Law Hall of Fame logoBelva Lockwood became one of the first woman lawyers in the United States and possibly, in the world when, in 1873, she was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia, a full quarter century before Canadian Clara Martin gained similar status as the first woman lawyer in the British Empire.

 

If one defines a lawyer as a person who represents others in legal disputes generally, or even before a court specifically, then Margaret Brent of Maryland and Virginia, who came two hundred years earlier than Lockwood, was the first recorded female lawyer.

The first woman called to a state bar was Belle Mansfield of Iowa in June of 1869 followed by Lockwood's District of Columbia colleague, Charlotte Ray (also the bar of the District of Columbia but in 1872 - a year before Lockwood), the latter holding the remarkable distinction of also overcoming the then-barrier of skin color.

But neither Ray nor Mansfield were able to crash through the glass ceiling that still existed and attract clients and open a firm; they turned to publishing and teaching careers. As far as Ray was concerned, Lockwood had the unfair advantage, at least circa 1873, of being caucasian, even while being discriminated against as a woman.

The feisty Mrs. Belva Lockwood, exhibiting a personality characteristic that is tailor-made for an attorney, soon prevailed as an attorney.

For example, a Baltimore Sun journalist wrote, on March 9, 1880:

"Something of a sensation was produced at the court house in this city today by the appearance of Mrs. Belva A. Lockwood, of Washington, D.C., as counsel for the defence in the case of the state against three small boys, aged from 10 to 14 years, whose parents reside in Washington, and who are charged with the larceny of several articles from a car belonging to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company, at Point of Rocks, on the 5th of December last. Mrs. Lockwood's admission was moved by Mr. C.H. Eckstein. The court, Judge Lynch, merely stated that if no objection was made by any member of the bar the clerk should administer the usual oath. The court room was densely packed with spectators, included among whom were a large number of ladies, the elite of the city. The trial in which she is engaged is still in progress."

The press and contemporaries often tried to diminish her achievements by deriding her as a mere suffragette.

Born in Royalton, New York, she moved to Washington, DC in 1866. Her first applications to the Columbia Law School were rebuffed; administrators thought she'd distract the male students.

She was finally admitted to the George Washington Law School but upon completion, she found the school unwilling to issue a law school diploma to her. She appealed by letter to the President of the United States, Ulysses Grant and soon got her diploma.

Belva LockwoodAlong with L. J. Hall-Graffain she applied for admission to the District of Columbia bar and was admitted on September 24, 1873. But her application to practise in the State of New York was refused.

When she applied to be admitted to the bar of Maryland, judge Magrunder reminded her of the then-status of women by deferring to the Bible. According to the Evening Star, the Court of Appeal judge said:

"God has set a bound for woman. Man was created first and woman afterwards, and of a part of him."

When she tried to reply, he had her thrown out of the courtroom. Many judges would not let her speak on behalf of clients.

She pushed politicians for redress and in 1879, Congress passed a law to allow female lawyers to appear before federal courts. On that basis, she was sworn into the bar of the US Supreme Court on March 3, 1879, when she was 49 years old. A year later, she acted for a client before the Supreme Court and on February 3, 1880, she sponsored the application for call to the DC bar of a qualified "colored man", Samuel Lowery. According to the Evening Star:

"The Chief Justice asked whether (Lowery) was entitled to it under the rules, and on Mrs. Lockwood's answering in the affirmative, he was directed to step to the desk and take the oath."

In spite of her late start, she practised law for 43 years, her biggest case being a $5-million judgment against the government on behalf of Cherokee Indians.

In 1884, she ran for the office of President of the United States (receiving only 4,000 votes) and was a life-long proponent of women suffrage. In her later years, she became an outspoken advocate of world peace.

In 1909, she received an honorary degree of laws from Syracuse University.

When she was 84, she fell on hard times and was sued to have her home sold to pay her tax debts. She died, poor, in 1917 and is buried in Washington, DC in the Congressional Cemetery.

REFERENCES:

  • "A Female Lawyer Ruled Out of Maryland Court", The Washington Evening Star, October 17, 1878
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Law's Hall of Fame: Margaret Brent (1601-1671)
  • James, E. and others, editors, Notable American Women 1607-1950 , Volume I (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1971), pages 413-416