Western New York Heritage

An Indignity Not to be Borne: Belva Lockwood and the Struggle for Women’s Equality

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Belva Lockwood, about the time of her campaign for the presidency in 1884.

Library of Congress

Belva McNall attended the Gasport Academy following the death of her husband, Uriah, in 1853.

Western New York Heritage photograph, 2017

Before there was Hillary Clinton or Shirley Chisolm, there was Belva Lockwood. Born Belva Ann Bennett on October 24, 1830 into a farming family in Royalton, NY, she would become the first woman to practice law before the United States Supreme Court and the first woman to appear on ballots as a legitimate candidate for the U.S. presidency. Lockwood’s life and career would also have a lasting and profound impact on the legal profession and American society.

A good student, Belva attended rural schools and by age 14 was offered a teaching position in Lockport. Here she had her first taste of independence—as well as her first taste of sex discrimination. As a female, she was paid less than half the salary paid to her male counterparts for the same work. She protested this inequity as “…an indignity not to be borne…” and throughout her life, seized every opportunity to advance “equal pay for equal work.”

Though Belva yearned to continue her education, the vast majority of colleges were closed to women, plus her father refused to allow it, arguing that education was unimportant for a girl. So, for the moment, she took the only road open to her: marriage.  In 1848, at the age of 18, she married 22-year-old Uriah McNall. They settled near the hamlet of Gasport where they farmed and ran a mill. A year later, the couple welcomed their only child, Lura McNall. Marriage and motherhood failed to dampen Belva’s enthusiasm to pursue learning, however, though she acknowledged that marriage was usually the death knell of an ordinary woman’s identity and independence. “Forever after,” she would later observe in an 1888 article for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, “[a woman] 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.”  Finding such a future unacceptable, Belva instead “directly adapted the unwomanly habit of pursuing my studies after my marriage, writing theses for literary gatherings and sometimes for the press.”

In 1853, Uriah succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving her with a 3-year-old daughter and a meager estate deeply in debt. Without an education, she saw the future as gloomy with no means to support herself or her toddler. As Jill Norgren notes in Belva’s biography, Belva Lockwood, the Woman Who Would Be President, “Tragedy…freed [her]…from a woman’s shackles.” Belva saw that education would provide the tools to earn a livelihood. She sold the mill and paid off the debt. Gathering up her few remaining dollars, she enrolled in the Gasport Academy over the objections and harsh criticisms of her father and friends. Completing her studies at Gasport, she sought employment there, only to be told that the board would be hiring a man. Midway through the year, however, the man was fired and Belva was chosen to replace him.

For the next year and a half, Belva saved her money. Then, in the fall of 1854, despite the criticism of friends, she left her daughter with her parents and set off on the 60-mile trip to enroll in the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, which was open to both men and women. Soon she became aware that her male classmates were preparing to enroll in Genesee College, which had been opened by the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary to offer further education for its graduates, and that the college 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.

While attending the college, she had taken a law class offered in the village by an unaffiliated law professor, which whet her appetite for lawyering. This had to wait, however, while she faced the exigencies of supporting herself and her child. Immediately upon graduating she accepted a position as Preceptress of the Lockport Union School and in the ensuing years, Belva worked in various schools, becoming active in statewide academic organizations, always urging for a broad education for girls.

In the fall of 1854, Belva enrolled in the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, in Lima, NY.  By 1857, she would graduate from the affiliated Genesee College.

Courtesy University of Washington

Women’s Rights icons, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony, ca 1890.  Though Belva would initially ally herself with these women by joining the National Woman Suffrage Association, their support of republican candidate James Blaine was one of several reasons Lockwood would sever ties with them in the 1880s.

Library of Congress

But her interest in law kept nagging at her. In 1866, she enrolled her now 16-year-old daughter at the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary and left for Washington, D.C. There, she became intrigued by politicians and their power; fascinated by law and law-making. She saw limitless possibilities for herself, either as an owner of a small school or in following a career in government or law. Being a pragmatist, she embarked upon both paths simultaneously. She started McNall’s Ladies Seminary and became involved in an effort to open the American Foreign Service to women. The latter failed, but it put her in touch with other women—and men—who encouraged and supported her in her ambitions.

Her move to Washington signaled the beginning of a lifetime career as a women’s rights activist. She was a founder of the Universal Franchise Association, befriended several women journalists, joined the National Women’s Press Association and became a credentialed journalist.  This latter position also served to admit her into meetings otherwise closed to women.

In 1868, Belva met and married Ezekiel Lockwood, 29 years her senior. A Baptist minister and dentist, Ezekiel supported Belva’s desire to become a lawyer, shared her commitment to women’s rights and not only accepted, but expected, her equal contribution to the economics and finances of the family. Service in the Civil War had left Ezekiel in failing health, however, and Belva soon found herself the primary earner for the family.

Around the time of her second marriage, the debate over the 15th amendment—which would ensure voting rights to black men—was dividing women’s rights activists. Belva supported rights for freed men but, like Susan B. Anthony, believed women should not wait any longer for their political rights. Thus, she joined the National Woman Suffrage Association, which also championed her views on equal education and employment opportunities for women. Regarding the latter issue, Belva focused on the discrimination against women in federal government agencies. On the rare occasions when such organizations did hire women, they were paid less than men, even when working at the next higher level of employment.

With the NWSA’s support, Lockwood became a one-woman show. She began lobbying Congress in private meetings while drumming up support through a petition drive. She learned to compromise and use the press. Her efforts resulted in a major victory. While no additional positions were created, women were finally able to be employed in the District and were paid equally. A wrong was righted and precedent set.

Pursuing a Career in Law

Throughout her efforts on behalf of women’s rights, Belva continued to be fascinated by the law.  She read legal treatises but was unable to find a lawyer to take her on as a “student.” In 1869, she attended a lecture at the Columbian College (which would become George Washington University in 1904), whose new law class was looking for students. Belva presented herself for matriculation, money in hand. On October 7, 1869, she received a terse note from the school’s president advising that her admission would not be expedient, as it would likely distract the attention of the young men.

That same year, a law school was established as part of the newly founded National University (which would merge with George Washington University in 1954). Unlike Columbian, it invited several women, Belva included, to attend classes. In early 1871, Belva and 13 other women enrolled. Male students objected, however, proclaiming they would not attend classes with “any woman,” and so the female students were given the option of completing their studies in a segregated program. Belva was one of only two women to complete the course, thus expecting to receive their law diplomas. However, the male students refused to appear on the same stage with women. Not only would Lockwood not appear on stage to graduate, she would not even receive her diploma. Typically, successful candidates of a graduating law class were presented as a group for admission to the District of Columbia bar. Without a diploma, however, Belva would be excluded. If she was to have a successful, full-scale law practice, she had to be admitted to the District of Columbia Supreme Court bar.

With the traditional path denied, she decided to pursue another avenue. The bar examination committee agreed to have a panel of local practitioners examine Lockwood orally. While the committee declared her proficient in the law, anonymous letters sent to the court opposing her admission succeeded in blocking it. Undeterred, she tried again—this time with a three-day oral examination. Weeks passed following this second examination and nothing happened. She started a court action and still nothing happened. Belva was furious. Ezekiel was dying and she again faced economic disaster. It seemed the woman whom the press was calling “the irrepressible Mrs. Lockwood” was up against an impenetrable wall.

In the midst of her bar battle, newspaper editor Theodore Tilton offered her a temporary job: a three-month tour of the south as a canvassing agent and correspondent for the New-York Tribune. Just before she began her trip, Tilton approached her with an additional request—would she campaign for Horace Greeley, the presidential candidate for the newly-formed Liberal Republican Party? Despite his refusal to endorse women’s suffrage, Lockwood agreed. With money tight in the Lockwood household, it was the only option.

Belva quickly learned to fend for herself on her southern trek, traveling alone, making arrangements for accommodations, meals, public appearances and perfecting the art of meeting the public in a grassroots campaign. Twelve of her articles were eventually published. When the tour ended, she presented Tilton with an article titled, “The Women of Washington.” The article was an exposition of the accomplishments of women professionals in the Capital District. She made her point—Washington was full of educated, sensible and accomplished women deserving of the vote.

Theodore Tilton, editor of the New-York Tribune

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Following her tour, Belva resumed her law practice as best she could. She gave legal advice and occasionally even argued in court. This won her the support of several men in the court. Police, Justice Court judges and practitioners alike saw her as practical, persuasive and likeable. Several of those judges and the judge of the Probate Court even recognized her as a trial counsel in their courts.

In late 1873, Belva resumed the pursuit of her law degree. She wrote to Ulysses S. Grant who, by virtue of being President of the United States, was also ex-officio chancellor of the National University:

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.

Two weeks later, she received her diploma and was subsequently admitted to the District of Columbia bar.

Law degree in hand, Lockwood continued her women’s rights activities, writing legal briefs, which were articulate and lucid constitutional arguments supporting women’s rights to vote, to be employed and to be paid equally. Belva’s arguments were always lawyer-like, well researched, persuasive and preemptive of opposing arguments. Her arguments impressed male readers and provided her fellow women with well-reasoned and articulate positions to use.

Seeking to expand her legal business and earn a steadier income, Lockwood sought to take on cases involving veterans’ pensions and property claims. Although a member of the District of Columbia bar, Belva still needed admission to the U.S. District Court, the Court of Claims and the Supreme Court in order to plead cases in each court’s bar. Thus she asked a lawyer friend, A.A. Hosmer, a member of the Court of Claims bar, to move her admission. On April 1, 1874, he did so. A painful pause ensued from the panel of five judges, followed by an exclamation from Chief Justice Charles Drake: “Mistress Lockwood, you are a woman.” Belva later wrote, “For the first time in my life 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 of her admission was held over for a week, after which she again presented herself at the appointed time. This time, Drake exclaimed that she was “a married woman!” Without missing a beat, Belva responded, “Yes…but I am here with the consent of my husband,” at which Ezekiel offered the Court a bow, to no avail. There was yet another week’s adjournment, and then another and another. Finally, in an opinion that took an hour and a half to read, the court announced its position that “under the laws and Constitution of the United States 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 a quandary. Belva had to file her case. She had the claims assigned to her so she would not be the attorney but the claimant representing herself. The court summarily refused to hear her and dismissed the cases. This experience set the stage for what was to become one of her most important achievements on behalf of women.

Her appeal from the District’s Court of Claims went directly to the United States Supreme Court. A year prior, in 1873, the Supreme Court had upheld the State of Illinois’ right to deny Myra Bradwell a license to practice law because she was a woman. But the District of Columbia was not a state; it was a uniquely federal district. Belva 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.”

Belva Ann Lockwood became the first woman to be admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court in 1879. The following year, she took pride in moving the admission of Samuel Lowery (left center), the first freed black male lawyer, to the Supreme Court.

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 1, 1880.

Clearly, she fell within the rule. She was an attorney, a member in good standing of the D.C. bar, and would be for three years by the time her case got there. She filed her appeal and asked a friend to move her admission.      

An amazed bench reserved decision. One week later it 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 special legislation.

If the court needed legislation, then Lockwood was determined that legislation they would get. For two years, Belva battled single-handedly to get special legislation through Congress. She wrote the bill herself, secured sponsors, testified before committees, lobbied senators and congressmen, cajoled the bill’s sponsors and enlisted the support of male colleagues. “Nothing,” she later wrote, “was too daring for me to attempt.” She waged a relentless campaign. At last, the press became interested in the story and offered their support.

The bill admitting women to the bar of the United States Supreme Court was passed and signed into law February 7, 1879. Three weeks later, Belva Ann Lockwood became the first woman lawyer admitted to the bar of the nation’s highest court.

A Run for President

Belva’s tenacity and astute preparation opened virtually every court in the country—at every level—to women. She was celebrated publicly by both women and men. Amidst these victories her practice thrived. In 1880, Belva took pride in moving the admission of Samuel Lowery, the first freed black male lawyer, to the Supreme Court. She also took on other women to read law under her tutelage.

Believing that “young women should not marry until they are able to support a husband,” she advocated for a national domestic relations law, which would give wives half of a household’s assets, allow them to enter civil contracts on their own and give them equal property rights. She advocated for a school curriculum that would teach girls how to protect themselves and their children from economic dependency and exploitation.

In the spring of 1884, the convention of the Equal Rights Party nominated Lockwood for the office of President of the United States in San Francisco. She had not solicited the nomination, but in a bit of historical irony, she would run against Buffalo’s favorite son, Grover Cleveland.

When she was nominated by the Equal Rights Party at their 1884 convention in San Francisco, Belva Lockwood became the first woman to mount a full-fledged campaign for the presidency, along with running mate Marietta Stow.

Private collection

If the women’s suffrage movement had been divided during the earlier 15th Amendment debates, it was now fully splintered. 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 James 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, who would become her running mate, “we shall never have equal rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it.”

Belva waged a full-fledged campaign, becoming the first woman to do so and the first woman to actually appear on a ballot. Her platform included:

  • Fair distribution of public offices to women as well as men
  • Civil Service reform
  • Women on every bench, including the Supreme Court
  • Women prosecutors, notaries, and in every vocation and profession
  • High tariffs to protect/foster American industry
  • Free trade
  • 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


Saying “I cannot vote but I can be voted for,” she mounted a full-fledged, vigorous campaign – something that had never before even been envisioned. She gave stump speeches, drawing large crowds wherever she appeared, distributed broadsides, wrote articles, gave interviews and publicly challenged the other candidates to a public discussion of the issues. Her campaign caught the attention of both public and press. As a full-fledged candidate, she garnered editorial support and was fair game for the cartoonists of the day.

While she was generally respected by the press, Belva’s candidacy also presented an easy target for cartoonists of the period.  This political card depicts Lockwood wearing a hinged skirt which, when raised, revealed Greenback candidate Benjamin Butler, another third-party candidate in the 1884 election.

Private collection

Belva Ann Lockwood received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Syracuse University in 1909.  She is shown here in her academic regalia, ca. 1915, with the U.S. Capitol just visible in the right background.

Library of Congress

By election’s end, Belva Lockwood had received votes in nine states, had electors pledged to her in seven states, garnered over 4,711 votes and her treasury reported all expenses paid and in the black by $125. Belva’s point was made. Women were ready, willing and able to be serious players at all levels of American politics including the highest office – and they were certainly entitled to vote. She would run for president again in 1888, solidifying her message.

Years later, at the age of 84 and still not permitted to vote, she was asked if 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 law practice and went on the lecture circuit. Always a pacifist, she now turned her attention, talents and stature to the cause of world peace. She lobbied for a permanent international tribunal of arbitration, engaged in issues of social justice and foreign policy, was a delegate to international peace conferences and gave counsel to United States presidents. She became a very public peace advocate while still lending her voice and pen in vigorous support of women’s rights. In 1909, Syracuse University, which had acquired Genesee College’s assets, recognized her achievements and renown with an Honorary Doctor of Laws.

Belva continued to work in her 80s. She maintained her law practice, argued cases and lobbied for the vote and women’s rights. Greatly admired, her views and counsel were highly valued by public, politicians and press.

On May 19, 1917, Belva Lockwood died at the age of 86 in Washington, D.C. Newspaper obituaries praised her, claiming her as a pioneer for women’s rights, 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 that wielded an extraordinary impact still felt today.

Lockwood’s accomplishments and legacy were recognized by the U.S. Postal Service when they issued a stamp bearing her likeness in 1986.

Courtesy Niagara County Historical Society

The full content is available in the Summer 2017 Issue.