Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 968:
BELVA ANN LOCKWOOD

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 968.

Today, meet America's first woman presidential candidate. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Historian Madeleine Stern tells a remarkable tale. It begins with Belva Ann Lockwood appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1880 to demand that Samuel Lowery be admitted to practice law. It was the first time a woman pled before our highest court.

Belva Lockwood was born in 1830 on a New York farm. At 15 she was a school science teacher. She married at 18, but her husband soon died of consumption. So she sold their farm and went off to do what her father hadn't let her do: attend college.

She finished her science degree and went on to teaching posts in private schools. But it was the science of government that became her focus. After the Civil War, she left the North, moved to Washington, and tried to enter law school.

The Columbian College told her that "the attendance of ladies would be an injurious diversion to the ... students." Georgetown University also rejected her, but they gave no reason.

Finally the National University Law School opened its doors to women. She was one of 15 women who began the program, and one of only two who finished. Then they refused to give her a diploma. Finally she wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant, who, by virtue of his office, was the titular head of the college.

"You are, are you not, the President of the National University Law School," she said. She told him either to grant her degree or to take his name off the letterhead. Two weeks later she was quietly handed a law degree bearing Grant's signature.

Belva had married Ezekiel Lockwood soon after she'd arrived in Washington. He shared her passion for social change, but he was also a liability. Federal courts questioned the legality of admitting a married woman to the bar. So Belva wrote a bill for congress that would make it legal for a woman to plead as high as the Supreme Court. The bill had a rocky time, but it passed.

That's how, in 1880, Belva Lockwood took the case of the black attorney Samuel Lowrey to the Supreme Court and won him the right to practice law. For years she fought for equal rights.

At the age of 75 she won five million dollars in back interest for the Cherokee Nation. But that was long after she'd formed the Equal Rights Party and run against Grover Cleveland for the Office of President of the United States.

She lost, of course. She gathered only a little over 4000 votes. Still, she carried Indiana, whose Electoral College members gave her the vote as a protest. She managed that in a world where women couldn't vote. She couldn't even vote for herself.

Today people wonder when a woman will run for president, without even realizing that one already did -- over a century ago.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Stern, M.B., We the Women: Career Firsts of Nineteenth-Century America, New York: Schulte Publishing Company, 1963, Chapter 9.

Some time after I did this program in 1996, I received an e-mail from Deborah A. Richards, who'd found this page and who wrote, "Belva Lockwood was the second woman to run for president. The first was Victoria Woodhull in 1871, as a candidate of the Equal Rights Party."

Much later, in 2007 Jill Norgren, did a full book on Lockwood, The Woman Who Would Be President (New York University Press, 2007; 2008 in paper). In it, BTW, she points out that Woodhull's campaign actually imploded before election day.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.