Victorian powerhouse Belva Lockwood was the first woman to plead before the U.S. Supreme Court and the first woman to run for president of the United States. After being blocked from the law department of Columbian College (Now George Washington University) for fear that her presence would distract the male students, this widow and former school teacher applied to the brand new National Law School. Upon her graduation in 1869 at the age of forty-three, Belva was refused her degree and took this affront to the attention of President Ulysses S. Grant, who arranged for the due delivery of Belva’s diploma.
This was just the beginning of her struggles to be allowed to practice law. Admitted to the District of Columbia bar, Belva was barred from speaking to federal courts due to her gender. Not willing to take the exclusion lying down, she then rammed a bill through Congress allowing women lawyers in the federal courts, becoming in 1879 the first woman admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. Proving that Belva wasn’t just in it for herself, she took up many cases for the underdog—championing, for example, the first southern black lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court. And in her most spectacular case, she won a famous $5 million judgment (an unheard of amount in the nineteenth century) for the Cherokee Indians, forcing the U.S. government to pay them for their land. This spectacular victory prompted opposing lawyer Assistant Attorney General Louis A. Pratt to designate her “decidedly the most noted attorney in this country, if not in the world.”
With her brilliant legal mind, Belva figured that, “If women in the states are not permitted to vote, there is no law against their being voted for, and if elected, filling the highest office in the gift of the people” and decided to run for president as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1884 and 1888, with a hefty platform espousing rights for all minorities (including voting rights for women) along with temperance, peace, and universal education. Interestingly, she was opposed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged her to endorse the Republican candidate, James Blaine (he was in favor of women’s rights). Both Blaine and Lockwood lost out to Grover Cleveland, but Lockwood surprised everyone by getting thousands of votes! Throughout her life, she continued to work and speak on behalf of her favored causes—women, peace, and minority rights—attaining a national reputation as a brilliant and powerful speaker. In her later years, she threw her energies into the Universal Peace Union, a precursor to the United Nations that advocated arbitration as a solution to internal conflicts. In 1912, she reflected back on her lengthy career and remarked, “I never stopped fighting. My cause was the cause of thousands of women.”
“Were I a voice—a still small voice—an eloquent voice, I would whisper into the ear of every young woman, improve and exercise every talent that has been given to you; improve every opportunity, obey your inspiration, give no heed to the croakings of those narrow minds who take old hide bound and musty customs for religion and law, with which they have no affiliation, and who tell you with remarkable ease that these professions were never intended for women.”— Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood