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Belva Ann Lockwood

the first woman to be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court

Belva Ann Lockwood

Belva Ann Bennett was born on a farm in Niagara County, New York, on October 24, 1830. On November 8, 1848, she married Uriah H. McNall, a neighboring farmer and sawmill operator. Their daughter, Lura, was born in July of the following year. He died on May 11, 1853.

Early Work

Now a widow with a four-year-old daughter to support, Belva decided to pursue an education so she could earn her own living. In 1857 she graduated with honors from Genesee College (now Syracuse University). She then accepted the position of preceptress of the Lockport Union School in Lockport, New York, where she created a stir with her feminist notions -- such as the introduction of public speaking and gymnastics courses for girls and encouragement of girls' physical activity through nature walks and ice skating.

It was during her education and teaching experience in New York that Belva first met Susan B. Anthony. In fact, her decision to introduce instruction in public speaking at the Union School was the result of her work with Anthony on a committee examining such an innovation for use in the public schools nationwide. She developed her own lecturing skills as a speaker at the New York State Teachers' Conventions, where she and Anthony frequently collaborated.


In 1866, Belva decided to move to Washington, D.C., where she could learn about government. Within a year she had opened her own private co-educational school, at which both she and her daughter taught. In 1867 she became vice-president of the newly-formed Universal Franchise Association. As she became increasingly involved in equal rights, suffrage, temperance, and peace organizations, she opened her home and school rooms to political meetings and took to the platform frequently to express her own views. She also began petitioning Congress on suffrage matters, and by 1872 had succeeded in gaining passage of a bill providing equal pay for equal work among civil service employees.

On March 11, 1868, Belva married Ezekiel Lockwood, a former Baptist minister and dentist. They had one daughter, but she died in infancy. Ezekiel died on April 23, 1877.

At the age of thirty-eight, Belva decided that she wanted to study law, but was denied admission to Georgetown University, Howard University, and Columbian College. She was finally able to enroll at the newly-established National University Law School, along with fourteen other women. The women, however, were required to perform their recitations separately from the male students, were denied access to many of the lectures, and were not permitted to participate in the graduation ceremony or to receive diplomas. Of the fourteen women who began the program, Belva was the only one to receive her diploma. She then spent more than a year struggling to gain admission to the bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia before finally, on September 3, 1873, making a personal appeal to the ex officio president of National University, President Ulysses S. Grant, writing:

Sir, 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.

Shortly theareafter, the Chancellor of National University Law School personally delivered Belva's diploma, which had been duly signed by President Grant. She was then able to obtain admission to the District of Columbia Supreme Court Bar.

Even before her admittance to the bar, Belva had established a reputation for handling claims against the federal government, especially against administrative agencies. But in order to personally litigate claims in court she had to be admitted to practice before the federal courts, something that would again require determination and stubborness. Her first action was a petition to Congress, complete with legal brief, seeking a Declaratory Act, or Joint Resolution to the effect that no woman otherwise qualified, shall be debarred from practice before any United States Court on account of sex. The petition was submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but was never acted on by Congress. In 1876, she applied for admission to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, but was denied.

In the fall of 1877, House Resolution 1077, to relieve certain legal disabilities of women, was introduced by Representative John M. Glover, providing that:

any woman who shall have been a member of the bar of the highest court of any State or Territory or of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for the space of three years, and shall have maintained a good standing before such court, and who shall be a person of good moral character, shall, on motion and the production of such record, be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.

The bill passed the House of Representatives in February of 1878 by a vote of 169 to 87, with 36 not voting, but Senate passage would not come so easily. It took a petition signed by 160 male lawyers, a legal brief written by Belva, and a year's worth of backroom wrangling to convince the Senators of the bill's merits. It was, however, eventually passed, and was signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes on February 15, 1879. On March 3, 1879, Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court; three days later, she was admitted to the bar of the U.S. Court of Claims.

Within one year of her admission to the Supreme Court bar, Lockwood sponsored Samuel R. Lowery for admission as the first Southern black to that body.

Once allowed to practice before the Supreme Court, Lockwood racked up a very impressive record of victories, including the largest payment ever awarded to a Native American tribe for land taken by the U.S. government -- the case was Cherokee Nation v. United States (1906), and the total amount awarded was approximately $5 million.

Public Speaker

During her struggle to establish herself as a member of the legal profession, Lockwood also perfected her skills as a public speaker on suffrage, women's rights, and temperance, developing a significant and lucrative career as a lecturer. Prior to her admission to practice before the District of Columbia courts, she toured North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee on behalf of Horace Greeley's presidential campaign (1872) and reported for the New York Tribune and the Golden Age.

Presidential Candidate

In 1880 and 1884, Lockwood attended the Republican National Conventions in Chicago as the representative of the women of Washington, D.C., urging the inclusion of a woman suffrage plank in the party platform. Rebuffed by both conventions, she sent a letter to the editor of the Woman's Herald of Industry suggesting that suffrage might only be obtained with the election of women candidates. In 1884, Lockwood decided to run for President as a member of the Equal Rights Party of the United States, a party organized specifically for her nomination and subsequent campaign. Although she only garnered 4,149 total popular votes in the election, Lockwood's speeches promoting woman suffrage and the rights of women gained her even more national recognition. She was "nominated" again in 1888 by the Equal Rights party, but received far fewer votes in the general election.

Peace Activist

By the late 1880's, Lockwood was actively involved in the Universal Peace Union, including a stint as vice-president of the organization and as editor and corresponding secretary of its periodical, The Peacemaker. Her connections in Congress and at the State Department, combined with her very effective lobbying skills, made Lockwood a major asset for the movement. Her first trip overseas was as a representative of the Universal Peace Union at the first International Peace Congress that took place in Paris in 1889. In the same capacity she attended subsequent Peace Congresses in London, Milan, and The Hague, as well as the 1911 Congress in Rome. She participated in the establishment of the International Peace Bureau in Bern, Switzerland, and served as secretary of the Washington office of that Bureau. In 1896, the U.S. government appointed her delegate to the Congress of Charities and Corrections held in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1913, at the age of eighty-three, she went to Budapest, Hungary, as dean of twenty ambassadors to the Women's Convention.

Lockwood maintained an active legal practice, her world travel schedule, and her lecture tour schedule until shortly before her death, which came on May 19, 1917.

New York
Susan B. Anthony
President Ulysses S. Grant
President Rutherford B. Hayes
Horace Greeley

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Late 19th Century, 1865-1900 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on March 03, 2018.