Top of page

Belva Lockwood and the “Legal Disabilities” of Early Women Lawyers

Share this post:

Today, November 30, marks the 140th anniversary of Belva Lockwood becoming the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1880. The following commemorative post is by Allison Buser, a summer intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of history and library & information science at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Bradwell v. The State against Myra Bradwell, an aspiring lawyer denied entry to the Illinois bar on the basis of her legal status as a woman. In its decision, the Court declared that the federal protections of the recently ratified the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution did not override the individual states’ regulation of their own state bars or protect women’s rights to practice a profession. Bradwell v. The State was one of several cases that severely limited the reach of the 14th Amendment. Decided the day after the Slaughter-House Cases decision, both cases narrowed the meaning of the amendment’s Privileges and Immunities clause and federal power to protect citizens’ legal rights.

Less than two years after the Bradwell decision, District of Columbia “lady lawyer” Belva Lockwood approached the United States Court of Claims Bar for admission to argue her most recent case. While Bradwell upheld states’ rights to refuse women from practicing in their courts and discouraged women from entering the legal profession, no part of the decision definitively barred women from arguing in the federal courts. When the Claims Court denied her admission, Lockwood immediately prepared a campaign to challenge her exclusion.

Black and white photo containing two takes of a seated Belva Lockwood. In the left photo, she looks away from the camera toward the viewer's right. In the right photo, she looks toward the camera just under the lens. She wears the same garments in both photos: a dark button-down dress with a white lace collar and her hair is tied back.
Lockwood, Belva. Lawyer, D.C. (famous lawyer and bicycle rider) (between 1865 & 1880), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

At this point in her legal career, Lockwood was familiar with encountering barriers that prevented advancement in her profession. Desiring to turn her passion for the law into a career, Lockwood quickly enrolled at the National University School of Law in 1871, the first year the law school opened courses to women. Upon Lockwood’s completion of the gender-segregated program in 1872, the law school refused to grant her a diploma. In late 1873, Lockwood wrote two letters directly to President Ulysses S. Grant, ex officio president of the National University, demanding the university recognize her coursework with the diploma she said had been promised. There is no record of Grant ever replying, but Lockwood must have been convincing, as the university mailed her a degree several days later.

Lockwood was not the only “lady lawyer” of Washington at the time. In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray graduated with a law degree from Howard University, becoming the first Black American woman lawyer in the United States and the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Both Ray and Lockwood had backgrounds in teaching, a more acceptable female profession of the time, and were involved in the women’s rights movement. However, while both women experienced professional adversity because of ideas of gender, Ray faced the additional burden of racial oppression. Eventually, the financial hardships of discrimination made it impossible for Ray to maintain her practice. She returned to teaching and continued her involvement in civil rights groups.

Belva Lockwood garnered fellow activists and enlisted Washington connections after her rejection from the Claims Court. She immediately began lobbying Congress to pass legislation preventing any court from excluding qualified women from practice based on their sex or coverture. The manifestations of Lockwood’s efforts can be traced throughout the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. In June 1874, a first attempt reached the House floor, where it was voted down and subsequently found no ground in the Senate.

Unable to find remedy in the legislature, Lockwood waited three years to qualify for direct admission to the United States Supreme Court bar. She hoped the endorsement of the highest court in the land would provide a means of entry to all federal courts. However, in November 1876, the Court voted against Lockwood’s application and refused to admit women unless Congress passed a federal statute.

Photograph of a hand-colored lithograph depicting the United States Capitol building. It is a broad, white building with a single, tall dome and spire.
Hand-colored lithograph of the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., between 1872 & 1874. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540,

Undaunted and motivated by the Court’s reasoning, Lockwood lost no time and returned to lobbying Congress.  In January 1877, one of Lockwood’s allies introduced “A bill to relieve the legal disabilities of women,” or H.R. 4435, on the House floor. This bill, too, died in the House, yet Lockwood persisted. She continued to lobby throughout the year until, on November 5, a new bill (H.R. 1077) was introduced. On February 21, 1878, after passing through the Judiciary Committee, the “bill to relieve certain legal disabilities of women” passed in the House.

Lockwood diverted her efforts to the Senate and spent the next year collecting petition signatures from fellow lawyers, campaigning in the press, and meeting with individual Senators. Finally, the Senate brought the bill to debate on the floor in February 1879 and Lockwood’s allies rallied to defend it. After three readings, the Senate passed the bill and on February 15, 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law.

The title of the act was “An act to relieve certain legal disabilities of women” and it stated as follows:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any woman who shall have been a member of the bar of the highest court of any State or Territory or of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for the space of three years, and shall have maintained a good standing before such court, and who shall be a person of good moral character, shall, on motion, and the production of such record, be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.


Photograph of a closeup of a newspaper from 1879 which states,"When She Will She Will [Cleveland Leader.] Mrs. Belva A. Lockwood deserves the thanks of the women of the United States for the persistent bravery with which she has conquered her admission to practice as a lawyer before the Supreme Court of the United States. Denied by the court, she appealed to Congress."
National Republican (Washington City (D.C.)), February 12, 1879. Library of Congress Chronicling America online collection,
Six years after her initial rejection from a federal court, Lockwood became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1880, she appealed Kaiser v. Stickney to the Court, representing a local property owner, Caroline Kaiser, in a debt dispute. Although Lockwood lost this case, she would return to the Supreme Court in 1906, at the age of 76, representing the Eastern and Emigrant Cherokees in the United States v. Cherokee Nation. This time, her arguments prevailed, and the Court upheld a ruling that confirmed a debt of over $5,000,000 owed by the United States government to her Cherokee clients. After Lockwood’s successful case, another woman would not argue before the U.S. Supreme Court until Lyda Burton Conley, a Wyandot-American lawyer, brought Conley v. Ballinger before the Court in 1910.

Black and white photograph of an elderly Belva Lockwood wearing a graduation cap and gown and holding a bouquet of flowers. She stands outside in front of a landscaped garden.
LOCKWOOD, MISS BELVA ANN BENNETT. LAWYER (Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1915). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

Despite her admittance to the highest court in the land, the 1879 act Lockwood successfully lobbied for did not override the Bradwell decision. Her applications to Maryland and Virginia’s state bars were both initially denied. When she petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene with Virginia’s rejection, the Court upheld its decision in Bradwell and refused to interfere in states’ bar admissions.

Throughout her dramatic life and career, Lockwood’s work persistently kept issues of women’s rights in the public and political spotlight. In addition to her admittance to the Supreme Court, Lockwood lobbied Congress to establish more equitable pay grades for female federal government workers (16 Stat. 250), ran twice as a nominee for President of the United States, and continuously applied her legal knowledge to the expansion of women’s civil and political liberties. In 1909, Syracuse University awarded Lockwood an honorary LL.D. (Honorary Alumni, with Records, p. 1623). Lockwood retired from formal law practice shortly before her 86th birthday, but she remained active in the women’s rights movement and continuously vocal in politics until her death, on May 19, 1917, in Washington, D.C. She also wrote a auto-biography, titled My Efforts to Become a Lawyer.

If you want to read more about American Women who made history, you may also find this resource guide interesting: American Women: Resources from the Law Library.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *