Belva Lockwood

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Belva Lockwood

Belva Lockwood (1830-1917) was the first American female attorney and the first woman to run for president of the United States. She refused to accept discriminatory laws and asserted her right as a woman to plead cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Lockwood waged a lifelong battle to attain equal rights for women, Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants.

Belva Lockwood was born Belva Ann Bennet on October 24, 1830 in Royalton, New York. She was the daughter of farmers, Lewis and Hannah Bennet, and was raised in the hills of western New York. As a child, she loved history and dreamed of becoming a teacher. At the age of 14, Lockwood graduated from the local public school and spent the summer teaching for $7 a week. She saved her money and used it to pay tuition at the Girls Academy in Royalton, New York. She graduated at 18 and married Uriah McNall. The couple had one child, a daughter named Lura.

Lockwood was 22 when McNall died. In order to support herself and her young daughter, she applied for a teaching position. When Lockwood discovered that she could earn only $8 a week while male teachers earned $16 to $20 a week for the same work, she refused to accept the discriminatory wage. She sold some of her late husband's property and used the proceeds to pay her tuition at Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, later called Syracuse University. Lura McNall went to live with her grandparents while Lockwood pursued a higher education. She studied science, mathematics, political economy, and the U.S. Constitution. She learned about the social causes of the day, including abolitionism, temperance, and equal rights for women. Lockwood graduated from the two-year program in 1857 and became head of the Lockport Union School District, where her progressive ideas shocked the other teachers and parents. She insisted, for example, that girls be allowed to enroll in public speaking and physical education classes. After two years at the school district, she became head mistress at the Gainesville Female Seminary.

Resolute in her conviction to change the course of women's lives, Lockwood moved herself, her daughter, and her sister, Inverno, to Washington, D.C. in 1865. They established a school for young ladies as a means of support, and McNall involved herself in the administration of the school. Lockwood spent a portion of her time speaking out for women's rights and contacting legislators. She wrote letters to congressmen, observed the workings of the Congress, and attended meetings for social activism. Yet she felt increasingly abandoned by the elected officials in the federal government. It seemed to her that many had forgotten the words of the U.S. Constitution. She became outraged by the fact that female civil service employees made two to three times less than their male counterparts and drafted a bill to equalize the salaries of all civil service employees. The bill passed and became law. In order to further test the power of the courts, Lockwood decided to become a lawyer. She was refused admission at two law schools because off her sex. Finally she met William Wedgewood, vice chancellor of the National University Law School, who agreed to give her private instruction in law.

Legal Career

In May 1873, at the age of 43, Lockwood completed her law studies, but was refused a diploma. She wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant, the titular head of the law school, and demanded her diploma. It arrived within a week. In September of that same year, she was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia. She opened a law practice in her home and quickly established a clientele. Lura McNall assisted her mother by performing secretarial duties.

Lockwood discovered while working on a case of patent infringement, that women were not allowed to plead cases before the U.S. Court of Claims, without special permission. She requested permission, but was refused. She then petitioned Congress to grant women permission to practice before the Supreme Court. Congress passed the appropriate legislation five years later, in 1879. On March 3 of that year, Lockwood was granted permission to argue cases before the highest court in the United States. Three days later she was granted access to the U.S. Court of Claims, where she won some of her more memorable cases.

Among the significant litigation that Lockwood presented before the Court of Claims was a suit brought by Jim Taylor, a Native American from the Cherokee tribe. Taylor requested help to collect money owed to the Cherokee people by the U.S. government since the Treaty of New Echota of 1835. Lockwood fought for many years to help them collect the interest on that money. She pleaded the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and won an award of $5 million. At the time, It was considered to be the most important case, in terms of monetary compensation, ever brought before the U.S. Court of Claims and the Supreme Court.

Lockwood worked with the Universal Peace Union, in a struggle to attain equal rights for minorities. She contributed her talents to the cause of southerner, Samuel Lowery, who became the first African American to be admitted before the bar of the Supreme Court.

Presidential Candidate and Diplomat

Lockwood was continually frustrated by the Republican Party and its apparent lack of interest in protecting the rights of women. She wrote to Marietta Stow, the editor of the Women's Herald of Industry in California. Lockwood stated, "Even if women in the United States are not permitted to vote, there is no law against their being voted for and, if elected, filling the highest office … Why not nominate women for important places?… The Republican Party… has little but insult for women when they appear before its conventions. It is time we had our own party, our own platform and our own nominees." Stow replied to Lockwood's letter with a startling proposition, "We have the honor to congratulate you [Lockwood] as the first woman ever nominated for the office of president of the United States." The Equal Rights Party had selected her as a presidential nominee to run in the election of 1884. The party awaited her reply.

Lockwood accepted the nomination and formulated her platform. She would seek to place women in public offices including the Supreme Court. Lockwood resolved to protect and foster American industries, to promote temperance laws, and to fight for full citizenship rights for Native Americans. Reporters and cartoonists poked fun at her while the most ardent of feminists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, disapproved of Lockwood's presidential campaign, fearing that such a hapless endeavor might only serve to dilute the cause of women's rights. Lockwood herself took the campaign seriously; she visited many cities and states on a grueling campaign schedule. Her ideas reached many citizens through the newspapers.

Lockwood received at least 6,161 votes. There were more votes in her favor that the election judges refused to tabulate. In 1888, the Equal Rights Party of Iowa nominated her for the presidency once more, and again she campaigned in earnest.

During the 1880s and 1890s Lockwood realized a lifelong dream of traveling abroad. In 1885, the State Department appointed her as a delegate to the Congress of Charities, the first world pacifist gathering, in Geneva Switzerland. At the Congress Lockwood read a proposal for the formation of a world court, a suggestion that met with great approval. The following year, she became the official representative to the Second International Peace Conference in Budapest, Hungary. In 1889, Lockwood attended the Universal Peace Congress in Paris, and the following year she read a paper on disarmament at the International Peace Conference in London. In 1892, Lockwood was a member of the International Peace Bureau, which met in Bern, Switzerland.

Personal Glimpse

Shortly after arriving in Washington, a toothache led to an acquaintance with Dr. Ezekiel Lockwood. She married the dentist in 1868 and gave birth to a daughter the following year. The couple named the little girl Jessie. Sadly, the child died of typhoid fever at a young age. When Lockwood opened her private law practice in the couple's home, her husband retired from dentistry to become a notary public and claims agent. He died in 1877. Lockwood's oldest daughter, Lura McNall, died during the years when Lockwood's life was absorbed by the North Carolina Cherokee claim recovery case. McNall left behind a young son, Forest, whom Lockwood continued to raise.

Lockwood assisted in the establishment of the Universal Franchise Association, and served as president to that organization. In 1869, she helped found the Equal Rights Association of Washington, an organization whose mission was to secure equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, color, or sex. Lockwood was often frustrated when hecklers disrupted the association meetings. Her words at one meeting were quoted in the Washington Star: "We cannot stop fighting until such legislation is passed, no matter what ridicule and humiliation we suffer doing so."

In 1912, at the age of 81, Lockwood retired from the practice of law, to devote her time to social causes. Three years later, she made her last trip to Europe, to send a message of peace to the women of the world. Lockwood died on May 19, 1917 in Washington, DC-three years before American women received the right to vote. In the 1980s, the U.S. Postal Service issued stamps to honor Lockwood. In the 1990s, a crater on the planet Venus was named in her honor. The perseverance and eloquence of Belva Lockwood enabled her to accomplish many goals and to overturn a number of prejudicial barriers.

Further Reading

Fox, Mary Virginia, Lady for the Defense: A Biography of Belva Lockwood, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Kerr, Laura, The Girl Who Ran for President, Thomas Nelson, 1947.

American History Illustrated, March 1985.

Ms., July/August 1998.

Sky & Telescope, May 1995.

Smithsonian, March 1981.

Stamps, June 23, 1984; June 7, 1986; July 5, 1986. □