As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we want to give recognition to one of the brave and forgotten female warriors of women’s rights whose story we hope will continue to shape the future: Belva Lockwood.
Born Belva Ann Bennett in 1830 to a farming family in rural New York state, Belva became the one of the first female attorneys in the United States, was the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar, and was the first woman to appear on an official ballot for president of the United States.
Belva began teaching at the local elementary school at the age of 14, was married at 18, became a mother at 19, and a widow at the age of 22. Left to fend for herself and her daughter, Belva sought a higher education but was met with resistance as it was rare for not only a woman, but a widow at that, to attend college. But Belva was persistent and convinced Genesee College to admit her.
Belva studied education (one of the few academic channels available to women at the time) and graduated with honors as a single mother. Belva accepted the position of headmistress of Lockwood Union School – an honorable job that would satisfy most, but Belva was not satisfied when she learned her male colleagues were paid double her salary.
Sometime between 1861 and 1866, Belva met Susan B. Anthony and was inspired by and agreed with many of Susan’s philosophies for equality, especially fair and equal educational opportunities and compensation. At the age of 41, Belva set her sights on changing the law.
After her first application to law school was denied for fear she would distract the male students, Belva was later admitted to National University Law School; however, she was later denied her diploma after successfully completing all required courses solely because of her gender. Following a year of relentless self-advocacy, Belva appealed to the highest power possible, the President of the United States – Ulysses S. Grant – asking for justice. Within a week, Belva received her diploma and shortly after passed the bar.
As one of the few practicing female attorneys, Belva was continuously discriminated against, even once being told by a Maryland Judge that God determined women would never equal men and that she had no right to speak in court before having her removed from the courtroom. Dismayed but never discouraged, Belva wrote and proposed an anti-discrimination law allowing women the same right to practice law as men that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Hayes in 1879, granting women the right to practice law any court. Taking full advantage of her success, Belva became not only the first woman sworn into the Supreme Court Bar, but also the first woman argue a case before the Supreme Court.
Being the true champion that she was, Belva transformed the landscape for women while also paving a path for all minorities to follow. In 1880, Belva successfully advocated for and sponsored Samuel R. Lowrey to be admitted to the Supreme Court bar, becoming the first African American to practice before the Supreme Court (1).
Belva’s journey to change the course of history was hindered time and time again because of her gender. If Belva was born a man, her footsteps may have been more heavily imprinted in the sands of time — there is a chance our 25th president would have been President Bennett.
Belva was born a woman, but she was so much more than that. Belva was intelligent. Belva was relentless. Belva was the embodiment of courage and a force of change.
Belva believed in a woman’s worth and ability, making it her life’s mission to fight for equality by challenging every level of the law that restricted women’s access. Belva proved that “women, like you, drown oceans,” (2) and Belva, for you, raised the bar for what was possible for a woman to achieve.
We share this story of Belva to remind women (and men, and gender non conforming individuals) that women’s HERstory is filled with unsung HERoes — and that women today stand on the shoulders of giants. As Belva herself said, “I have not raised the dead, but I have awakened the living… the general effect of attempting things beyond us, even though we fail, is to enlarge and liberalize the mind.”
(1) Though Lowrey was the first African American to practice before the Supreme Court, he was the fifth African American admitted to the Supreme Court bar.
(2) Quote from Rupi Kaur, commas and italics added for emphasis.
I work in the non-profit sector as a social worker. Social workers are trained as social justice crusaders, fighting for oppressed and marginalized groups, giving voice to the voiceless, and embodying the change we wish to see in the world.
Last week, a male colleague of mine who is also a social worker and sworn ally of women and all minority groups, made inappropriate comments to me that caused me to question how far women have really come and how far we still need to go to become equal partners in the workplace. I called said colleague to ensure tutoring services had been put in place for three children, but was then bombarded with comments about my physical appearance. “You’re so pretty that I cannot even talk when I’m around you,” he said. Repeatedly he stated how “beautiful” I am, and I was so incredibly uncomfortable and, having no idea how to handle the situation, habitually stating “ok, ” “I don’t know about that,” and “thank you” over and over again, begging for the phone call to end. My demeanor was so obviously different that my colleagues immediately questioned “what that was all about,” when I hung up the call.
I did not elicit these advances in any way shape or form, and yet I am now somehow burdened with questions like, “What can I say to enforce clear boundaries without damaging my professional relationships?” or “How do I explain this to my partner without inciting some sort criticized for allowing myself to be caught in this position?” Unjustly, I am now responsible for rectifying a male’s inappropriate behavior. In light of the #MeToo movement, I am obligated to confront this colleague to inform him that what he said to me was not acceptable. I cannot allow for him – or any man – to speak to women in such a manner while relying on our fear of potentially damaging our career to defend his actions. My silence will not protect myself or other women.
The sad truth is, even after warriors like Belva paved the road for women to have access to spaces we were once not allowed, there is still so much needing to be done to accomplish what Belva set out to do. So, in honor of National Women’s History Month and those whose sacrifices have given power to my voice, I will be silent no more.
“There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.”
– Michelle Obama
Belva A. Lockwood. “My Efforts to Become a Lawyer”, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, February 1888, pp. 215–30.
Belva Lockwood, National Women’s Hall of Fame – Women of the Hall, National Women’s Hall of Fame, accessed March 26, 2019.
Smith, Jessie Carney, and Linda T. Wynn. The Complete Encyclopedia of African American History. Visible Ink Press, 2015, p. 331.
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About the author
Georgia Lavey is a white, American, cis hetero female of Welsh, Irish, German, Native American (Choctaw and Cherokee), and French descent. Georgia is currently pursuing a Master’s of Social Work degree from Rutgers University.