Women's Rights History: Belva A. Lockwood Biography

Belva A. Lockwood was the first woman admitted to the Bar of U.S. Supreme Court. Learn of her contributions to the lives of women in America.

Belva Lockwood was born on a farm in Royalton, New York as Belva A. Burnett. She began teaching school when she was only fourteen years old and with the money she earned she attended the academy in her home town. She soon married a local farmer with the surname McNall and one daughter was born to them. Her husband died soon after the birth of her daughter, and Belva was left to support her family.

She returned to teaching but was also determined to continue her education. She entered Genesee College (later Syracuse University) and graduated with honors in 1857. Upon graduation she was immediately called to become the principal of Lockport Union School, where she stayed for four years. Afterwards she taught at Gainsville Seminary, and later founded the McNall Seminary at Oswego, N.Y.

In 1868 Belva moved to Washington, D.C. and opened a school there. Soon she met and married Rev. Ezekiel Lockwood. About the time that she married, Belva began studying law and sought admission to the law school of Columbia College, but was refused because of her sex. It was thought that her presence at the school would distract the male students.

Two years later she received the degree of A.M. from Syracuse University, and the following year was admitted to the National University Law School, from which she graduated, She was unable to receive her diploma until she appealed to the school's president, US President Ulysses S. Grant. Finally, she received the degree of B.L. She opened a law practice and her clients consisted mainly of women, Native Americans, and the poor. While Belva was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia, she was refused admission to practice before the Supreme Court. She spent the next five years lobbying for a bill to pass through congress that would allow a woman to practice law before the Supreme Court. In 1879, Belva Lockwood became the first woman to do so.

In 1884, Belva accepted the nomination of the National Equal Rights Party and ran for president, though she was opposed by suffrage leaders. She brought in over 4,000 votes and ran again in 1888. Using her understanding of the law, she worked to secure property law reforms, equal pay for equal work, and woman suffrage.

Belva encouraged other women to pursue legal careers and helped open the legal profession to women. She was also a strong advocate of world peace and worked toward developing the rules for international arbitration.

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