Women You Missed in History Class: Belva Ann Lockwood

belva ann lockwood
Belva Ann Lockwood (1830-1917)

For a while during the late 19th century, lots of parents all over the country started naming their daughters Belva.  The name hasn’t been popular before or since, but for a while during the 1880s and 1890s, there was a surge in American baby girls named Belva, and all because of one woman.  That woman was Belva Ann Lockwood, and she was definitely the kind of woman you’d want to name your daughter after.  She was born in Royalton, New York on October 24, 1830, and by the time she was fourteen, she was already a teacher in the local school.  When she was widowed at the age of 22, she realized she would need a better education in order to support herself and her young daughter.  In an act that was almost unheard of for widows at the time, Lockwood enrolled at Genesee College, and graduated with honors in 1857.

While she was at Genesee College, she became interested in the study of law.  She was determined to become a lawyer, but law schools wouldn’t admit her because she was a woman.  She didn’t let that stop her from continuing to study law on her own, and eventually she was admitted to the National University Law School, becoming one of the first American women to receive a law degree.  But life wasn’t easy for a female lawyer in the 1870s, and Lockwood was often preventing from practicing because of her gender.  When she applied to be admitted to the Maryland State Bar, a judge told her that God had ordained that women were not equal to men and never could be, and when she tried to respond, he had her removed from the courtroom.  Lockwood refused to give up and continued to fight for her right to practice law.  In 1880, she became the first woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court.

In addition to her law career, Lockwood pursued a fairly ambitious political career.  She ran for president twice as a candidate of the Equal Rights Party: first in 1884 and then again in 1888.  She was not the first woman to run for president (we already met her earlier this month), but she was the first woman to have her name appear on official ballots.  She never stood a chance of actually becoming president, but she did receive over 4,000 votes in 1884–especially impressive considering the fact that women couldn’t even vote for her.  And although she never won an election, she did have a couple of pretty big political wins during her career, including getting President Rutherford B. Hayes to sign an 1879 anti-discrimination bill guaranteeing all qualified female attorneys the right to argue cases in federal courts.

During the height of her career, “Washington’s lady lawyer,” as she was called, enjoyed quite a bit of fame.  By the time she died in 1917, however, her fame and her influence had faded quite a bit.  After her death, her house and her law practice were sold to cover her debts.  The many papers she had documenting her 43-year career were lost, possibly sent off to a pulp mill.  Still, Lockwood left behind quite an impressive legacy.  The towns of Belva, West Virginia and Lockwood, California were named after her, and, of course, there were all those parents who named their daughters after her.  When she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1983, the statement issued about her said that “Using her knowledge of the law, she worked to secure woman suffrage, property law reforms, equal pay for equal work, and world peace.  Thriving on publicity and partisanship and encouraging other women to pursue legal careers, Lockwood helped to open the legal profession to women.”

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