisco, California that supported women’s rights, in the 1884 and 1888 presidential elections. Of course, both elections were held before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which granted women (but not all) the right to vote.
Belva Bennett was born in Royalton, New York and was employed as a teacher at a young age, getting paid “half or less than half” of the salary given to her male counterparts. She became a young widow when her first husband Uriah H. McNall died a few years after they were married, leaving her to care for a young daughter. In this situation, she recognized how important it was for women to gain independence and find ways to financially support themselves. Based on her life experiences and displeased with the injustices of the discrimination, she became one of the most successful advocates for women’s rights of her time and never stopped fighting for women to have a place in a man’s world.
After a move to Washington, D.C., she married Reverend Ezekiel Lockwood, a dentist and former veteran of the U.S. Civil War. She fortified herself with a collegiate education at Genesee College (now Syracuse University) and around the age of 40, she received a law degree from National University Law School (now George Washington University) after petitioning to President Ulysses S. Grant, who happened to be the institution’s ex officio head, in 1873. (In the years following the U.S. Civil War, women were not directly forbidden from entering the legal vocation, yet the shared societal viewpoint was that women were unfit for it.) Even though Belva Lockwood was admitted to the District of Columbia bar after a “hard struggle,” some judges still refused to allow her to appear in court because of her gender. Offended by the legal and economic prejudices against women in American society, she employed all of her talents and energies in breaking down the barriers erected against women in the legal profession.
As a well-known Washingtonian who could be seen tricyling around town, Lockwood ran her law practice from the Union League Hall in downtown Washington, D.C. Taking advantage of her location, she seized every opportunity to lobby on behalf of legislation favorable to women, frequently noting that her cause was the cause of thousands of women. Her draft of a bill for equal pay for work by women in government was enacted into law in 1872.
Lockwood’s law practice dealt primarily with pension claims against the government, nonetheless she was a champion for causes she believed in–representing a few high-profile clients in highly publicized trials with arguments possessing a robust dose of wit. One of her most notable victorious legal battles was the U.S. v. Cherokee Nation, 202 U.S. 101 (1906), which awarded $5,000,000 to the plaintiff for an 1838 land purchase. After being denied admission to the Supreme Court in 1876, she single-handedly lobbied legislation through Congress to allow women to practice before the Supreme Court and, on March 3, 1879 at the age of 49, became the first woman to take advantage of the new law. Her admittance was met with bitter opposition.
Lockwood realized that while she as a woman could not vote, she could seek public office and ran for President in 1884 and again in 1888 on the National Equal Rights Party ticket, receiving several thousand votes from men. Her platform contained many progressive ideas later enacted into legislation. Her campaign was not always taken seriously and sexist comments were published by newspaper editors in the press.
Her legal career spanned 43 years and included her participation in more than 7,000 pension cases. Post-retirement, she gained national success as a lecturer on women’s rights and was active with the radical peace group, the Universal Peace Union, representing the organization at several international peace congresses. She thrived on publicity (she herself was an avid reader of the Evening Star newspaper) and served as an inspiration to young women, encouraging them to pursue legal careers. A pioneer in women’s suffrage, she died at age 87 in 1917, three years before she had the opportunity to see women legally vote.
*Victoria Woodhull is commonly referred to as the first woman to run for president in 1872 on behalf of the Equal Rights Party, however, she was not old enough to run.
We invite you to find more newspaper articles related to Lockwood and her life within Chronicling America, one of the largest free databases of digitized historic newspapers in the world and created and maintained by the National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (And let us know what else you find in the comments!) If you’re looking for more Library of Congress resources, you can search for photos of Lockwood in the Library’s Prints and Photographs collections, such as this one and this one. And pay a visit to the Shall Not Be Denied virtual exhibition where you’ll find an illustration of Lockwood on the cover of Puck magazine. Or, read books about her life within the Library’s General Collections such as Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President by Jill Norgen and Lady for the Defense: A Biography of Belva Lockwood by Mary Virginia Fox.