Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,560

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,560


This is the grave of Belva Lockwood.

Born in 1830 in Royalton, New York, Belva Bennett grew up in pretty unremarkable circumstances. She went to school for awhile, which made her qualified to teach elementary school at the age of 14, given the era. She married a farmer when she was 18, had a kid, and then the guy died of tuberculosis in 1853.

So Bennett was 23 and a single mom. She could have gotten married again right away, but she didn’t want that yet. She decided to do something extremely unusual–go to college. In this time, that was exceptionally rare, but then she would prove an exceptional woman. Her family was like, what are you doing. But she convinced Genesee College to let her in. She got interested in the law. This was simply a career that women did not do. But she convinced a local lawyer to allow her to study under him. It should be mentioned here that upstate New York in these years was the incubator of basically every American social movement. The Burned-Over District had not just seen religious revivals and weird new religions develop, but also abolitionism, temperance, women’s suffrage, and other movements. So if this was going to happen anywhere, it was going to be upstate New York.

In 1857, she graduated from college and became the headmistress at a girl’s school. It didn’t take long for her to become furious at the fact that she was paid half of what men were in similar positions. This is what woke her up to larger issues of gender discrimination. She moved around over the next several years to various schools to find something better. But she also got to know Susan B. Anthony, who helped teach her about larger structural gender inequalities. Anthony also convinced her to change some of the school curriculum, to prepare these young women to do things like run businesses instead of just be wives to middle class men.

In 1866, Bennett decided to move to Washington to see if there was a way she could practice law professionally there. She could support herself by opening a rare coeducational boarding school. She also remarried in 1868, to Reverend Ezekiel Lockwood, who supported her ambitions. They were only married before nine years before he died, but these were transformational years in Belva Lockwood’s life.

Lockwood applied to a law school in 1870, but was denied due to her gender. But in 1873, the National University School of Law (now part of George Washington University) opened its doors and admitted Lockwood and several other women. But they wouldn’t actually let her graduate and thus practice law. If women wanted to pretend to practice law, they were happy taking their money, but they weren’t going to actually let them practice. So Lockwood wrote to President Grant, asking him to make her an ex officio member of the bar. This got back to the school and they gave her the degree.

It was very difficult for Lockwood to practice in the early years. Judges had total contempt for her. When she tried to practice in Maryland, a judge told her that God had made her ineligible and when she tried to respond, he told her God had also told her not to speak and had her removed from his court. The Court of Claims and the U.S. Supreme Court also denied her the right to practice in their courts based on her gender.

So Lockwood fought to make gender discrimination before courts illegal. She got an ally in Congress to draft a bill in 1874, banning gender discrimination in the courts. This slowly gained momentum and was passed in 1879, with President Hayes signing a law allowing women to argue in any federal court. By this time, Lockwood had tried a few cases and had proven herself more than competent to do so. In fact, even those disgusted by her admitted she was a good lawyer.

In 1880, Lockwood became the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. This was Kaiser v. Stickney, which was a debt case. And while Black attorneys were already admitted before the Court, the first one to actually be able to argue a case was Samuel Lowery, who Lockwood had sponsored. Lockwood was of course involved in suffrage issues as well and I can’t find anything about her relationship with other suffragists around race, but her sponsorship of Lowery at least suggests that she was not among those who turned on Black men voting in the aftermath of women not being included in the 15th Amendment.

Lockwood then decided to run for president. We should probably put aside our collective eye-rolling at third party campaigns for this one, especially since they were so common in the late nineteenth century. Technically, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president, or she is credited as such. But Woodhull in fact was not 35 years old, so was ineligible regardless of gender. Lockwood was the first woman to run who could have plausibly held the office when she headed the National Equal Rights Party in 1884. She did the same in 1888.

Later, Lockwood continued practicing–in fact, she would practice the law for 43 years. She also continued the fight for suffrage, writing many tracts and magazine articles on the suffrage and other issues around women’s equality. She also became a major peace activist. She attended the International Peace Congress in London in 1890, allowing her to travel outside the United States for what I think was the first time. She also remained active in all these movements until just a few months before her death. That came in 1917, at the age of 86. She must have been horrified at what was going on in Europe in those last years. She died a month after the U.S. entered the war. I don’t think we have any documentation from her talking about it, so I don’t know if she even really knew, but certainly she would have been devastated if she did know. Ironically and really not in a good way, the U.S. named a Merchant Marine ship for her during World War II. Not sure what was up with that.

Belva Lockwood is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other leading suffragists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lucretia Mott is in Philadelphia (surprised I have never made it here) and Lucy Stone is in Boston (double surprised I haven’t been here. Huh.). Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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