Lockwood, Belva Ann (1830–1917)

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Lockwood, Belva Ann (1830–1917)

American lawyer and women's rights advocate who was the first woman admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Claims, as well as the first woman to receive votes in a presidential election. Name variations: Belva McNall; Belva Bennett Lockwood. Born Belva Ann Bennett on October 24, 1830, in Royalton, New York; died on May 19, 1917; daughter of Lewis J. Bennett (a farmer) and Hannah (Green) Bennett; attended country schools, Royalton Academy (one year), Gasport (N.Y.) Academy, 1853–54, Genesee Wesleyan Seminary and Genesee College at Lima, N.Y. (later Syracuse University), 1854–57, National University Law School, 1871–73; married Uriah H. McNall, on November 8, 1848 (died 1853); married Ezekiel Lockwood, on March 11, 1868 (died 1877); children: (first marriage) Lura McNall (1848–1894, who married DeForest Ormes); (second marriage) Jessie Lockwood (1869–1871).


Hon. LL.D., Syracuse University (1909).

Taught in district schools (1844–48), and summers while attending college; appointed preceptor, Lockport (N.Y.) Union School (1857–61), and at seminaries in Gainesville, Hornellsville, and Oswego, N.Y. (1861–66); founded McNall's Ladies Seminary in Washington, D.C. (1867); lobbied to pass laws in Congress granting women equal pay for equal work (1872) and to permit women to be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court (1879); became first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court; nominated as presidential candidate of the National Equal Rights Party (1884 and 1888); founded law firm of Belva A. Lockwood & Co. (1887–94); served as a delegate for the Universal Peace Union to International Peace Congresses (1889–1911); served on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Belva Ann Lockwood was nearly 40 years old, but the law school of Columbia College (later George Washington University) rejected her application to study there because her presence might be "an injurious diversion of the attention of the [male] students." Georgetown University and Howard University also refused to admit her. Finally, in 1871, she and 14 other women were allowed to attend the newly established National University Law School. "I had to contend for every inch of ground that I gained," Lockwood observed. When she completed the course, she was not allowed to graduate with her male classmates; not until she wrote a stinging letter to President Ulysses S. Grant, who was also president of the university, did she receive her degree. The District of Columbia admitted women to the bar (though at the time she applied, one justice remarked, "Bring on as many women lawyers as you choose. I do not believe they will be a success"). However, when one of her cases was brought to the federal Court of Claims a few months later, she was refused admission, both to the Court of Claims, and later to the Supreme Court. Belva Lockwood petitioned Congress to pass a law to prohibit any woman "otherwise qualified" from being debarred from practice before any U.S. court. For more than five years, she lobbied; "Nothing was too daring for me to attempt," she later wrote. "I addressed Senators as though they were old familiar friends, and with an earnestness that carried with it conviction." Her relentlessness paid off, and the bill became law in February 1879. Lockwood claimed, plausibly, that "my bill was … an entering wedge for woman suffrage."

Belva Ann Bennett, the second of the five children of Lewis and Hannah Bennett , was descended from pioneer families in Royalton, New York. She was born in 1830 and grew up on the family's 100-acre farm in Niagara County, with its orchard of pear, peach, and plum trees. At age five, she and her older sister Rachel Bennett began to attend the summer sessions of country schools. As the schools were sometimes two miles away, winter sessions, because of bad weather and muddy roads, were not possible for young children who had to walk. Despite the hard benches in one-room schools and the effort it cost her to "toe the mark" (a white line painted on the floor where she recited her lessons), Belva later explained, "I always wanted an education, even when a girl."

When Belva was 14, Hannah somehow found the money to send her daughter to the Royalton Academy for one year. The private school, housed in a two-story brick building, offered "thorough English and classical education for admission to college, for study of a profession, or for business." Belva's father did not support her ambition, however, so the following year she had to stop studying and begin teaching in the summer sessions of district schools, for ten shillings a week and "boarding round." While still in her teens, she spoke before the Teachers' Association of the Town of Royalton; her remarks were later published in the Lockport Niagara Democrat.

Soon after her 18th birthday in 1848, Belva married Uriah McNall, the son of a tavernkeeper and farmer at McNall's Corners. The couple moved to a farm south of Gasport, New York, where Uriah operated a sawmill on Eighteen Mile Creek. Their daughter Lura McNall was born on July 31 of the following year. Belva occasionally wrote for the local newspapers, sometimes to console neighbors who had lost young children. Three years into their marriage, Uriah injured his foot in the mill while sawing logs, and died of complications from the wound about two years later, on May 11, 1853.

Left a widow with a four-year-old child, Belva knew that in order to support herself and her daughter she needed more education. She sold her farm and stock and, in the fall of 1853, enrolled in the Gasport Academy, along with her younger brother and sister and her brother-in-law, all of whom boarded with her. That year's study prepared her to enter the Genesee Seminary in the fall of 1854; later she transferred to Genesee College. While there, she had to leave Lura to the care of her mother. When the Bennetts moved to Illinois, it would be three long years before Belva could go west to see her daughter, which she considered "a very serious trial."

"After much mending and turning of a scanty wardrobe," wrote Belva, she packed her trunk and journeyed to the college in Lima, 18 miles from Rochester, connected by a "good plank road." Tuition was $8.50 a term, but students had to supply their own "lights, pails, wash-bowls, towels, and mirrors." The women had to pay an additional $1.25 per term "for sawing and carrying wood" to their rooms. The curriculum included the study of electricity, magnetism, electro-chemistry, geometry, and, significantly, the law of nations, political economy, and the Constitution of the United States. She later admitted she had:

studied in season and out of season, and while fond of my room-mates and kind to them, I deliberately banished them from my room. … [T]he three years of my college life are to me a blank, so far as the political or financial history of the country is concerned. … The only recreation allowed was a walk after the evening meal, and a reception at the president's once per quarter.

During the vacations she probably taught summer school, because her first job application cited "seven years teaching experience." Lockwood received her B.S. degree in June 1857.

Lockwood had become very indignant upon learning early in her career that male teachers were paid twice as much as women for the same work. She protested to the school trustees, but even the wife of the Methodist minister refused to take her part. "I can't help you; you cannot help yourself. … [I]t is the way of the world," she had told the young widow. While at Genesee, Belva heard Susan B. Anthony speak at the teachers' institute. Anthony made a strong impression on her. "She was trying to gain for women teachers places with the men on the several committees. She would arise in the meetings amid cutting silence and move that such a woman be appointed on the ways and means committee. … I always seconded her motions."

My cause was the cause of thousands of women. I pushed forward when I could and retreated when I had to, but always returned to the attack.

—Belva Ann Lockwood

After graduation, Lockwood accepted a position as "preceptress" of the Lockport Union School, where her daughter was able to enroll as a student, as did a younger sister. In addition to teaching courses in higher mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and botany, she added skating, gymnastics, nature walks, and public speaking, to the amazement of the more conservative of her patrons. In 1860, she offered her ideas on "The Life School" before a convention of teachers in Niagara Falls.

During the Civil War, Lockwood served as president of the Lockport Ladies Aid, supervising the sewing of hickory blouses, cotton flannel shirts and other gear for the New York Volunteers. She stayed at Lockport Union four years, then moved on to other female seminaries in Gainesville, Hornellsville, and Oswego, New York. Finally, in 1866, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she opened her own school, one of the earliest private co-educational schools in the district, assisted by her daughter Lura. There she became involved in peace and suffrage meetings at the Union League Hall, where she conducted her school. On March 11, 1868, Belva, 37, married Dr. Ezekiel Lockwood, 65, a dentist who had served as chaplain of the 2nd D.C. Volunteer Infantry in the war, and who shared her liberal views. Their daughter Jessie was born the following year, but died at the age of 18 months.

Ezekiel encouraged his wife to pursue her interest in the study of law. After graduating from Genesee, she had taken a few classes in law, and had become increasingly interested in the issues being debated in the nation's capital while living there. In October 1869, she applied to Columbia, but it would be two years before she finally gained admission to a law school. Meanwhile, her husband had taken over the administration of the school, leaving her free for her next endeavor: support for a law to give female federal workers the same pay as men for the same work. In 1870, she attended the conventions of the National and the American Woman Suffrage Associations to collect signatures for a petition to pass such a bill. Belva Lockwood's relations with the mainstream suffrage movement were always fragile at best. "Lucy Stone would not help me," she later recalled, "because the proposition did not come from Boston." Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton , and other women in the National were more supportive, however, and Lockwood collected about 150 signatures there. With the assistance of Rep. S.M. Arnell of Tennessee, chair of the House Committee on Education, she saw the bill passed into law in 1872. In January 1871, she had also presented a testimonial to the U.S. Senate on the right of women to vote, but she came to believe that the best way to win woman suffrage was through a series of "practical" steps toward equality, such as her equal-pay bill. This attitude did not endear her to the suffrage leaders.

Of the 15 women admitted to the National University Law School, only two completed the course of study. During the last quarter, they were barred from attending lectures altogether. The men did not want women present at graduation, their names did not appear on the list of graduates, and it seemed that they were not going to receive their diplomas at all. On September 3, 1873, Belva Lockwood undertook to write to President Grant, who was by virtue of his office also president of the National University:

You are, or you are not the President of the National University Law School. If you are its President I wish to say to you that I have been passed through the curriculum of study of that school, and am entitled to, and demand my Diploma. If you are not its President then I ask you to take your name from its papers and not hold out to the world to be what you are not.

Though she did not receive an answer, she soon received the diploma, duly signed by Grant and the faculty. On September 24, she was admitted to the District Bar, and five days later filed papers in her first case. In many ways it was typical of what was to come. She was bringing a bill of divorce for a woman who charged her husband with drunkenness, cruel treatment, and refusal to support. She won a divorce decree and alimony with costs. However, the husband refused to pay. "The judge told me there was no law to make him pay. … I told him there was and I showed him I could issue a ne exeat." Ahead lay a long career of fighting for oppressed women and challenging court decisions.

Lockwood made a specialty of claims. One of her earliest successes was to obtain a sailors' bonus bill from Congress. However, she had only been working a few short months when one of her cases was carried before the U.S. Court of Claims. She applied for admission to that Court. Her application was denied, first on the grounds that she was a woman, and then because she was a married woman "who might conceivably misapply the funds of a client, and under the common law her husband might be sued for the wrong she had committed as an attorney." (This argument had also been used to try to prevent Myra Bradwell from practicing law.)

Lockwood petitioned Congress to prohibit qualified women from being debarred from federal courts, citing Queen Victoria as a precedent, and stating that "the right to practice law" was "one of the privileges of citizenship." While her petition was being considered by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, she also applied for admission to the Supreme Court in October 1876. Chief Justice Morrison I. Waite read their decision that "the Court does not feel called upon to make a change until such a change is required by statute." She then drafted such a statute, which became HR 1077, providing for the admission to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States any woman who had been admitted to the highest court in any state, territory, or the District of Columbia for three years.

Despite the death of her husband on April 23, 1877, Belva Lockwood continued to lobby Congress month after month. In February 1878, Rep. Bill Butler, a supporter of the rights of labor and women, reported favorably on HR 1077, and it passed comfortably. It was then referred to the Judiciary Committee of the Senate,

which determined that the Supreme Court was entitled to make its own rules admitting persons to practice, and recommended an indefinite postponement. However, Senator Aaron A. Sargent, a shrewd and energetic politician, asked that the bill be placed on the calendar. In April 1878, Lockwood presented her petition, signed by 155 D.C. lawyers. The bill was referred back to committee, and amended to state that "no person should be excluded from practicing as an attorney and counsellor at law from any court of the United States on account of sex."

After prolonged maneuvers, the bill was finally brought to debate on the floor in early February 1879. Sargent urged a vote: "In this land man has ceased to dominate over his fellow—let him cease to dominate over his sister." Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts, another defender of women's rights, used the argument not that it would benefit women, but that it was a bill to assure U.S. citizens the right to select their counsel. He even invoked Shakespeare: "If Portia herself were alive," he exclaimed, "she could not defend the opinion she had given before the Supreme Court of the United States." The bill passed February 7, and Belva Lockwood went to the White House in the evening to be congratulated by Lucy Webb Hayes . On March 3, Lockwood was admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, and on March 6 to the U.S. Court of Claims. A year later, on February 2, 1880, she once again appeared before Justice Waite, with a motion to admit to practice Mr. Samuel R. Lowery, the first Southern African-American to pass the bar of the Supreme Court.

Winning a landmark victory did not put an end to Lockwood's pioneering spirit. She bought a 20-room house at 619 F Street, N.W., in Washington where she would live for nearly 40 years. The office of Belva Ann Lockwood, Attorney and Solicitor, was on the ground floor. She took every type of case, from assault to murder, land and patent cases, divorce and probate; she worked to overturn English common law to win for widows property rights and guardianship of their children. She continued to specialize, however, in back pay claims and pension cases.

In 1880, she spoke to the platform committee of the Republican National Convention to urge them to adopt a woman suffrage plank. She lobbied to have matrons employed in D.C. jails and police stations. She made applications to be sent abroad as a U.S. consul, but despite her study of international law and the consular manual, she was refused. She rode a large English tricycle all over town, causing a sensation wherever she went.

Her most remarkable breakthrough, however, was her campaign as candidate for president of the United States. Victoria Woodhull had run for the presidency in 1872 on the Equal Rights ticket with Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist leader, but she was in jail on election day on a charge of sending obscene material through the mail. Lockwood had spoken for Woodhull at Cooper Union in New York, but later had campaigned in the south for Horace Greeley, the liberal Republican candidate.

In 1884, Lockwood failed once again to get the Resolutions committee at the Republican Convention to support woman suffrage, and was chagrined that Stanton and Anthony were advising women to support the Republican candidate, James G. Blaine. Lockwood wrote a letter to the Woman's Herald of Industry, published in California by Marietta L.B. Snow , who pioneered innovations in dress, diet, and the use of electricity to cure problems of mobility. Lockwood asked simply:

Why not nominate women for important places? Is not Victoria Empress of India… If women in the States are not permitted to vote, there is no law against their being voted for. … We shall never have rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it. Reforms are slow, but they never go backward.

Lockwood was enthusiastically nominated at a meeting of the Equal Rights Party of the Pacific Slope in San Francisco, with Snow as her running-mate. Their platform supported equal opportunity for women to seek public office, uniform marriage and divorce laws, citizenship for Native Americans, temperance, and peace. Other "third-party" candidates that year included John P. St. John, representing the Prohibition Party, and General Benjamin F. Butler, representing Labor. The Democrats had nominated Grover Cleveland, whose embarrassment of the party over an illegitimate son caused some to support Lockwood as one who would "bring no blush or barnacles or youthful, or mature wild oats sowing."

Nevertheless, Lockwood's candidacy was subject to a certain amount of ridicule. Men, dressed in poke bonnets and Mother Hubbard dresses, formed "broom brigades." The suffrage leadership criticized her for subjecting the woman suffrage movement to "an abundance of odium and contempt at a time when it was commanding respect and enlisting help." Some accused her of seeking publicity to get more business. But Belva Ann Lockwood saw her opportunity to obtain even one vote in the electoral college as "the first practical movement in the history of woman suffrage."

Although women could not vote in national elections, she polled 4,149 votes in six states (less than one-tenth of one percent of the total). In a petition to Congress, she claimed that the electors of the state of Indiana, which had gone to Cleveland, had changed their minds and cast their votes for her. Supporters also claimed that substantial votes in Oregon and Pennsylvania had simply been rejected as false votes. In 1888, she was nominated again by the Equal Rights Party in Iowa, with pacifist Alfred H. Love as their vice-presidential candidate, but the novelty had worn off, and she received little attention. Her nominations, however, led to an increase in her speaking engagements, which she continued into her 80s, bringing in a substantial income not only from the lecture tours, but from new pension claims which she picked up along the way.

In 1887, Lockwood and her daughter, by then married to DeForest Ormes, formed the firm of Belva Ann Lockwood & Co., Attorneys at Law, which lasted until Lura's death in 1894. Lura's husband died soon after, and Lockwood reared her young grandson DeForest, Jr.

Although she continued to work for woman suffrage, especially by lobbying Congress to include woman suffrage in the statehood bills for new states after 1900, Lockwood's campaigns had alienated her somewhat from the mainstream suffrage movement. She continued, however, to attend meetings on women's rights, as well as temperance, labor reform, and, increasingly, world peace. A large room staffed by an attendant on the ground floor of 619 F Street was devoted to a library of books on the subject. An early member of the Universal Peace Union, Lockwood was their delegate to the International Peace Congress in Paris in 1889 and to subsequent ones in London, Milan, Antwerp, Berne, Budapest, and The Hague. She dictated the Sherman Resolution granting the president authority to mediate between two countries on the verge of war. She also served on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Belva Ann Lockwood's most notable legal case was representing the Eastern Cherokee Indians in a claim against the United States, which had begun in 1835 with a treaty that called for the Cherokees to leave North Carolina, their land to be purchased by the U.S. government. In 1905, she argued before Judge Charles C. Nott, who agreed that the United States had "broken and evaded the letter and spirit of their agreement," but did not award the full amount of interest due, which, after so many years, amounted to several times more than the original purchase price. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court in the following year, where Lockwood, 75, felt she "rose to inspired heights." She won the case, although a disagreement about her fee led to a suit against her which was to leave her financially troubled at the end of her life.

Belva Lockwood never stopped being controversial. In a lengthy newspaper interview in the New York World in 1912, she said she had never "devoted much time" to working for suffrage, only for equal rights, "feeling that the ballot would naturally follow." She thought that along with equal rights, women should be given equal responsibility "to educate and support the family." She criticized the "professional woman suffragists" who, in her opinion, "talk too much." Nevertheless, in 1914 she stood with the leaders of Alice Paul 's Congressional Union on the Capitol steps to present to Congress a resolution calling for woman suffrage.

Belva Ann Lockwood died on May 19, 1917, from "a complication of diseases incident to old age," according to her obituary in the Evening Star, and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Her last public speech had been in 1916, to support President Woodrow Wilson, during whose administration the Equal Suffrage Amendment would finally be signed into law.


Proctor, John Clagett. "Belva Ann Lockwood: The Only Woman Candidate for President of the United States," in Records. Vol XXXV–XXXVI. Columbia Historical Society of Washington, D.C., 1935, p. 192–204.

Stern, Madeleine B. We, the Women: Career Firsts of 19th Century America. NY: Schulte, 1963.

Winner, Julia Hull. "Belva A. Lockwood—That Extraordinary Woman," in New York History. October 1958, p. 321–339.


Papers are located in the Peace Collection at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944, University of New Mexico Press, 1992