Belva A. Lockwood
First Woman Admitted to Bar of U.S. Supreme Court
1830 – 1917
Belva A. Lockwood is one of America’s most remarkable women, achieving marked success in the field of Law. In this profession, Belva was a pioneer in American and her career is the story of struggle and well earned victories.
Belva Lockwood was born Belva A. Burnett in the town of Royalton, Niagara County, New York in 1830. When she was only fourteen she began teaching school. Though she earned only half the salary of a male teacher, she used her earnings to pay tuition to attend a local academy. Soon she married Mr. McNall, a local farmer. Together they had one daughter, but soon after the birth, Mr. McNall died, leaving Belva to support her family.
Belva returned to teaching but was also determined to continue her education. She entered Syracuse University (then called Genesee University) and graduated with honors in 1857. Upon graduation received an offer to become the principal of Lockport Union School. She accepted and remained employed there 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. It was there that she met Rev. Ezekiel Lockwood and soon married him. It was around this time that Belva began studying law and sought admission to the law school of Columbia College. She was refused because of her sex, the faculty feeling that her presence at the school would distract the male students.
The following year was admitted to the National University Law School, from which she graduated. While this was an accomplishment, Belva 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. from that school and opened a law practice in Washington. Her clients consisted mainly of women, Native Americans, and the poor. When one of Belva’s cases reached the Supreme Court, she was not legally able to argue the case before it. 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 had the honor of becoming the first woman admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.
While Belva Lockwood is best known for her work in opening up the legal profession to women, she was also a staunch supporter of equal rights and women’s rights, working unceasingly to secure the vote for women. She is one of 7 women who have run for president of the United States, and she ran TWICE in the 1800’s. She also wrote equal rights amendments for 3 state constitutions. Also noteworthy is the fact that the case she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court was on behalf of a black man whose rightfully earned law degree was withheld from him because of his color, just as was her law degree withheld for most of her career because of her sex. She also was a strong advocate of world peace and worked toward developing the rules for international arbitration. She died a hero among women in 1917.