Prologue Magazine

Spring 2005, Vol. 37, No. 1

Belva Lockwood
Blazing the Trail for Women in Law
By Jill Norgren

© 2005 by Jill Norgren

"Discussions are habitually necessary in courts of justice, which are unfit for female ears. The habitual presence of women at these would tend to relax the public sense of decency and propriety."

- Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Ryan, In re Lavinia Goodell, 1875

In the years just after the Civil War, as women began joining the legal profession, only a handful of spirited applicants succeeded in breaking through the cultural barriers that made it difficult to train for the law or win bar membership. The law was still the domain of men. Most Americans felt that professional work "unsexed" or degraded women. Female brains, it was thought, were unfit for the strain of mental exercise. The hostility toward women with professional aspirations was so great that only the very brave pushed ahead.

Perhaps the bravest was Belva A. Lockwood.

Belva Lockwood
Belva Lockwood had a long and diverse legal career in Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

At birth Lockwood had neither wealth and social standing nor the promise of a fine education. But eventually she would personally extract her law degree from the President of the United States, become the first woman admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, and become a leader in the woman suffrage movement in the late nineteenth century.

Belva Lockwood was born on October 24, 1830, in the Niagara County town of Royalton, New York, the second daughter, and second of five children, of farmers Lewis J. and Hannah Bennett. Belva was self-made: she invented herself as a middle-class professional woman. By the end of the 19th century, after she had successfully lobbied for legislation to open the U.S. Supreme Court bar to qualified women lawyers and twice run as the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party, she had become one of the most well-known women in America.

Lockwood was a self-assured woman who exuded ego. She insisted on the right to prove herself, and she adopted bold positions in support of equal opportunity for women. At 22 she was widowed and left with a 3-year-old daughter. Refusing the traditional dependency of a widow, she separated from this child for nearly three years in order to attend college. Armed with her degree, she reclaimed her daughter and taught school in New York State before moving in 1866 to Washington, D.C. In the capital, she married Ezekiel Lockwood, an elderly war veteran with whom she had another daughter, a child who died before her second birthday. Lockwood soon found herself the primary breadwinner as her husband's health failed. She later wrote life's hard lessons into her public talks, repeatedly urging men and women to support the schooling of girls so they would not be dependent on others. Occasionally, she went so far as to say that women should not be permitted to marry before they could support a family.

Lockwood rejected dependency, for herself and for other women, and did not hesitate to confront the male establishment that kept women from voting and from professional advancement. She began practicing law in Washington only after fending off the "growl" of the young men of the National University Law School, who declared they would not graduate with a woman, and wringing her law school degree from the hands of President Ulysses S. Grant, the institution's ex officio head, in 1873.

Three years later, in 1876, when the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court refused to admit her to its bar, stating, "none but men are permitted to practice before [us] as attorneys and counselors," she single-handedly lobbied Congress until that body passed "An Act to relieve certain legal disabilities of women," an effort that a reporter described as having required "an unconscionable deal of lobbying." Lockwood agreed, writing later that to succeed, "nothing was too daring for me to attempt." On March 3, 1879, on the motion of Washington attorney Albert G. Riddle, who had long been her champion, she became the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar, sworn in amidst "a bating of breath and craning of necks." A year later, she argued Kaiser v. Stickney before the high court, the first woman lawyer to do so.

In 1884 Lockwood turned heads again when she became the first woman to run a full-fledged campaign for the presidency of the United States. Her third-party candidacy startled the country and vexed other suffrage leaders, some of whom thought her a "Barnum." She believed that her bid for the presidency would help women gain the right to vote and to be accepted into partisan politics. She could not vote, she told reporters, but nothing in the Constitution prevented men from voting for her. She outlined a 12-point platform, later refined and presented as 15 positions on a broad range of policy issues including foreign affairs, tariffs, equal political rights, civil service reform, judicial appointments, Native Americans, protection of public lands, temperance, pensions, and the federalization of family law.

Local newspapers and the national press loved the story of a lady candidate. Puck, a mass circulation weekly known for its satiric cartoons, put "Belva" on one of its covers along with Greenback Party candidate Ben Butler. Lockwood financed her campaign by arranging to give paid speeches and even tried to arrange a debate with Grover Cleveland and James Blaine, the Democratic and Republican party candidates. She won fewer than 5,000 votes but was not discouraged. When she ran for the presidency for a second time in 1888, she told reporters, "Men always say, 'Let's see what you can do.' If we always talk and never work we will not accomplish anything." In an interview with a British journalist after the election, she argued that her second poor showing could be attributed to men who cling to "old ideas, developed in the days of chivalry" and rich, petted women. But she remained optimistic, saying, "After all, equality of rights and privileges is but simple justice."

Beginning Law Practice

Lockwood had tremendous drive and the support of Ezekiel, her husband, who approved of her desire to rise in the world. She loved the fact that law was a man's game and believed that it could be "a stepping stone to greatness."

Lockwood opened a small law office out of her home even before she was admitted to the D.C. bar. Initially, she worked alongside Ezekiel. He had given up dentistry and was advertising as a notary public as well as a pension and claims agent. He also earned fees as a court-appointed guardian, overseeing the finances of minors and the mentally ill. He did not make a great deal of money in these endeavors, but they helped the family get by and opened doors for his wife. He was a gadfly, moving in and out of the local courts and federal agencies. In the small world of Washington, his name became known, and so did hers as she learned judicial and administrative procedure through copying and filing clients' documents. He made the necessary connections to win letters of guardianship from the court. After securing a place for himself, he introduced his wife to officials and, by 1873, she was also earning fees as a court-appointed guardian. As an agent, Ezekiel also pursued land and treaty claims on behalf of Native American clients. This work opened yet another area of law to his wife.

Until 1875 the Lockwoods ran Belva's practice out of their rooms at the Union League Hall in downtown Washington. Living there provided a convenient and inexpensive, if modest, home and office. The Union League was near the federal agencies where the Lockwoods filed their clients' papers as well as the buildings that housed the District of Columbia courts. One of these was the local police court, whose sessions were convened at an old Unitarian church located at the corner of D and Sixth Streets, NW, three blocks from their rooms. Here people who otherwise knew Belva as an activist first took their measure of her as an apprentice attorney.

Police court proceedings provided the sleepy capital city with colorful diversion. In the early morning, people would gather at the old church building, waiting for the day's session to begin. With a police force of 200 there were plenty of arrests—12,000 in 1873. Judge William B. Snell presided, hearing cases of drunkenness, stealing, swearing, and fighting. Although it was the last place to expect a proper middle-class woman, Lockwood had no qualms about entering Snell's courtroom, perhaps because he welcomed her presence. While still in law school, in September of 1871, she had made her professional debut in front of him, when she won a reduction of sentence for an acquaintance who had been charged with drunkenness.

Minor police cases, probate work, and pension claims provided sufficient business that in 1873 Lura McNall, Lockwood's surviving daughter, could advertise her mother's apparent success in her Lockport Daily Journal news column: "The lady lawyer of Washington has quite an extensive practice, and a branch business and a lady partner in Baltimore." Two months later Lura, well-schooled by her mother in public relations, wrote that this success "now seems beyond controversy as her office is daily and hourly filled with clients." Against all odds, Lockwood had established herself as a solo practitioner.

DC Police Court at 6th and D Streets, NW
The District of Columbia Police Court at D
and Sixth Streets, NW. (Library of Congress)

The Lockwood law office drew a multiracial clientele of laborers, painters, maids, tradesmen, veterans, and owners of small real estate properties. The fact that Lockwood's clients were largely working class undoubtedly helped in her success. As a woman, she would not have been able, in the words of a female colleague, to make "an extensive acquaintance among business men in an easy, off-hand way, as male attorneys make it in clubs and business and public places." But if these male networks were denied to her, other channels existed, and she clearly used them to scout for clients. She represented people in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia and was always ready to travel longer distances. In August 1874 the Washington Evening Star reported that she had legal business in the Southwest: "Mrs. Lockwood, the lawyeress, leaves for Texas tomorrow, to be absent some forty days for the purpose of settling up the estate of the late Judge John C. Watrous, of that state, who died some two months ago in Baltimore. Judge Watrous was a large landed proprietor in southwestern Texas."

A Full Practice

Lockwood's goal was a competitive Washington-based legal practice. Initially, after her September 1873 admission to the District bar, she accepted cases that brought her before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Scholar Jeffrey Morris has described this court created by Congress as "an unusual hybrid" that was given most of the trial and appeals authority of other federal courts, while also hearing criminal and civil cases that elsewhere in America came before state and local courts. In her first year of licensed practice, she appeared nearly exclusively as plaintiff's attorney in the law or the equity division of this court, a pattern that maintained itself to a lesser degree from 1874 to 1885.

Between 1873 and 1885 she was recorded as attorney in 100 equity court proceedings, while in the same period 75 law division listings carried her name. Half of her courtroom equity work involved divorce actions. As a woman attorney, she attracted female clients and represented wives as complainants against defendant-husbands. When she represented men in divorce actions, they were complainants, never defendants. After divorce actions, her most frequent equity work involved injunction proceedings, lunacy commitments, and actions requesting the partition of land. Much of her civil law work did not bring her to court and is not recorded in docket books. But like the other storefront lawyers of her day, in order to stay solvent, Lockwood worked up untold numbers of bills of sale, deeds, and wills.

The postbellum emphasis on gentility made the thought of women working in the criminal courts egregious, even loathsome. Society's morally repugnant dramas played out in criminal court, a place off-bounds to ladies. Lockwood could have refused criminal cases. Yet, despite her religious rectitude and middle-class aspirations, criminal cases and criminal court argument were as acceptable to her as any other kind of legal work. It is not difficult to imagine this no-nonsense woman facing the judge in a room teeming with people, many of them down on their luck, charged with drunkenness or simple assault. Nor is it difficult to contemplate why the poor and the unfortunate had to accept representation by an inexperienced, woman lawyer. But Lockwood cut a sharp figure and was blessed with a quick mind and tongue. By 1875 she had begun to attract clients charged with more serious crimes, representation that brought her before the judges of the criminal division of the D.C. Supreme Court.

From 1875 to 1885 Belva represented at least 69 criminal defendants in this court. They were charged with virtually every category of crime from mail fraud and forgery to burglary and murder. She won "not guilty" decisions in 15 jury trials and submitted guilty pleas in 9. Thirty-one of her clients were judged guilty as charged, while five others were found to be guilty of a lesser charge. An entry of nolle prosequi (termination of the proceedings by the prosecutor) ended four cases. She won retrials for several others. She handled most of these cases on her own with only an occasional male co-counsel.

A House on Washington's F Street

In 1875 the Lockwood family took rooms in a house at 512 10th Street, a block from the League Building and two doors down from the residence into which the mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln had been brought from Ford's Theater. She conducted business in one or two of these rooms with Lura and Ezekiel nearby. Although increasingly frail, her husband continued to work as a notary public. His name and seal appear on many of the legal documents filed by his wife up through the month of his death in 1877.

Ezekiel died on April 25, in the midst of much legal business. The widow grieved but did not adopt deep mourning. Five days after his death, she was at her desk petitioning, by letter, for correction of an error in the assessment of a client's taxes. Three months, later she purchased the house in which they had been living. The property at 619 F Street, NW, described by one visitor as "a very fine house," cost slightly more than $13,000.

Lockwood bought the F Street house as a statement of now her solid middle-class professional status. Although it was not fancy, the 20-room house made an impression on visitors. In American Court Gossip, Mrs. E. N. Chapin told her readers that the lady lawyer's brick home had nicely furnished parlours "with several good paintings to add their tribute to the lady's taste." Heavily mortgaged, it was undeniably a risky venture. But the purchase made good business sense. The building would be a home, a boarding house, an office, and a long-term investment. She would use the property as collateral on loans and business deals.

Belva's daughter, Lura, and her niece, Clara Bennett, played important roles as Lockwood's legal assistants. Lura's life was tied tightly to that of her mother. She and her husband, Deforest Payson Ormes, lived at F Street, and she died there at age 44. Lura began clerking for Belva in 1873, one of several women and at least one man who, in the 1870s and 1880s, worked or studied with Belva for periods ranging from a few months to several years.

Sometimes Lockwood combined the business of law and the business of running a boarding house. In the summer of 1877, veteran James Kelly came to her law office hoping for help with a pension and a bounty claim. Kelly had been in the army since the 1850s, moving about the country. His wife was dead, and he had recently sent for his two daughters, who had been left in California in the care of Catholic nuns. The girls, Elizabeth and Rebecca, came east only to witness their father's mental and physical collapse. By 1879 he required care in the Soldiers' Home, and in February 1880 Kelly was "adjudged a lunatic." A month later the court appointed Lockwood "committee of the estate" with power to collect and receive the pension money due him from the government. She was charged with the responsibility of furnishing him with necessities and of looking after his two daughters.

The Kelly daughters had come under Lockwood's care even before her appointment as guardian, when James asked that she watch over and keep them from the streets. Rebecca arrived at F Street in January of 1880 and in court papers was described as 16. Lockwood disputed this fact, declaring that the two girls came to her wearing short dresses and "had not changed to maturity as women." Lockwood later described Rebecca as "weak minded." In exchange for room and board, her father's account was charged six dollars a month, while the girl contributed occasional housework until 1883, when she went into service in Maine. Clara later testified that Rebecca never had regular tasks and could not be depended upon.

Rebecca's older sister, Elizabeth, posed more of a problem. She, too, lived at F Street. Lockwood told a court that she was "too imbecile for self support." She required constant supervision to keep her from vagrancy and importuning men. Neither of the girls won the hearts of anyone at the F Street home but its owner. Clara, adopted by her aunt and dependent upon her for a home, said with some exasperation that Belva would always bear with the girls, "defend and protect them because they had nowhere else to go, quite to the discomfort of other members of her family." In fact, Clara reported, her aunt lost boarders who were not willing to put up with the girls' bad conduct.

The children of Cherokee James Taylor proved easier when put in Lockwood's care. Taylor, a lobbyist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee, first met the Lockwoods in 1875 at the 10th Street boarding house, where Mrs. Lockwood cultivated Taylor as a legal client. He gave her his personal legal business while they analyzed the more substantial problem of the Eastern Cherokee, who were negotiating for legal recognition and the right to file monetary, treaty-based claims with the United States Government.

Like James Kelly, Taylor realized that the lady lawyer could help with personal difficulties while taking care of his legal business. Also like Kelly, his trouble involved children who needed attention. Taylor made frequent trips to Washington and sometimes boarded at F Street. On one of these trips, he asked Lockwood to supervise two of his several children. She agreed, taking in John and Dora Taylor in the early 1880s, often for several months at a time. She charged the senior Taylor $15 a month for John, who took no meals, and $20 for the room and board of Dora. She looked after their schooling, bought their clothes, and when it was time for them to leave Washington, arranged for their travel to Indian Territory.


Belva Lockwood: Blazing the Trail for Women in Law, Part 2


Jill Norgren is a writer and professor emerita of government and legal studies at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. This article draws upon material from her biography, Belva Lockwood: An Uncommon Life, to be published in 2006; a study supported with grants and fellowships from the PSC-CUNY Research Fund, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Norgren is the author of several books, including The Cherokee Cases (University of Oklahoma Press) and, with Serena Nanda, American Cultural Pluralism and Law (Praeger; forthcoming in the 3rd edition).

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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