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SCOTUS Pioneers, Past, Present and Future: Belva Lockwood and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Washington DC

U.S. Supreme Court building. shutterstock.com

I recently had the distinct honor of meeting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when I was sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court on June 11, 2018. Although her stature was slight and her voice hushed, her presence was mighty. Justice Ginsburg’s ability to carry the room while addressing my fellow New England Law graduates was truly astonishing. On that momentous day, Justice Ginsburg spoke of her admiration for Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood—the first woman admitted to the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Ginsburg’s decision to educate us about Belva Lockwood was fitting inasmuch as New England Law (formerly Portia Law School) was the first all women’s law school in the United States, established in 1908. Although I received my undergraduate degree in history and consider myself a history buff, I had never heard of Belva Ann Lockwood. Justice Ginsburg’s speech was the motivation for writing this article in honor of Women’s History Month to celebrate the significant contributions she and Justice Ginsburg have made to the legal profession for women and minorities.

Born Oct. 24, 1830, Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood was a trailblazer for advancing women’s rights. By 14, she began teaching in elementary education. She married at the age of 18 and had one daughter, Lura. Following the death of her husband, Belva was left without means of supporting herself or her three-year-old daughter. As a single mother in the mid-1800s, Belva could have easily chosen the path of least resistance and remarried. Rather than doing so, she chose to seek higher education; a notion that was frowned upon by her friends and colleagues.

Her path to education and ultimate career success was not an easy one. Undeterred by the obstacles that she faced socially and professionally, Belva persisted in achieving her goals.

She attended Genesee Wesleyan Seminary to prepare for her college studies. She later convinced the administration at Genesee College in Lima, New York, to admit her to attend college there. Permitting a widowed single mother admission to an all-male institution was unorthodox to say the least in the mid-1800s.

Belva graduated from college in 1857, with honors. Following her graduation, Belva worked in education at various all-female institutions as both a principal and head mistress. She was the founder of several of the institutions. During this time, Belva had the occasion to meet Susan B. Anthony, who influenced her to promote equal rights for women. Belva shared Anthony’s beliefs that restrictions on women’s education and earnings needed to change. To promote change, Belva was motivated to make changes at her schools. She expanded the curriculum and added courses for women that were historically only offered to men to prepare them for a career in business.

Through her activism and college education, Belva became interested in the study of law. In 1870, she applied to the Columbian Law School in the District of Columbia, but was denied admission due to her gender. Not deterred, Belva then applied to law school in Washington, D.C. She and several other women were finally admitted to the new National University School of Law (now George Washington University Law School). She completed her coursework in May 1873. The law school, however, refused to grant her a diploma on the basis of gender.

Naturally, Belva required a diploma to be admitted to practice before the District of Columbia Bar. Following the passage of one year, with no ability to practice law, she wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant seeking his intervention. She highlighted the injustice of not receiving her diploma despite having successfully met all of the requirements to be awarded her law degree. Since President Grant was the former president of National University Law School, Belva saw the wisdom in seeking his assistance. Grant proved to be a progressive in an era where inequality for women was commonplace. Within one week of sending the letter, Belva received her diploma, at the age of 43.

Despite her victory, Belva continued to face prejudice within the District of Columbia Bar.  Several judges informed Belva they had no confidence in her abilities given her gender. Although Belva faced repeated challenges with judges and adversaries, many chastising her in open court, she forged ahead with advancing women’s rights in the law.

She submitted an application for admission to the United States Supreme Court Bar. She had met all the necessary requirements of: (1) securing a law degree; (2) practicing for three years; and (3) securing a sponsor, Albert G. Riddle. Despite her qualifications, her motion was denied for the sole reason that she was a woman.

Notwithstanding this professional setback, Belva began to make a name for herself in the legal world and was successful in winning cases. Even those that had questioned her abilities initially, acknowledged her competence.

Belva was a champion of women's issues. She lobbied for the passing of the 1872 bill for equal pay for federal government employees, for a woman’s right to vote, and to advance women’s rights in property ownership.

Due to Belva’s numerous professional challenges in advancing women’s rights in the law, she authored an anti-discrimination bill to gain the same access to the bar as her male colleagues. After five years of lobbying Congress to pass the bill, Congress finally passed the law in 1879. President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the bill into law. The bill mandated that all qualified women attorneys should be granted the right to practice in any federal court.

Belva was then sworn in as the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar on March 3, 1879.

Belva became the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1880, arguing Kaiser v. Stickney, 131 U.S. Appx. clxxxviii (1880), and later United States v. Cherokee Nation in 1906, 202 U.S. 101 1906. In U.S. v. Cherokee Nation, Belva successfully argued for the payment of $5 million to the Cherokee Nation by the U.S. Government. Belva, a champion for minority causes, for both gender and race, later sponsored Samuel R. Lowery to the Supreme Court bar, making him the fifth African American attorney to be admitted, and eventually the first to argue before the Supreme Court.

Through her legal activism, Belva became interested in politics. She ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States in 1884 and 1888 on the ticket of the National Equal Rights Party. She was the first woman in history to appear on official ballots. Her detractors quipped that she could not run for President as she had no right to vote. Belva’s response was that there was no requirement that she vote, but rather that she be a citizen and age 35—requirements she met. She noted “I cannot vote, but I can be voted for.” She received 4,100 votes. Belva petitioned Congress to tally her votes as there was evidence of voter fraud. She received one-half of the electoral vote in Oregon and a large portion of the vote in Pennsylvania. Yet Pennsylvania did not count the votes; the votes were simply dumped in the trash, signifying the blatant disregard for a woman on the official ballot.

Belva Lockwood had an esteemed 43-year career as a lawyer. She argued her last case before the Supreme Court at the age of 75. She died on May 19, 1917, at the age of 86, and was buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Due to Belva’s influence upon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it is fitting that Justice Ginsburg has continued to carry the torch by making significant advancements in the legal profession for women. Thus, while Belva was a pioneer by becoming the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court and lobbying Congress to advance women’s rights, Justice Ginsburg has raised the bar by now being one of only four women sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Belva Lockwood and Justice Ginsburg’s legal paths demonstrate that with perseverance and fortitude, women will succeed in breaking through the barriers that were established long ago and continue to persist today. I challenge each and every one of you to walk in the shoes of Belva and Justice Ginsburg, and never settle for less than what we all deserve: equality and respect in the law, regardless of gender, race or age.


Janine Danks Fox is a partner in the Family Law Department of Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader in Lawrenceville. She is admitted to the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Bars, U.S. District Court of New Jersey and the U.S. Supreme Court. Janine serves on the District VII Ethics Committee and the Mercer and Burlington County Matrimonial Early Settlement Panels.