Belva Lockwood

Pioneer Woman Lawyer, Women's Rights Advocate

Belva Lockwood
Belva Lockwood. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Modifications © 2003 Jone Johnson Lewis.

Known for: early woman lawyer; first woman attorney to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States; ran for president 1884 and 1888; ​first woman to appear on official ballots as a candidate for U.S. president

Occupation: lawyer
Dates: October 24, 1830 - May 19, 1917
Also known as: Belva Ann Bennett, Belva Ann Lockwood

Belva Lockwood Biography:

Belva Lockwood was born Belva Ann Bennett in 1830 in Royalton, New York.

She had a public education, and at age 14 was herself teaching at a rural school. She married Uriah McNall in 1848 when she was 18. Their daughter, Lura, was born in 1850. Uriah McNall died in 1853, leaving Belva to support herself and her daughter.

Belva Lockwood enrolled at Genessee Wesleyan Seminary, a Methodist school. Known as Genessee College by the time she graduated with honors in 1857, the school is now Syracuse University. For those three years, she left her daughter in the care of others.

Teaching School

Belva became the headmistress of Lockport Union School (Illinois) and privately began to study law. She taught at and was principal at several other schools. In 1861, she became head of Gainesville Female Seminary in Lockport. She spent three years as head of McNall Seminary in Oswego.

Meeting Susan B. Anthony, Belva became interested in women's rights.

In 1866, she moved with Lura (by then 16) to Washington, DC, and opened a coeducational school there.

Two years later, she married the Rev. Ezekiel Lockwood, a dentist and Baptist minister who had served in the Civil War. They had one daughter, Jessie, who died when only one year old.

Law School

In 1870, Belva Lockwood, still interested in the law, applied to Columbian College Law School, now the George Washington University, or GWU, Law School, and she was refused admission.

She then applied at the National University Law School (which later merged with GWU Law School), and they accepted her into classes. By 1873, she had completed her course work -- but the school would not grant her a diploma as the male students objected. She appealed to President Ulysses S. Grant, who was ex officio head of the school, and he intervened so she was able to receive her diploma.

This would normally qualify someone for the District of Columbia bar, and over the objections of some she was admitted to the DC Bar. But she was denied admission to the Maryland Bar, and to federal courts. Because of the legal status of women as feme covert, married women did not have a legal identity and could not make contracts, nor could they represent themselves in court, as individuals or as attorneys.

In an 1873 ruling against her practicing in Maryland, a judge wrote,

"Women are not needed in the courts. Their place is in the home to wait upon their husbands, to bring up the children, to cook the meals, make beds, polish pans and dust furniture."

In 1875, when another woman (Lavinia Goodell) applied to practice in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court of that state ruled:

"Discussions are habitually necessary in courts of justice, which are unfit for female ears. The habitual presence of women at these would tend to relax the public sense of decency and propriety."

Legal Work

Belva Lockwood worked for women's rights and woman suffrage. She had joined the Equal Rights Party in 1872. She did much of the legal work behind changing laws in the District of Columbia around women's property and guardianship rights. She also worked to change the practice of refusing to admit women to practice in federal court. Ezekiel also worked for Native American clients asserting claims for land and treaty enforcement.

Ezekiel Lockwood supported her law practice, even giving up dentistry to serve as a notary public and court-appointed guardian until his death in 1877. After he died, Belva Lockwood bought a large house in DC for herself and her daughter and her law practice. Her daughter joined her in the law practice. They also took in boarders. Her law practice was quite varied, from divorce and "lunacy" commitments to criminal cases, with much civil law work drawing up documents such as deeds and bills of sale.

In 1879, Belva Lockwood's campaign to permit women to practice as lawyers in federal court was successful. The Congress finally passed a law allowing such access, with "An Act to relieve certain legal disabilities of women." On March 3, 1879, Belva Lockwood was sworn in as the first woman lawyer able to practice before the United States Supreme Court, and in 1880, she actually argued a case, Kaiser v. Stickney, before the justices, becoming the first woman to do so.

Belva Lockwood's daughter married in 1879; her husband moved into the large Lockwood house.

Presidential Politics

In 1884, Belva Lockwood was chosen as their candidate for United States president by the National Equal Rights Party. Even if women could not vote, men could vote for a woman. The vice presidential candidate chosen was Marietta Stow. Victoria Woodhull had been a candidate for president in 1870, but the campaign was mostly symbolic; Belva Lockwood ran a full campaign. She charged audiences admission to hear her speeches as she traveled around the country.

The next year, Lockwood sent a petition to Congress to require that votes for her in the 1884 election be officially counted. Many ballots for her had been destroyed without being counted. Officially, she had received only 4,149 votes, out of more than 10 million cast.

She ran again in 1888. This time the party nominated for vice president Alfred H. Lowe, but he refused to run. He was replaced on ballots by Charles Stuart Wells.

Her campaigns were not received well by many of the other women working for women's suffrage.

Reform Work

In addition to her work as an attorney, in the 1880s and 1890s, Belva Lockwood was involved in several reform efforts. She wrote about woman suffrage for many publications. She remained active in the Equal Rights Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She spoke for temperance, for tolerance for Mormons, and she became a spokesperson for the Universal Peace Union. In 1890 she was a delegate to the International Peace Congress in London. She marched for women's suffrage in her 80s.

Lockwood decided to test the 14th Amendment's protection of equal rights by applying to the commonwealth of Virginia to be permitted to practice law there, as well as in the District of Columbia where she had long been a member of the bar. The Supreme Court in 1894 found against her claim in the case In re Lockwood, declaring that the word "citizens" in the 14th Amendment could be read to include only males.

In 1906, Belva Lockwood represented the Eastern Cherokee before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her last major case was in 1912.

Belva Lockwood died in 1917. She was buried in Washington, DC, in Congressional Cemetery. Her house was sold to cover her debts and death costs; her grandson destroyed most of her papers when the house was sold.

Recognition

Belva Lockwood has been remembered in many ways. In 1908, Syracuse University gave Belva Lockwood an honorary law doctorate. A portrait of her at the time of that occasion hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. During World War II, a Liberty Ship was named the Belva Lockwood.

In 1986, she was honored with a postage stamp as part of the Great Americans series.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Hannah Green Bennett
  • Father: Lewis Johnson Bennett

Education:

  • public schools

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Uriah McNall (married 1848; farmer)
  • children:
    • daughter: Lura, born 1850 (married DeForest Ormes, 1879)
  • husband: Rev. Ezekiel Lockwood (married 1868; Baptist minister and dentist)
  • children:
    • Jessie, died age one