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Prime Time Focus

A Woman of Sense and Steel

In the 1880s, Belva Lockwood argued before the Supreme Court and ran for president

Belva Lockwood was the first female person to run for President of the United States

Belva Lockwood: the woman who took on Grover Cleveland and demanded that President Grant do the right thing. — Photo by Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

In 1873, Belva Lockwood became one of the first female attorneys in the United States. After she finished her law studies at the National University Law School (now George Washington University Law School), the university refused to grant her a diploma because she was a woman. Lockwood wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant, who was also president ex officio of the university, and demanded her diploma. She had it within a week.


See also: The woman who changed the world.


In 1876 she applied to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. The chief justice responded, “[N]one but men are permitted to practice before it as attorneys and counselors.” Lockwood drafted a bill that would give women the same rights as men in federal courts, and then buttonholed congressmen and defended the bill personally in committee hearings. In 1879, Congress passed it.


In 1884, she ran for president on the ticket of the National Equal Rights Party, and ran a second time four years later.

For those reasons and others, Lockwood became a hero to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in 2008 said: “Visitors to my chambers will see posted on a wall outside a replica of the vote sheet recording the court’s refusal to admit Lockwood, and one of many less than flattering cartoons published during her presidential runs. She was a woman of sense and steel. Along with legions of others, I am inspired by her example, and elated by the progress of our society toward full and equal citizenship stature for men and women.”


Lockwood worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage, and for peace, until her death in 1917. Her story is less well known than that of other women of her time, perhaps because her letters and journals were destroyed following her death.


In Alyne Ellis’s report, we’ll hear from Ginsburg and from Jo Norgren, author of Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President. Listen with the audio player, above.


You may also like:  Women in the last 50 years.

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