Belva Lockwood (1830-1917), American Attorney and Crusader for Equal Rights
• She was admitted to what eventually became George Washington University Law School, but after completing the coursework, she was denied a diploma because she was a woman; after waiting a year she petitioned the U.S. President and soon received her diploma
• Had to petition Congress for the right for a woman to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court; she was the first woman to do so
• Ran for president in 1884 and 1888
Belva Ann Lockwood was born to a farmer and his wife in Royalton, New York in 1830. By 14 she was already teaching elementary school. In 1848 she married a farmer and they had a daughter but when the child was only three, Belva’s husband died of tuberculosis.
Society severely curtailed the ways in which a widow could support herself, and remarrying was generally the easier route. However, Lockwood decided she wanted a better education so she could personally support herself and her daughter. Genesee College admitted her and Lockwood graduated in 1857. Soon she was working as headmistress for a local school where she observed that whether teaching or working as an administrator she was paid much less than her male counterparts.
Later she moved to head a seminary in Oswego, New York, where she met Susan B. Anthony. Anthony was particularly concerned about how few options women were given because of inadequate education, and Lockwood agreed with her and began expanding her school’s curriculum.
Equal Pay for Equal Work
As part of her association with Anthony, Lockwood became a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1866, she opted to move to Washington to more effectively work toward persuading Congress to pass a bill guaranteeing female government employees equal pay for equal work. They did so in 1872. That year Lockwood also joined the Equal Rights Party, and their first presidential candidate was Victoria Woodhull.
In 1868 she had met and married Reverend Ezekiel Lockwood who shared Belva’s progressive ideas regarding women’s rights. When she expressed interest in studying the law, he supported her.
She was turned down at the first school to which she applied; they informed her that “her presence would be distracting to the male students.” However she was admitted to the National University Law School (later to be George Washington University Law School), which later refused to grant her the diploma she had earned. After waiting a year for her diploma, she finally wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant, the ex officio head of the university, about the injustice. She soon received her diploma; she was 47.
Getting admitted to the D.C. bar was another hurdle. One judge told her that “God Himself had determined women were not equal and never could be;” the judge then ordered that she be escorted out of the courtroom.
In 1870 she drafted an anti-discrimination bill to have the same access to the bar as male colleagues, and for years, she lobbied Congress to pass it. In 1879 Congress finally granted all qualified women attorneys to practice in any federal court. Lockwood was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court.
The Lockwood law office drew a working class clientele. As a woman, she would not have had access to the men’s clubs where business was done, but Lockwood made the most of the channels that were open to her. In one of her most famous cases (1906), she appeared in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of the Cherokee people regarding money owed to them by the U.S. government. Lockwood won a $5 million award for her clients.
In 1884 and 1888 she ran for President. Lockwood took her campaign seriously but women could not vote in federal elections at that time, and Lockwood found that most states did not take her votes for her seriously. She felt that many polling places set aside or tossed ballots that were cast for her.
For the rest of her life Lockwood continued to work for what she believed. She successfully campaigned for women to have equal property rights in the District of Columbia and established the International Peace Bureau. She died in 1917.
At one point, Belva Lockwood made a very simple and true statement: “Equality of rights and privileges is but simple justice.”