Lockwood, Belva Ann

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Belva Ann Lockwood

Born October 24, 1830 (Royalton, New York)

Died May 19, 1917 (Washington, D.C.)


Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood gained notoriety as the first woman to run for president in the United States. She was nominated in both the 1884 and the 1888 presidential races by the National Equal Rights Party. Lockwood is best remembered, however, as the first woman admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of the United States. She was also the first woman to practice law in the lower federal court system.

As a lawyer in Washington, D.C., Lockwood exerted a great deal of political influence in both Congress and the courts. While she was most visible in her campaign to earn women's rights, especially the right to vote, Lockwood also lobbied Congress on a wide range of issues addressing injustice against a variety of groups. Lockwood was an avid pacifist (person opposed to the use of force) who served as a member of the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Why not nominate women for important places? . . . We shall never have rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it."

Changing worlds

Belva Ann Bennett was the second of five children born to Hannah Green and Lewis Johnson Bennett. She was born
in October 1830 on a farm in Niagara County, New York. Belva did her chores on the farm and attended a one-room country school until she was fifteen. Poor family finances required her to get a job teaching at the country school to earn tuition to attend the Girls' Academy in Royalton. Belva graduated in May 1848 and married Uriah H. McNall that fall. The couple had a daughter in July 1849 and named her Lura.

In May 1853 Uriah died of complications from a sawmill injury. Left to raise their young daughter alone, Belva made the difficult decision to leave Lura in the care of her parents and move to Lima, New York, to pursue an education. She attended Genessee Wesleyan Seminary and then went on to Genessee College (later known as Syracuse University). Belva received a bachelor of science degree in 1857 and accepted a position as principal of Lockport Union School in New York. During her term, Belva introduced progressive ideas to the school's curriculum, including public speaking and physical activities for the girls. She soon learned that male teachers earned twice as much as women for the same work. Belva joined the campaign to obtain equal pay for women teachers. She also took advantage of an opportunity to attend a course in law offered by a local attorney.

Moving mountains

In 1866 Belva took Lura, now seventeen years of age, and moved to Washington, D.C. Belva taught school and campaigned as an active member of the National Woman Suffrage Association, an organization seeking voting rights for women. In 1867 she helped found the Universal Franchise Association, Washington's first suffrage group. After a year Belva opened a private, coeducational school called McNall's Academy where both she and Lura taught. It was one of the first private schools in the capital to accept both girls and boys. Belva married Dr. Ezekiel Lockwood in 1868 and the following year they had a daughter, Jessie. Little Jessie died eighteen months later of typhoid fever, an infectious, often fatal bacterial disease transmitted in contaminated food or water.

Ezekiel assumed responsibility for the academy and encouraged Belva to pursue her goal of earning a law degree. Belva applied for admission to the law school of Columbian College (later George Washington University) in Washington. She was rejected, however, because of her gender. While waiting for admission to another law school Belva continued to work for women's rights. In 1872 she drafted a successful bill giving female civil servants (government workers) equal pay for equal work.

After further rejections from Georgetown and Howard universities, Belva was finally admitted to the newly formed National University Law School of Washington in 1871. She completed her degree requirements in May 1873 but was denied her diploma because of her gender. After sixteen months Belva grew frustrated. She wrote to U.S. president Ulysses Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77), also president of the National University Law School, demanding her diploma. Her diploma arrived within days, signed by the faculty and President Grant himself. On September 24 Belva Lockwood was admitted to the District of Columbia bar and then to the District's supreme court.

A long way to go

Lockwood became very well known in Washington as she developed a successful law practice. She liked the practicality of getting around the city on the tall, three-wheeled tricycles that were becoming popular for men. The trikes were considered unladylike due to women's fashions at the time consisting of long skirts. Belva bought one anyway and had a special dashboard made to keep her skirts down.

Lockwood had plenty of legal cases but was not allowed to practice before any federal courts located in Washington. In April 1874 she had an important case to argue before the U.S. Court of Claims but was required to turn it over to a male attorney and the case was lost. Lockwood's appeal of the court of claims' ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1876 was rejected. Lockwood believed if women had the right to practice law, then they should be entitled to follow the case to the highest courts in the country. She lobbied Congress in a campaign to pass a bill to allow women to speak in courts. The work of Lockwood and her supporters paid off in 1877 when her bill secured a place on the congressional calendar. It passed the Senate and was signed into law by U.S. president Rutherford Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) on February 15, 1879.

On March 3, 1879, Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. On March 6 Lockwood was also admitted to practice before the U.S. Court of Claims, making her the first woman to practice in federal courts.

A full life

Lockwood bought a twenty-room house in Washington and set up law offices on the first floor for herself and two other women attorneys. Lockwood took every type of case but specialized in back-pay claims and pension (retirement pay)
cases. She was never without work. She was also a popular lecturer and her articles were frequently published in newspapers and journals. Lockwood continued her life work of arguing the cause of equal rights for women, especially the right to vote (see sidebar).

Although women could not vote in national elections in nineteenth-century America, no law prohibited women from running for public office. In 1884, and again in 1888, Lockwood was nominated for president of the United States by the National Equal Rights Party. She ran on a platform of equal opportunity, uniform marriage and divorce laws among the states, temperance (opposition to alcoholic beverages), and peace. Her campaigns were unsuccessful but her nominations led to an increase in speaking engagements, which allowed her to promote her causes.

Lockwood continued working for women and equal rights as well as temperance and world peace. An early member of the Universal Peace Union (UPU), Lockwood served on the editorial board of its paper, the Peacemaker. She was also a lobbyist for the organization. In 1889 Lockwood was the UPU delegate to the first International Peace Congress in Paris where she delivered her address in French. She served as delegate at future International Peace Congresses in London, Milan, Antwerp, Berne, Budapest, and The Hague. Lockwood received many honors in addition to serving as a member on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lockwood continued to live and work in her Washington home where she maintained a thriving practice. Her most notable case came in 1906 when she represented the Eastern Cherokee Indians in a claim against the U.S. government. A treaty signed in 1835 resulted in the relocation of the tribe after the government purchased their land. The money, however, had never been paid. At seventy-five years of age Lockwood appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won an amount several times more than the original price.

Amendment XIX

The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution states, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." The amendment guaranteeing all American women the right to vote was the result of decades of effort by many people. Women and men alike worked tirelessly from 1878, when the amendment was first introduced in Congress, until its passage in the summer of 1920.

Those who championed a woman's right to vote used a variety of strategies. Besides joining others in lecturing, writing, and petitioning Congress, Belva Lockwood also challenged male-only voting in courts of law. Others used more militant tactics such as marches, civil disobedience, and hunger strikes to draw attention to their cause. All were met with intense opposition and sometimes hostility. The political balance began to change when President Woodrow Wilson supported an amendment to the Constitution in 1918. The House of Representatives passed the amendment in May 1919 and two weeks later the Senate followed. The U.S. Constitution was radically changed forever when the U.S. Secretary of State confirmed the official endorsement on August 26, 1920, and women were permitted to vote.

Lockwood continued practicing law until she was seventy-six, when ill health forced her to retire. In 1916 Lockwood's final public speech was in support of President Woodrow Wilson's (1856–1924; served 1913–21) reelection. Belva Ann Lockwood died form complications of old age on May 19, 1917. Her funeral services were held at the Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and she was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Three years after Lockwood's death, Wilson signed the Equal Suffrage Amendment into law. On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and women across the nation were certified to vote.

For More Information


Brown, Drollene P. Belva Lockwood Wins Her Case. Niles, IL: Albert Whitman & Company, 1987.

Hall, Kermit L. The Oxford Companion to American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. NotableAmerican Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Maddex, Robert L. The U.S. Constitution A to Z. Washington, DC: CQPress, 2002.

Magnusson, Magnus, and Rosemary Goring, eds. Cambridge BiographicalDictionary. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Web Sites

"Belva Ann Lockwood: For Peace, Justice, and President." Stanford LawSchool.http://www.stanford.edu/group/WLHP/papers/lockwood.htm (accessed on August 15, 2004).

"Belva Lockwood." The Learning Curve.http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAWlockwoodBelva.htm (accessed on August 15, 2004).