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A tribute to Belva Lockwood

Guest blog by:
Janay Haas
For Women’s History Month

The pandemic can make you do strange things: wash windows, mend clothing that doesn’t even fit you any more, wear flannel Sesame Street pajama bottoms to the grocery store. In my case, it was organizing the junk drawer in my desk.

There, among post-it notes, cancelled checks, and dried-up Sharpies, I found a single postage stamp. I had kept the stamp since 1986, when it was part of a special issue for Women’s History Month. It has lived in three states and four countries since then. Belva Lockwood’s face is on the stamp.

When I was at the post office back in 1986, I saw her face in the display case, recognizing her name but unable to place her.

“Who is this person?” I asked the postal clerk. He looked at the name on the stamp I was pointing to and shrugged. “Dunno. She must’ve done something special or she wouldn’t be on a stamp.”

He was right. Belva Lockwood had done quite a few special things, I remembered later, any one of which could have earned her the honor of appearing on a postage stamp. I had first heard about her in the spring of 1983 from a student at George Washington University’s National Law Center; the campus was preparing that March to celebrate its second annual “Belva Lockwood Day.” GW’s Law Association for Women had inaugurated the event to serve “both as a celebration of women’s achievements in the legal profession and as a reminder of the barrier to women’s participation in the profession.” Lockwood was the ideal focus for those purposes.

In 1873, Lockwood was more or less an alumna of the Law Center. Officially, she had been denied admission to what was then GW’s Columbian College of Law on the grounds that her presence would distract the other students—all male—from their studies. She was admitted in 1871 to the National University Law School, which later merged with Columbian to become the National Law Center.

For Lockwood, however, the completion of her legal studies did not make her a graduate: she was denied her diploma because her classmates had objected to being graduated with a woman. Without a diploma, she could not join the District of Columbia Bar. Lockwood took her case to the law school’s ex officio president, who was also U.S. President Ulysses Grant. With his intervention, she was able to get her diploma, although she was never permitted to participate in a graduation exercise.

Lockwood was admitted without incident to the D.C. bar, but she was denied admission to the Bar of United States Supreme Court in 1876. Her response was to lobby Congress for passage of a bill enabling women to appear before the high court and other federal courts. On March 3, 1879—now GW’s Belva Lockwood Day—she became the first woman to be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lockwood was denied admission to the Maryland bar, and later the U.S. Court of Claims. Lockwood next attempted to join the Virginia bar, with no luck. State statute provided that “any person” admitted to practice in the District of Columbia was also eligible to practice in Virginia. “Person,” the Virginia court had pronounced, means “male.” Lockwood challenged this strained interpretation of the law. Evidently unappreciative of Lockwood’s earlier legislative sleight-of-hand, the Supreme Court declined to overturn the Virginia decision. In re Lockwood, 154 US 116 (1894).

In 1880, Lockwood became the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the U. S. Supreme Court. In 1906, she achieved her greatest court victory in U.S. v. Cherokee Nation, 201 U.S. 101, in which she was able to secure $5 million in damages for the tribe as the result of a treaty breach by the federal government.

When not fighting her own court battles and those of her clients, Lockwood found time to run for public office—President of the United States. Women did not yet have the right to vote, and her campaigns in 1884  and 1888 promoted the franchise for every American. In her first campaign, she netted more than 4,000 votes, all from male voters.

“Equal rights” was the keystone of Lockwood’s career. In 1880, she sponsored the first southern Black man to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. She was active in the period’s peace movement as a member of the Nominating Committee for the Nobel Peace Prize and the executive committee of the Universal Peace Union.

Lockwood would be gratified to see today the number of women in American law school classrooms (now regularly at 50% of the student population or above) and appearing before and serving on state and federal court benches. As members of the modern bar, we can all be grateful for the vision and courage of this pioneer who prodded a reluctant justice system a little closer to justice.

My hobbies have never including stamp collecting. But I did go back to the post office for several sheets of the small, stern faces that are a tribute to Belva Lockwood. I gave away every stamp, one by one, to women I knew who entered law school, until I have only this single reminder of this singular person.

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