Webcast Recap

Jill Norgren, Professor Emerita, City University of New York, and former Wilson Center Fellow, author; commentators The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court; The Honorable John Ferren, Senior Judge, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, and former Wilson Center Fellow; Wendy Williams, Professor of Law, Georgetown Law Center.

Before there was Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, or Sandra Day O'Connor, there was Belva Lockwood (1830-1917). Lockwood couldn't vote in 1884 (women did not get the vote in the United States until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920), but she ran for president that year nonetheless. She initially couldn't go to law school because it was feared that the presence of women would distract the male students. After she managed to get accepted and finish the course at one Washington law school, she was denied admission to the bar because of her sex. It took a direct appeal to President Ulysses S. Grant to change that. Then Lockwood's sex was again used as a reason to deny her the right to argue before the United States Supreme Court, so she repeatedly marched up the Hill to the halls of Congress and eventually got that body to change the law. In 1879, Lockwood became the first woman admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court.

The largely forgotten story of this extraordinary woman was detailed at a discussion, organized by the Division of United States Studies, of the first full-length biography of Lockwood. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her introductory remarks, there were almost no archives maintaining women's papers in the late 19th century, which makes the reclamation of women's history particularly difficult. The problem in this case was compounded by the fact that after Lockwood's death, her grandson gave her papers to the Salvation Army for scrap. Professor Jill Norgren mined old case files and newspaper and newsletter archives to piece together the story of the young widowed schoolteacher who left upstate New York and arrived in Washington in 1866, daughter in tow, to seek her fortune in the world of policymaking.

Lockwood was almost 39 when she embarked on her quest to become an attorney. After overcoming the impediments mentioned above, she opened a law practice on F Street in downtown Washington and found clients among the city's laborers, small property owners, tradesmen, maids, and veterans seeking Civil War pensions. She was, Norgren said, "conventional, radical and independent": a mother, wife (she remarried an elderly dentist), homeowner, Methodist, and member/leader of a number of the more radical woman suffrage and peace organizations. She understood that woman suffrage would not be sufficient for full equality, which depended upon women securing their economic rights. To Lockwood, being able to practice her profession meant both the achievement of one element of formal equality and the ability to bring in the income her family needed.

But full formal equality remained important, which is why Lockwood turned to politics and mounted a national campaign for president in 1884 and again in 1888. Her platform included planks on tariffs, international trade, Civil War veterans' pensions, family law, and temperance, in addition to woman suffrage and the appointment of women to public office. She ran on the ticket of a tiny new organization called the Equal Rights Party, which had no budget for her campaigns. She also lacked the support of suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who remained on the sidelines because of the hope that the major parties would come around on the issue of woman suffrage and because of the fear that the ridicule Lockwood would face as a candidate might hurt the suffrage movement. So Lockwood set up campaign headquarters in her home and turned herself into a public lecturer, traveling around the country to spread the word and raise funds. As she had in her campaigns to have women admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court and lower courts, she worked the press. Newspapers responded with the articles and cartoons that became much-needed publicity for the election effort.

Extraordinary as she was, Lockwood could not have accomplished as much had she not appeared in Washington at a propitious moment in the nation's history. As Judge John Ferren and Professor Wendy Williams emphasized, one of the legal doctrines that had made equality for women impossible was "coverture," the doctrine that a married woman and her husband were one person and that person was the husband. Under coverture, married women were civilly dead. A wife could not, for example, seek an education without her husband's permission, control her own property, sign contracts, or file lawsuits. While members of the Supreme Court were still endorsing the doctrine as late as 1873 (Bradwell v. Illinois), the question of constitutional equality was very much part of the political agenda in Washington in the decades following the Civil War. The District of Columbia and a number of states had enacted laws that rejected coverture. Of equal importance, Lockwood found a support system of other like-minded women in Washington, along with a critical number of male lawyers and members of Congress who were willing to aid her efforts.

In her later years Lockwood turned much of her attention to international peace efforts, traveling to and speaking at peace conventions abroad. In 1906, at age 75, she won a multi-million dollar Supreme Court victory for the Eastern Cherokee nation in litigation that she had begun 30 years earlier. It was still rare, at the turn of the century, to see a woman arguing before the Supreme Court, as Lockwood did in that case. Today, however, as Justice Ginsburg noted, women are not only regularly admitted to the bar of the Court but are presidents of bar associations, federal judges, and legislators. Nonetheless, there is only one woman justice on the Supreme Court, which suggests that perhaps Lockwood's war has not yet been entirely won.

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129