Bittinger: Belva Lockwood

Aug 23, 2016

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in the introduction to a recent book that she admires a female presidential candidate from the 1880s for her persistence and determination. And no wonder.

Belva Lockwood was born in Royalton, New York in 1830, and teaching school by age 14. She married and had a child, but her husband died and left her with no money. She earned a college degree and began a teaching and administrative job at a high school, but noticed her pay was half of what the male teachers received.

Still striving for a better salary, she moved to Washington, DC and applied to law school – but was turned down because she was a woman. When she eventually did attend a newly formed law school, she was denied a diploma even though she passed all her courses. Only her appeal to a school trustee produced it.

In 1880, Lockwood became the first woman to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court - after convincing Congress to pass an act to allow her to do so. Among other cases, at age 75, she won a multi-million dollar award for Cherokee Native Americans.

As presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1884, she promised to appoint women to offices, including to the Supreme Court.

She was a doer, advising her running mate that “we shall never have equal rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it.” Electors in 7 states pledged to her. But as she campaigned by railroad from Louisville, Kentucky to New York, she was harassed by men dressed in comical Mother Hubbard dresses with bonnets and aprons.

Lockwood herself saw her candidacy as “the entering wedge, the first practical movement in the history of woman suffrage.” But Susan B. Anthony, the most visible advocate for suffrage, had no use for minor parties, and did not lend her support.

Lockwood had to petition Congress to have her votes counted. Her supporters had seen their ballots ripped up or dumped into waste baskets as false votes. Only 4,100 were counted. But without the female vote or much support from the press, any votes at all were notable.

Belva Lockwood ran for president twice, in 1884 and 1888, and was the second woman to run for the presidency after Victoria Woodhull’s attempt in 1872.

And she’s famously quoted as saying, “I cannot vote, but I can be voted for.”