Belva Lockwood

Name: Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood

Dates: October 24, 1830 – May 19, 1917

Place of Birth: A farm in western New York

Why is she interesting?

Belva Lockwood lived in a time of turmoil and change in the United States (and much of the rest of the Western world). She never lived to see women win the right to vote, but she fought hard for the cause. She ran for president of the United States twice and while she wasn’t the first woman to do so, she was the first woman to run a full, serious campaign for the office. She traveled the country giving speeches and answering questions. She had sponsors, a campaign manager and a budget.

During her campaign, Belva suggested that it would be a good idea for all of the candidates to get together for a debate to discuss the issues. She invited the other candidates to join her at a specific time and place for just such a debate, which would benefit all of them and be a useful thing for the voters as well. None of the men even bothered to send her a response, much less show up.

Belva Lockwood studied the law at a time when women weren’t supposed to do such a thing. She completed all of her coursework and filled every requirement to graduate from National University Law School, Washington D.C., but the school refused to allow her to graduate, saying that they had not studied long enough. She and the only other woman in the class were required (and that, only after much negotiation on the part of themselves and lawyer friends of theirs) to sit an extra several days of grueling oral examination by a special bar examination committee. There were two rounds of this and the other woman finally quit when it became clear the committee didn’t intend to let them pass. The committee kept delaying it’s results until it became clear that they never intended to give any.

Belva decided not to take this lying down. The President of the United States, then Ulysses S. Grant, was the honorary president of the university. She wrote directly to him, twice, to demand her diploma. She explained that the school had enrolled her as a student and that she had studied seriously and passed all of the same exams that the male students had (in fact, she had been required to take more exams than they had). It was an injustice that her diploma was being refused her and she demanded that he rectify the situation. She never received a reply, but two weeks later she did receive her diploma!

Mrs. Lockwood became the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and achieved much in her law practice. Probably the most remarkable case in her history was when she represented the Eastern Cherokee Indian Nation. She won them a five million dollar settlement from the U.S. Government as retribution for the forced relocation known as the “Trail of Tears”.

Why do I admire her?

Mrs. Lockwood was a remarkable woman. She believed in justice and she fought hard for it. She was smart and worked hard. She lived in a time when women just didn’t do things like demand law degrees and run for president, yet she did them. She went into everything she did with her homework done and her resources accounted for and marshaled. As optimistic as she seems to have been about the world, fighting for women’s rights and sponsoring a southern black man to become a lawyer in the U.S. Supreme Court, she also seems to have been a realist. She saw the world around her for what it was and didn’t waste her time mourning the fact that it wasn’t what it could or should be.

Belva Lockwood had a personal life full of tragedy, but also full of love. She was left a widow with a young daughter within a few years of marriage and had to find ways to support them. Then she was forced to leave her daughter with her mother for a time while she attended college and after that ended up supporting herself, her daughter and her sister, all on a teacher’s salary. Eventually, she married again and had a son. The son died a year later. A few years later, she lost her husband. Her daughter and granddaughter moved in with her, which Belva loved. Unfortunately, her daughter died suddenly and Belva had to bury her only remaining child.

Although she fought hard and could envision a better future, Belva never lived to see many of the things she fought for. She imagined an international organization that could help broker peace all over the world, but such a body never existed until well after her death. She fought hard for women’s rights and her campaigns brought enormous attention and interest to the cause all over the country. She broke down barriers by not giving in, by demanding what was rightfully hers, like her diploma and the right to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

I admire Belva Lockwood’s ability to see a better future and strength to fight for it. I admire her ability to always have and show respect for her critics and opponents. I admire her wisdom in helping people to see what she saw, but not pushing them too fast, not asking too much. She knew she wouldn’t win her campaigns and didn’t expect men to react well to them, but she knew that every political cartoon and newspaper article and discussion in a town hall meeting meant that more people were thinking and talking about women and how they fit into the political landscape of the country. She understood that even when they make fun of you, they are thinking about what you said, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to write or laugh at the joke in the first place.

I admire that she understood the importance of details. Little things impact the way the world works and the way people think, which seems to be something that a lot of people don’t really understand. She very clearly understood it, though. When she had her campaign photo taken, the photographer asked her to sit in a chair. It wasn’t a bad chair, but she refused to sit in it. She asked to sit in a different chair, the chair all the other candidates had sat in for their photos. The photographer laughed and told her that was the “presidential chair”. She said she would have her photo taken in that chair. And she did. She knew that if she was the only candidate who wasn’t portrayed in the “presidential chair”, that would visually undermine her in a very fundamental way, and she was doing everything she could to wipe away anything that did that and show that being a woman didn’t make her different in any important way.

I think it’s sad that she died before ever getting to vote. I think she would have absolutely loved getting to participate in the political process like that. She never accepted less than she deserved and it seems like it must have hurt to live in a world where you don’t have a voice in the most important matters. I wonder if she died hoping that her granddaughter would get to vote someday, never knowing if it would happen soon or keep getting blocked. I wonder how long she thought it would take our country to elect a woman as president? She impacted the cause and the country in so many ways. Her campaign gave the fight for women’s rights a visibility that I don’t think it had on a national level before that. The cases she fought were so interesting and many were significant. She definitely made the most out of that hard-won diploma!

Belva Lockwood was a remarkable woman and I wish she was more remembered than she is. I think her impact was significant and I think it’s sad that history has overlooked her so much.