Struggles and Accomplishments of Belva Lockwood

By Maryann Saccomando Freedman

Photo source: Library of Congress
Photo source: National Women's Hall of Fame

No meteors flashed across the northern skies on October 24, 1830, no stars imploded, the planets stood fast in their orbits, and the sun and the moon remained constant.  But on that day, a baby was born who would grow to lead an extraordinary life that would have a lasting and profound impact on the face of the legal profession and of American society generally.
She was born into a non-extraordinary farm family in Royalton, NY.  Her parents, Lewis J. and Hannah Greene Bennett, named her Belva Ann. She was the second daughter and second of five children.
Early education struggles

As with most farm children at the time, life was hard and Belva attended country schools when she was not needed for farm work.  Belva was a curious and a good student.  At age fourteen she was offered a teaching position by the local school board and, thus, ended her formal education.  In Lockport, she had her first taste of independence and her first taste of sex discrimination.  As a female, she was paid less than half the salary paid to her male counterparts for exactly the same work and for no other reason that she was a woman.  She protested this inequity as “…an indignity not to be borne…” and throughout her life, she seized every opportunity to advance the principle that “equal pay should be for work, commensurate to it, and not be based on sex.” 
Belva had a natural curiosity about all things and yearned to continue her education.  However, she discovered that the colleges of the country were closed to women and, in any event, her father said “No.” He didn’t think education for a girl was important. 

For the moment, she took the only road open to her at that time: marriage.  On Nov. 8, 1848, at the age of 18, Belva Ann Bennett was married to Uriah McNall, age 22.  They settled a few miles north of their families near the village of Gasport where they farmed and ran a mill.
Marriage did not dampen her enthusiasm to pursue her learning.  Again, in her words, “Marriage to the ordinary woman is the end of her personality, or of her individual thought and action.  Forever after, she is known by her husband's name, takes his standing in society, receives only his friends, is represented by him and becomes a sort of domestic nonentity reflecting, if anything, her husband’s religious, moral, and political views, rising or falling in the world as his star shall go up or down.”  She continues, “I had not even noted this phase of society, and directly adapted the unwomanly habit of pursuing my studies after my marriage, writing theses for literary gatherings and sometimes for the press.” 

Her married life ended some 4 years later when Uriah McNall died, leaving her at age 22 with a 3 year-old daughter (Lura b. 7/31/49) and a meager estate deeply in debt. ($300)  Without a liberal education, she saw the future as a gloomy one, with no means to support herself or her toddler. 
As Jill Norgren notes in her excellent biography, “Belva Lockwood, the Woman Who Would Be President,” “Tragedy … freed Belva Lockwood from a woman’s shackles.”  Belva saw education as the means to economic stability and independence.  Education would provide the tools that she needed to find employment and earn a livelihood for herself and her child.  She sold the mill, paid off the debt, and, gathering up the few dollars that she had, she enrolled in the Gasport Academy - this, over the objections and harsh criticisms of father and friends who thought it unseemly, even improper, for a woman to seek an education.  Completing her studies at Gasport, she sought employment there only to be told that they had hired a man. Another lesson learned in equal employment opportunity.  Midway thru the year, however, the man was fired and Belva hired.  For the next year and a half, Belva saved her money and, then, leaving her daughter with her parents, and despite the criticism of friends, she set off on the 60-mile trip to Lima, NY, to enroll in the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, at that time open to both men and women. 

It was not long before she became aware that her male classmates were preparing for enrollment in Genesee College which had already allowed two women to matriculate.  Despite the misgivings of the preceptress of the seminary and the president of the college, she graduated from Genesee College on June 27, 1857.  During her student days at the college, she attended a law class and, thus, was planted the seed of her desire to become a lawyer. However, the seed had to lay dormant while she faced the exigencies of supporting herself and her child whom she brought back to Lockport together with her sister, Inverno, and where she accepted a position as preceptress of the Lockport Union School.  During the next many years, Belva worked in various schools and became active in statewide academic organizations, always urging an education for girls that would allow them to understand their rights and would allow them to become gainfully employed.

During these years, she met and became friendly with Susan B. Anthony with whose views on women’s rights she had a natural affinity.  Many years later, they would have a falling out over policy, strategy and styles, but for now, they were friends and worked together to seek a wider education for girls beyond the domestic arts.
But the seed of Belva’s interest in the law became restless to flower and in 1866, she enrolled her now 16 year old daughter in Genesee Wesleyan Seminary and took off for Washington, D.C., to see what she could see and where she felt opportunity abounded. 
Washington, D.C.

Washington was much to her liking.  She was intrigued by politicians and the power they wielded, fascinated by law and lawmaking, and drawn by the challenges of the conflicting views of Reconstruction. She saw limitless possibilities for herself, either as an owner of a small school or - no matter that it was considered a life unsuitable for a lady - a life in government or law.  And, being the pragmatist that she was, she embarked upon both paths at once.  She started her school, McNall’s Ladies Seminary and became involved in an effort to open the American Foreign Service to women.  The latter effort failed, but it put her in touch with other women - and men -  of views similar to hers, people who would encourage, educate, and support her in her desires - a far cry from what she had experienced in NY.   

In Washington, she embarked upon a lifetime in Women’s Rights activism.  A founder of the Universal Franchise Association (suffragist) she became friendly with several women journalists, joined the National Women’s Press Association and became a credentialed journalist, a position that served her well in getting her into meetings what would otherwise have excluded her as a woman.
Second marriage
A year after coming to Washington, she (37 years old) met Ezekiel Lockwood (66 years old) who was 29 years her senior and whom she married a year later. A Baptist minister and dentist by profession, Ezekiel supported Belva’s desire to become a lawyer, encouraged her in her continuing reading of Blackstone and Kent (then the lawyers’ bibles), shared her commitment to women’s rights, supported her community and political activities, and not only accepted, but expected, her equal contribution to the economics and finances of the family unit.  Together they worked as rental agents to supplement their incomes and he taught her how to file and pursue Civil War veterans’ pension claims. 


During this time, nationally, the debate over the 15th amendment was dividing women’s rights activists. The 15th amendment included the following: "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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

There were those who felt strongly that women had waited long enough and wanted a woman’s suffrage amendment, and those who felt equally as strongly that such a position was a threat to the African-American male's securing voting rights.

Belva, while supporting rights for freedmen, believed, as did Susan B. Anthony, that women should not have to wait any longer for their political rights. 

Another cause Belva fought against was the discrimination against women in the federal government. Federal government agencies employed few women, and those it did employ were paid less than the men.  Even when they were doing the work of the next higher level of employment, their pay did not go up. 

Belva joined the National Womens Suffrage Association which also championed her views on equal education and employment opportunities for women.  She took an active role in advancing these causes, speaking, writing, attending meetings.
With the National Association’s (NAWSA) support, Belva became a one-woman show.  She set about lobbying Congress in private meetings while drumming up support through a petition drive.  She learned how to compromise and how to use the press.  Her efforts resulted in a major victory.  While no additional positions would be created (that was her compromise), at least in the District, women would be employed and they would be paid equally.  A wrong had been righted and precedent had been set.

Legal studies

Belva continued to read legal treatises but she was unable to find a lawyer willing to take her on as a intern.

In 1869, she and Ezekiel were invited to attend a lecture at the newly established Columbia Law School whose president was a colleague of Ezekiel and which, as a new school and a departure from the traditional method of training lawyers, was looking for students.  She presented herself for matriculation and was ready to pay the fee. On October 7, 1869, she received a terse note from the President of the school advising her that her admission – at this time Belva was a 39 year old woman who had borne two children  - would not be expedient, as it would be likely to distract the attention of the young men. 
The following year, the new National University Law School was opened in the District.  Unlike Columbia, it invited a number of women, Belva included, to attend classes.  Whether the solicitation was occasioned by economics or philosophy, in early 1871, Belva, her daughter, Lura, by then fully grown, and thirteen other women enrolled.  However, upon the objections of the male students who proclaimed they would not attend classes with any woman, the women were given the option of completing their studies in a completely segregated program.  Most of the women caved in to the rancor and vilification heaped upon them and left immediately; a few, including Lura, stayed for a year.  Only Belva and one other woman (Lydia Hall) completed the course. 
Of course, they expected to receive their law diplomas.  But now, the men refused to appear even on the same stage with women.  Not only would Belva not appear on the stage to graduate, but she would not even get her diploma.      
Belva knew that successful candidates of a graduating law class would be presented as a group for admission to the D.C. bar.  Without that diploma she would be excluded.
Belva’s law practice up to that time had been limited to filing pension claims and small claims in police courts, the latter similar to our village courts today and for which admission was not necessary.   But, if she was going to have a successful, full-scale law practice, she had to be admitted to the D.C. Supreme Court bar.

Belva’s credo in life had been, if there is a thing to be done, just do it.  So she pursued another avenue.  With the help of a male friend she knew from the suffrage movement, the local bar examination committee agreed to have a panel of local practitioners examine her orally.  The committee declared her to be proficient in the law.  But, anonymous letters sent to the court opposing her admission, succeeded in blocking it.

She tried again, this time in a 3-day oral examination.  The results? Weeks passed.  Nothing happened.  She started a court action.  Nothing happened.  Belva was furious. Ezekeil was dying.  She again faced economic disaster.  It seemed the woman whom the press was already calling “the irrepressible Mrs. Lockwood,” was up against an impenetrable wall.


Just when things seemed their bleakest, newspaper editor Theodore Tilton offered her a temporary job, a three month tour of the South as a canvassing agent and correspondent for his newspapers, NY Tribune and the Golden Age, and in the process, do some campaigning for Horace Greeley. Belva quickly accepted the offer, thinking that it might launch a career as a paid journalist or a paid lecturer, either of which could supplement her earnings as a lawyer.            
On this trip, Belva learned how to fend for herself: traveling alone, making her own arrangements for accommodations, meals, public appearances. She learned the art of meeting the public in a grass roots campaign.
Twelve of her newspaper articles were published and, upon the completion of the tour, she presented Tilton with an article called “The Women of Washington.”  The article was an exposition of the accomplishments of women professionals in the Capital District and she made her point: Washington was full of educated, sensible and accomplished women deserving of the vote.  
Law practice

Back in Washington, Lockwood resumed her law practice, such as it was, succeeding in several matters in the police and justice courts.  She became known by judges and practitioners as practical, persuasive and likeable.  Several of the judges, as well as the Judge of the Probate Court, notified her that she would be recognized as counsel in any trial in their courts. 
In late 1873, Belva again took up pursuit of her law degree.  She wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant who, by virtue of being President of the US, was also President of the National University.  Her letter (Sept. 3, 1873):

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

Two weeks later, she received her diploma.  Diploma in hand, she again sought and was admitted to the D.C. bar on September 24, 1873.  Smugly she wrote, “I had already booked a large number of government claims, in which I had been recognized by the heads of different departments as an attorney so that I was not compelled, like my young brothers of the bar who did not wish to graduate with a woman, to sit in my office and wait for cases.” 

She continued her women’s rights activities, writing important legal briefs ("white papers"), which were articulate, lucid and reasonable constitutional arguments supporting women’s right to vote, to be employed and to be paid equally. These white papers were used extensively by women’s rights groups.   Just as they were for her clients, Belva’s arguments for her causes were always well researched, articulate, persuasive and pre-emptive of opposing arguments, impressing men as much as giving ammunition to women. 

She came within one vote of winning election as a delegate to a nominating convention to select a District representative to Congress, a recognition of the stature and esteem in which she was already held by Washington politicos.
She led a group of racially mixed women to City Hall to register to vote in the District.  One by one, each application was submitted and rejected.  This march and others on City Hall were intended to get the attention of the press and keep the issue of woman’s suffrage on the public radar.  Belva had learned well the lessons of keeping an issue on the front burner, of the importance of public opinion and the astute use of the press. 
Belva’s  private practice was doing well.  Her family in residence now included her daughter, a sister, a son-in-law, a niece, a great-niece and a grandson.  All of the adult members of her household worked in the office which was in the same building as their home. 

Court of Claims

Now a member of the D.C. bar, Belva still needed admission to the Court of Claims. for she had an important case to file in that court.  It was 1874.  With her District court certificate affirming that she was a lawyer in good standing in that court, she asked a friend, a member of the Court of Claims bar, to move her admission.  At the appointed time on April 1, he did so.  A painful pause ensued from the panel of five judges during which, Belva reported, every eye in the courtroom turned to her and then the bench.  Finally, there was an exclamation from Justice Drake:  “Mistress Lockwood, you are a woman.”  

“For the first time in my life,” Belva wrote, “I began to realize that it was a crime to be a woman; but it was too late to put in a denial, and I at once pleaded guilty to the charge.”

The matter was held over for a week.  She again presented herself at the appointed time in the following week.  This time, the Chief Judge exclaimed, “Mistress Lockwood, you are a MARRIED woman.”  Without missing a beat, Belva responded, “ Yes. May it please the court, but I am here with the consent of my husband.” At which Ezekeil offered the court a bow.  To no avail.  There was yet another week’s adjournment, and then another, and another.  Finally, the case was assigned to Justice Nott to deliver the opinion of the court.  Three weeks later, in an opinion that took 3 hours to read, the court announced its position that “under the laws and Constitution of the U.S., a court is without power to grant such an application, and that a woman is without legal capacity to take the office of attorney.”

What was she to do?   She had the claims assigned to her so that she would not be the attorney, but rather the claimant representing herself, and she filed her case. The court summarily refused to hear her and dismissed the case.  This set the stage for what was to become one of her most important achievements on behalf of women.
US Supreme Court

Appeal from the District’s Court of Claims was to the United States Supreme Court.  The year before, 1873, the United States Supreme Court had upheld the State of Illinois’ right to deny Myra Bradwell a license to practice law for no reason other than her sex.  But this was not a state.  This was the uniquely federal District.

She studied the Supreme Court’s rule for admission:  “Any attorney in good standing before the highest court of any State or Territory for the space of three years shall be admitted to this court when presented by a member of this bar.” Clearly, the rule applied to her.  She was an attorney; she was a member in good standing of the D.C. bar, and would be an attorney for the required three years by the time her case would be heard.  She filed her appeal and asked a friend to move her admission. 
An amazed bench reserved decision and one week later rendered its opinion that since it knew of no English precedent for the admission of women to the bar, it declined to do so unless there was a clamor from the public or a special legislation.

If they needed legislation, legislation they would get.  For two years Belva waged a single-handed battle to get special legislation through Congress.  During this time, her husband, her father, and her sister-in-law all died.  But none of that put her off her course.  She wrote the bill herself and got sponsors.  By now a veteran of the process, she testified before committees, lobbied individual senators and congressmen, cajoled the bill’s sponsors, and enlisted the support of male colleagues. “Nothing,” she wrote, “was too daring for [her] to attempt.”  She waged a relentless campaign.  And, at last, the press, finally interested in the story, offered her their support.  The bill admitting women to the bar of the United States Supreme Court was passed and was signed into law on Feb. 7, 1879.  Three weeks later, March 3, 1879, Belva Ann Lockwood became the first woman lawyer admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court. 

This was an enormous victory for women. Belva’s tenaciousness and astute preparation opened to women virtually all the federal and state courts in the country, at every level. She was hailed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the Italian Portia, lauded by Myra Blackwell, and celebrated publicly by both women and men.
Her practice thrived.  She had equity cases, divorces, injunctions, criminal defense, probate, debt collections, contracts.  Her family members continued to work in her office, and she took in boarders. 

Belva took pride in moving the admission of Samuel Lowery (1880) the first freedman black lawyer to the Supreme Court.  She took on other women to read law under her tutelage.  Together with one of them, A.G. Riddle, they overcame the sex preclusion of becoming a notary.
She became involved in Indian causes and represented Cherokee James Taylor and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation to pursue extensive Cherokee claims against the government, litigation that would last almost to the end of her life, and which, although ultimately successful, would cause her financial ruin.
The bicyclist
Generally, Lockwood walked to the various courts and public offices in which she conducted the affairs of her clients.  She observed that male lawyers who had offices nearby had taken to bicycling and were completing their business more efficiently.  She shocked Washington still further when, at age 51, she acquired a bicycle for transport.  Wags, cartoonists and newspapers took shots at her to which she replied with amusement:
A simple home woman who only had thought
To lighten the labors her business had wrought
And make a machine serve the purpose of feet.
And at the same time keep her dress from the street.
Believing that “Young women should not marry until they were able to support a husband,” she advocated for a national Domestic Relations Law so that those laws could be reformed to give wives one half of a household’s assets, to allow them to enter into civil contracts on their own, and give them equal property rights.  She advocated for a new school curriculum for girls which would teach them how to protect themselves and their children from economic dependency and exploitation.

Running for US President

By 1880, Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood was a full-blown celebrity.       

In the spring of 1884, at age 53, Belva found herself the nominee of the Equal Rights Party for President of the United States.  She had not solicited the nomination and, in an irony of history, she would run against Grover Cleveland, another Western New Yorker. 

Equal Rights Party Chair Marietta Stow and her colleagues had been proposing women for political office for some time.  Women had been delivering stump speeches on major national issues such as slavery, suffrage, temperance and reconstruction for years.  Women had run for local offices and had full suffrage in the Territories of Utah and Washington; fourteen states allowed them to vote in school district elections.  Victoria Woodhouse had been the nominee in 1870 though she did not appear on any ballot and did not actively campaign for office. 
If the Women’s suffrage movement had been divided during the earlier 15th amendment debates, it was now fully splintered. Susan B. Anthony staunchly supported the Republican party believing that ultimately they would accept a woman’s suffrage plank notwithstanding that, in that same year, they had rejected it.  Another group insisted on linking suffrage with temperance. Others, not. Still others believed that best hope lay in getting individual states to act at the state level. There were almost as many views as there were women and they all dug in their heels.
Lockwood believed that the time had come for women to strike out on their own for their own cause.  She publicly challenged the political leadership of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  They had every right to support Blaine and the Republican ticket, but she could not see any advantage in standing by the party that does not stand by “us.” She wrote to Marietta Stow, “We shall never have equal rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it.”

Saying “I cannot vote but I can be voted for,” she mounted a full-fledged, vigorous campaign, something that had not only never been done, but had not ever even been envisioned. She had a platform that included the following:
•    Fair distribution of public offices to women as well as men
•    Civil service reform
•    Women on the bench including the Supreme Court bench
•    Women prosecutors, notaries and in every vocation/profession
•    High tariffs to protect/foster American industry
•    Extension of commercial relations with foreign countries to promote friendship
•    Establishment of an international high court of Arbitration to resolve commercial and political differences
•    Citizenship for Native Americans and allotment of tribal lands
•    Use of tariff revenues for veterans and their dependents
•    Support for temperance advocates
•    Nationalization and reform of family law making women equal economic partners
•    Remaining public lands to go to people – not railroads
She went out on the stump giving speeches drawing large crowds wherever she appeared. She drew over 500 people in Cleveland, distributed broadsides, wrote articles, gave interviews, and publicly challenged the other candidates to a public discussion of the issues.  Her campaign certainly caught the attention of the public as well as the press.  As a full-fledged candidate, she garnered editorial support and her campaign was treated no better nor worse than Cleveland’s and Blaine’s. 
By election’s end, Belva Lockwood had received votes in at least nine states, had electors pledged to her in at least seven states, had garnered over 4,711 votes, and her treasury reported all expenses paid and in the black by $125.00.
With no rules or controls of the ballot box at that time, the ballot counters refused to count her ballots. But she had made a point.  Women were more than ready, willing and able to be serious players at all levels of American politics including the highest office - and certainly entitled to vote.  She ran again in 1888, solidifying the message.
Many years later, at age 84 and still not permitted to vote, she was asked it there would ever be a woman in the presidency.  She replied, “I look to see women in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.  If [a woman] demonstrates that she is fitted to be president she will some day occupy the White House.  It will be entirely on her own merits, however.  No movement can place her there simply because she is a woman.  It will come if she proves herself mentally fit for the position.”

Following the election, Belva returned to her practice and went on the lecture circuit.  Susan B. Anthony had not approved of Belva’s candidacies, her willingness to be out there, “in your face.”  She did not like the publicity Belva garnered, and maybe most of all, she did not like that Belva asserted herself and made decisions independently of Anthony and the organizations Anthony controlled.  In Norgren’s words, she was not an “obedient foot soldier.”

The upshot was that Belva was frozen out of those women’s rights organizations.  Always a pacifist and bursting with energy, she now turned her attention, her considerable talents, and her stature to the cause of world peace.  A member of the Universal Peace Union for some twenty years, and a member of its executive committee since 1875, she lobbied for a Permanent International Tribunal of Arbitration, was engaged in issues of social justice and foreign policy, was a delegate to international peace conferences, gave counsel to US Presidents, wrote papers and gave lectures.  In short she became a very public peace advocate. She advocated for the elimination of capital punishment and government funded representation of the poor.  All the while, giving her voice and pen to vigorously support the cause of women’s rights. 

In 1909, Syracuse University, into which Genesee College had merged, in recognition of her achievements and renown, awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Laws. She also attended in 1893 the first national congress of women lawyers who now numbered about 200 (NAWL) where she pressed for a court of International Arbitration.                 
At age 81, she was still maintaining a law practice, still arguing cases, still lobbying for the vote and women’s rights, still sought out by the press and public as an opinion leader.  She was greatly admired and her views and counsel were still highly valued. 
On May 19, 1917, Belva Lockwood died, almost a pauper. Newspaper obituaries praised her, acclaimed her as a pioneer in the women’s rights movement, an advocate for peace, the first woman to be admitted to the United States Supreme Court, and a candidate for president.  She is buried in the Congressional Cemetery where a simple gravestone bears witness to an extraordinary life.

Belva Lockwood’s legacy

In the years after her death, several villages and ships, including a Liberty Ship were named after her. In 1986, she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls. Stamps were issued in her honor, and coins minted, and her spirit has been preserved in several mastheads.

Beyond that, I agree with Jill Norgren when she writes, “… Lockwood had an impact on American society that was at once tangible and symbolic, and altogether striking in its breadth.” 

The right of women to develop their potential, to be educated, to be employed and have equal employment opportunity, to have equal pay, to engage fully in a profession, to own property and to enter into contracts even if married, to have an economic interest in marital assets, the right to vote, the right to run for office, and the establishment of a World Court were all impacted by Belva Lockwood. 

In my view, she left a legacy greater and much broader than that of any other 19th century women’s rights activist.  And, she left us a challenge:  “The glory of each generation,” she said, “is to make its own precedents.”

Maryann Saccomando Freedman is the first woman to be elected Presidnt of the Erie County Bar Association and the first woman to be elected presidnt of the New York State Bar Association.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2015
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