March 3, 1879 – Belva Lockwood Becomes the First Woman Admitted to Practice Before the Supreme Court

Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood, born in 1830 in New York, was an accomplished early feminist who was not only the first woman to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court but also the first woman to run for U.S. President.

At age 22, Lockwood was widowed and left with a three-year-old daughter. She went to college, taught school, and moved to Washington, D.C. for better opportunities. She married again to an elderly man, but her second husband’s health failed, and she was forced to become the breadwinner. She opened a coeducational private school and began to explore the study of law.

Around 1870 Lockwood applied to the Columbian Law School in the District of Columbia. The trustees refused to admit her as they believed she would be a distraction to male students. Lockwood finally was admitted to the new National University Law School (now the George Washington University Law School) along with several other women. Although she completed her coursework in May 1873, the law school was unwilling to grant a diploma to a woman.

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Without a diploma, Lockwood could not gain admittance to the D.C. bar. After a year she wrote a letter to the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, appealing to him as president ex officio of the National University Law School. She asked him for justice, stating she had passed all her courses and deserved to be awarded a diploma. In September 1873, within a week of having sent the letter, Lockwood received her diploma. She was 43 years old.

Lockwood was admitted to the D.C. Bar, but had to struggle constantly with prejudice against women. One judge lectured her and told her that God Himself had determined that women were not equal to men and never could be. (And actually she was more than equal, considering that she had two marriages and had two children in addition to her studies and demanding career.)

Between 1873 and 1885 Lockwood was recorded as attorney in 100 equity court proceedings. Half of her courtroom equity work involved divorce actions. As a woman attorney, she attracted female clients and represented wives as complainants against defendant-husbands. She also worked up untold numbers of bills of sale, deeds, and wills. By 1875 she had begun to attract clients charged with more serious crimes, representation that brought her before the judges of the criminal division of the D.C. Supreme Court. From 1875 to 1885 she represented at least 69 criminal defendants in this court. She won “not guilty” decisions in 15 jury trials and submitted guilty pleas in nine. She handled most of these cases on her own with only an occasional male co-counsel.

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As Lockwood built her practice and won cases, even her detractors began to regard her as competent. But because her practice was limited in the 1870s due to social discrimination, Lockwood drafted an anti-discrimination bill to have the same access to the bar as male colleagues. She single-handedly lobbied Congress until that body passed “An Act to relieve certain legal disabilities of women,” an effort that a reporter described as having required “an unconscionable deal of lobbying.” Lockwood, writing later, allowed that to succeed, “nothing was too daring for me to attempt.”

In 1879, Congress finally passed the law, which was signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes. It allowed all qualified women attorneys to practice in any federal court. Lockwood was sworn in as the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar on March 3, 1879. Late in 1880, she became the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1884 Lockwood became the first woman to run a full-fledged campaign for the presidency of the United States. Jill Norgren (author of a biography on Lockwood), writing in The National Archives Prologue Magazine, explains:

She believed that her bid for the presidency would help women gain the right to vote and to be accepted into partisan politics. She could not vote, she told reporters, but nothing in the Constitution prevented men from voting for her. She outlined a 12-point platform, later refined and presented as 15 positions on a broad range of policy issues including foreign affairs, tariffs, equal political rights, civil service reform, judicial appointments, Native Americans, protection of public lands, temperance, pensions, and the federalization of family law.”

Lockwood won fewer than 5,000 votes but was not discouraged. When she ran for the presidency for a second time in 1888, she told reporters, “Men always say, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’”

Collection of the Oakland Museum of California

Norgren observes that “Lockwood was a self-assured woman who exuded ego. She insisted on the right to prove herself, and she adopted bold positions in support of equal opportunity for women. … Lockwood rejected dependency, for herself and for other women, and did not hesitate to confront the male establishment that kept women from voting and from professional advancement.”

In later life, Lockwood balanced a career in law with tours on the lecture circuit, speaking out for women’s suffrage and equality. In 1906, in a multiparty case, she represented the Eastern Cherokee in their appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. This time, unlike her first appearance before the Supreme Court, she made a successful argument, and her clients shared in a multimillion dollar settlement.

Lockwood believed strongly in working for world peace. She co-edited a journal called The Peacemaker, and she belonged to the Universal Peace Union; she was one of its representatives at an exposition held in Paris in 1889. She was also a delegate to an International Peace Congress in London in 1890. She continued to speak on behalf of peace and disarmament up until the year of her death in 1917.

Belva Lockwood in 1915

Belva Lockwood in 1915

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