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A Woman Appears In the Supreme Court: Belva Lockwood’s Career in the Federal Courts
In its October 1880 term, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Kaiser v. Stickney. The case is rarely remembered; it never makes it onto lists of landmark cases and was initially omitted from the U.S. Reports, only to be added to a later volume’s appendix. The case was a relatively straightforward appeal from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Caroline Kaiser had borrowed money, securing it with a trust deed for a piece of property jointly owned by her and her husband. Kaiser claimed that the debt was void because as a married woman, she could not legally enter any such contract. Though her husband signed the note, she said it was as a witness only. First the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia and then the United States Supreme Court ruled against her, finding that the Kaisers had in fact entered into the debt jointly, as required by law.
The case was historic, however, and, accordingly makes its way occasionally into essays like this. At the end of the opinion, as recorded in U.S. Reports Appendix, one sentence indicates the reason: “Mr. Michael L. Woods and Mrs. Belva A. Lockwood for appellants.” In this appearance, Lockwood became the first woman to argue in front of the Supreme Court, the year after she had become the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court Bar. There is some irony in the fact that Lockwood and Woods’ argument on Kaiser’s behalf relied on women’s legal limitations stemming from the doctrine of coverture, given Lockwood’s long career in politics and law primarily aimed to eliminate legal inequalities facing women in the late nineteenth century. This spotlight examines that career, Lockwood’s accomplishments, and how she came to be the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar as well as to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and to argue in front of both courts.
Belva Lockwood was born in 1830 to a poor New York farm family. She started working as a rural schoolteacher at fourteen to aid family finances and was immediately frustrated by the unequal pay offered to women. Her father refused her request to pursue further schooling both because of finances and because he did not support such schooling for women. So, at age eighteen, she married a local man. Lockwood later recalled that, even then, she chafed at the confines of domestic life and never fully conformed to the expectations for women of the time. In a few short years, Lockwood found herself a young widow with both new independence and the need to support herself. Despite much criticism, she left her young daughter with her parents and used her husband‘s small estate to attend college, eventually enrolling in an experimental coeducational program that was more academically rigorous than the standard ladies ”finishing” programs. She graduated with honors in 1857.
Lockwood then returned to western New York and became acquainted with the world of benevolent reform while teaching to support herself and her daughter. The spirit of activism of that area dated to the 1830s. It focused on temperance, abolition, and spiritual reform. There, Lockwood met and collaborated with Susan B. Anthony; she became a pacifist, abolitionist, and eventually a women’s rights advocate. Over the next several years, Lockwood lived and taught in various places in New York. Then in 1866 at age 36, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she would stay.
Legal topics had long interested Lockwood, though the necessity of making a living, especially as a single mother, had prevented her from pursuing the interest. In Washington, she initially opened a school to support herself. She found community through her church, entered a larger world of professional women, and became very active in the suffrage movement and fighting for other women’s rights, especially the right to equal pay. She also met and married Ezekiel Lockwood who was 28 years her senior. Her new community and stability finally afforded her the opportunity to pursue a legal career. She met resistance at every step.
In the fall of 1869, George Samson, a friend and church acquaintance who was president of a local law school, invited the Lockwoods to a lecture and reignited Belva’s passion for the law. She tried to enroll in the school but was denied admission. Samson’s letter informing her of this decision said her presence “would be likely to distract the attention of the young men.” In 1871, she enrolled in a newly opened school, National University Law School, that invited a small cohort of women to matriculate. But the men rebelled; the school capitulated; and the women had to complete their studies separately. She stayed the course—one of only two women to do so—but was denied a diploma; she only received it, more than a year later, after writing twice to President Grant, who was the ex officio president of the university. She was direct in the second letter, saying, “I desire to say to you that I have passed through the curriculum of study in this school, and am entitled to, and demand, my diploma.”
In the intervening time, she had applied for admission to the District of Columbia Bar, sitting for multiple oral exams, but found her path blocked each time on account of her sex. She also started building up a legal practice. Ezekiel had been a dentist but had given up his practice and become a notary public, performing minor legal work as such. The couple worked together on pension claims, probate work, and other similar matters. In September 1873, after she received her diploma, she became the second woman to be admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. The first was an African American woman named Charlotte E. Ray who was admitted in 1872 along with her entire Howard Law School graduating class. (Both Ray and, ultimately, Lockwood were admitted due to “diploma privilege,” wherein graduates of certain local law schools were admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, a common practice at the time.) Ray quickly left Washington, and the law, leaving Lockwood the “lady lawyer of Washington” as newspapers sometimes put it.
Once licensed, Lockwood frequently appeared before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, which had an unusual combination of local and federal jurisdiction. Her practice was similarly broad; Lockwood took on everything from criminal matters to divorces, along with routine legal services such as wills. Her location led her to take on several clients with matters for other federal courts as well. For example, in April 1874 she applied to the Court of Claims aiming to represent a woman wanting to file a patent infringement claim against the Navy. She was again denied admission on account of being a woman, though only after more than a month of argument and deliberation. In an act of resistance, and perhaps even modest victory, she worked around the denial and kept the client. In court, the client represented and spoke for herself, but with Lockwood sitting by her side advising.
Lockwood persisted in her quest to gain admission to the Court of Claims, however. Over the next five years, she sought licensure from several angles, only to be denied repeatedly. The chief judge had said the rules only allowed admission of men of good character. She thus turned to Congress, aiming to get legislation to prevent courts from denying qualified women. The lawmakers stalled. After having practiced for three years, she applied to the Supreme Court Bar, which normally deemed such experience qualifying. The Court said it would not allow women until “a change is required by statute.” Lockwood returned to lobbying Congress.
Over the course of this battle, Lockwood continued her other women’s rights activism, including pushing for suffrage, and cultivated allies. She worked alongside other women in the legal field who were pushing for similar rights and supported her efforts. For example, Chicagoan Myra Bradwell, who had taken her own attempt to gain admittance to the Illinois State Bar to the Supreme Court, regularly wrote in support of Lockwood in the pages of Chicago Legal News, which she edited. Bradwell also invited Lockwood to speak in Chicago. After one speech, Bradwell praised Lockwood as “a finely educated lady, a pleasant, able-speaker, possessed of great energy and determination, yet perfectly womanly, and has the ability to make a successful practitioner at the bar.” Speaking in Chicago and other places was a key component of Lockwood’s strategy to shift broader opinion to her side. She gained the respect and support of numerous men lawyers and Congressmen through her legal practice as well.
In 1879, what one paper described as “her persistent knocking at the doors of Congress” finally succeeded. Congress passed a bill titled “An act to relieve the legal disabilities of women” that prevented qualified women from being denied admittance to the Supreme Court Bar. Shortly thereafter, Lockwood became the first woman admitted and then became the first to argue in front of the Court when she appeared in 1880 in Kaiser v. Stickney. The historic argument was mentioned in papers across the country, with one syndicated article noting she “commanded the earnest attention of the court.”
Over the next three decades, Lockwood continued her seemingly indefatigable work. She continued to practice law, taking on a range of cases while also mentoring other aspiring women attorneys. Veterans’ claims were among her most common federal cases, but—further pushing the boundaries of society—she also took on criminal cases, the most taboo of all legal work for women. She fought for individuals’ rights, such as prisoners‘ and workers‘ rights. She continually fought for women both in the courtroom and outside: she represented one woman who had been raped and another, a former slave, accused of infanticide. She regularly represented women in divorce cases as well.
Lockwood also remained very active in the suffrage movement. She frequently spoke as a movement advocate and lobbied Congress. And she ran for President—twice. Her run in 1884 highlighted the absurdity of women being allowed to run for President but not allowed to vote for one. Though her bid was controversial among suffragists, it gained significant attention, and she became the first woman to complete a full campaign, even winning electors in several states. She ran again in 1888.
Despite these advances and a relatively swift expansion in the number of bars admitting women, change was not universal. Southern states were particularly intransigent with regard to women lawyers. In 1894, after being a member of the bars of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for several years, Lockwood petitioned the former for a writ of mandamus requiring the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia to admit her to practice law in that court. Virginia law held that being “duly authorized and practicing” law in another state or the District of Columbia qualified a “person” to practice in Virginia. The Court denied her petition, citing Bradwell v. State and finding the Constitution still did not provide any protections on the matter. Virginia was at liberty to decide if “person” applied to men only or extended to women.
In 1906, Lockwood argued her second and final case before the Supreme Court, a complex multiparty lawsuit in which she represented the Eastern Cherokee. She had been working with the group and their lobbyist James Taylor since 1875. They were trying to gain recognition of the Eastern Band as equal to the Cherokee Nation in the West and thus gain access to monetary compensation for land sales and other disputed fees. After years of complicated political wrangling, Congress finally allowed the group to pursue the issue. They filed a motion to join a case before the U.S. Court of Claims, which led to Lockwood’s arguing the appeal before the Supreme Court. Her clients ultimately won a share of the multimillion dollar settlement. Lockwood was seventy-five at the time.
By this point in her life, Lockwood was devoting a significant amount of her time to peace activism. She had long had an interest in international affairs—when she first arrived in Washington, she had even applied for a foreign affairs position. In 1913, Lockwood led a group of women on a trip to Europe as part of an international peace movement to eliminate war. Lockwood died four years later at age eighty-six during the First World War.
In a letter accepting the National Equal Rights Party’s nomination for the presidency in 1884, Lockwood had outlined her political views. Among a number of feminist positions, she said,
I am opposed to the wholesale monopoly of the judiciary of the country by the male voters. If elected, I shall feel it incumbent on me to appoint a reasonable number of women as District Attorneys, Marshals and Judges of United States Courts, and would appoint some competent woman to any vacancy that might occur on the United States Supreme Bench.
It would be nearly a century before a woman served on the Supreme Court, but Lockwood’s “persistent knocking” helped clear some of the obstacles blocking the judiciary she wanted. She appeared before the District of Columbia Courts, the Court of Claims, the U.S. Supreme Court, and more. Other women followed her. The Buffalo Times reported that twenty-seven women were licensed to practice in front of the high court in 1907—twenty-seven years after Lockwood’s historic appearance before the court. Belva Lockwood’s career included multiple “firsts” for women in the law, laying the groundwork for the slow move towards greater gender equality in the federal courts that would follow.
Christine Lamberson, Director, Federal Judicial History Office
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Related FJC Resources:
Learn about the Susan B. Anthony Trial, another federal court case surrounding women’s rights in this period, and about Myra Bradwell, who argued in Bradwell v. State of Illinois that her denial by the Illinois State Bar violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
All of the federal judges and justices mentioned here are listed in the Biographical Directory of Article III Federal Judges, 1789-Present.
Drachman, Virginia. Sisters In Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Norgren, Jill. Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President. New York University Press, 2007.
Norgren, Jill. Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers. New York University Press, 2013.
Stern, Madeleine B. and Belva Lockwood. “Two Unpublished Letters from Belva Lockwood.” Signs I, no. 1 (1975): 269–275.
Wallenstein, Peter. “‘These New and Strange Beings’: Women in the Legal Profession in Virginia, 1890–1990” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 101, no. 2 (Apr., 1993), 193–226.
This Federal Judicial Center publication was undertaken in furtherance of the Center’s statutory mission to “conduct, coordinate, and encourage programs relating to the history of the judicial branch of the United States government.” While the Center regards the content as responsible and valuable, these materials do not reflect policy or recommendations of the Board of the Federal Judicial Center.