An American Portia in Her Own Right

In Master Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the beautiful, intelligent, and quick-witted heroine Portia disguises herself as a man and argues eloquently in court to save the life of her lover’s friend, Antonio. In the thirty-five years after the end of the American Civil War a small number of courageous Portias fought their way into law schools, professional practice, the courts and eventually the judicial bench. They did not disguise themselves but wore the dresses with voluminous skirts which were the fashion of the day, although Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood did not hesitate to wear red stockings under those skirts and upon occasion show a bit of her ankles. “Like Shakespeare’s Portia, Lockwood used wit, ingenuity, and sheer force of will to unsettle society’s conceptions of women as weak in body and mind. But Portia, to accomplish her mission, impersonated a man before revealing who she was. Lockwood, in contrast, used no disguise in tackling the prevailing notion that women and lawyering, no less politics, do not mix. Not only did she become the first woman admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court, she ran twice for the office of President of the United States.”–Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, January 24, 2008.


Belva Lockwood in 1879

Belva Bennett was born on October 24, 1830, in the Niagara County town of Royalton in the “Burned Over District” of western New York. Belva was the second daughter, and second of five children, of farmers Lewis and Hannah Bennett. In an 1888 article in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, she wrote this about her childhood:

 “At about ten years of age I had read the Bible through, but had read it as a child reads, believing literally all that it contains. I supposed faith only was necessary to the re-enactment of the miracles of Scripture. Believing that I had this faith, or might have it, with a proper disposition of mind, I undertook to perform these miracles, and of course ingloriously failed. My effort at walking on water resulted in a sad wetting of my pantalets and skirts, the garments then worn by little country-girls of that vicinage (Niagara County, New York), and somewhat shook my belief in my own abilities, or else in my understanding of the word ‘faith.’ I had selected for this experiment a mill-pond near my father’s house, and, without notifying any person of my intention, had proceeded to the edge of the pond alone, and, summoning up courage,—or faith, as I thought,—I undertook to imitate the example of the great apostle Peter, by literally walking on the water. To my surprise and discomfiture, my feet went through to the sandy bed below; and, although I retired in good order, it was with draggled skirts and a doubting mind, to receive a good scolding from my mother.”

 Undeterred by her inability to walk on water she tried to emulate another Biblical miracle. “But this failure did not materially damp my hopefulness nor my ardor. Continuity of purpose has also been one of my characteristics. My next effort was to raise the dead; and for this purpose I selected a neighboring burying-ground, and the child of a neighbor that had just been interred. Remembering my former failure, I now assumed a more serious frame of mind, and endeavored earnestly and prayerfully to accomplish the performance of my second miracle. . . . . But the grave did not open, the dead did not come forth, as in the case of Lazarus; and my self-esteem received another severe shock.”


a young Lockwood, date unknown

Miss Bennett obtained as much formal education as well available to her and became a teacher. In her new profession, she soon emerged as a troubler of Zion. “Here again came up the odious distinction of sex. The male teachers in the free schools of the State of New York received more than double the salary paid to the women teachers at that time, simply because they were men, and for precisely the same work. It was an indignity not to be tamely borne by one with so little discrimination of the merits and demerits of sex, and of course, impolitic as it might seem, I at once began to agitate this question, arguing that pay should be for work, and commensurate to it, and not be based on sex. . . . . An ardent student of history, I soon discovered that most of the great men of the country had received a collegiate education. I also discovered that the colleges of the country were closed to women.”

 Over the next few years she followed the path of many of her contemporaries, which for her led to a baby, early widowhood and the need to provide for herself and her little daughter. “What could a simple country-girl do against the prejudices of centuries? There was only one avenue open to her, and that the one for which the American girl had been educated all of the years of the past century,– marriage. The daughter of a poor farmer, I followed the same well-trodden road, and was soon united in marriage to a promising young farmer of my neighborhood. Marriage to the ordinary woman is the end of her personality, or of her individuality of thought and action. Forever after, she is known by her husband’s name, takes his standing in society, receives only his friends, is represented by him, and becomes a sort of domestic nonentity, reflecting, if anything, her husband’s religious, moral, and political views, and rising or falling in the world as his star shall go up or down. I had not even noted this phase of society, and directly adopted the unwomanly habit of pursuing my studies after my marriage, writing theses for literary gatherings, and sometimes for the public press. A babe soon gladdened my household, but my married life was short, as my husband sickened soon after our marriage and died of a lingering consumption during the fifth year, leaving me, without fortune, to make my way in the world. Not yet twenty-three years of age, a mother and a widow, with poor parents, with not even a liberal education as a reliance for support, the outlook was gloomy.”

 Despite her poverty, widowhood and societal objections and constrictions, Belva Ann Bennett McNall obtained a college degree and spent a number of years as a teacher, doing such radical things as encouraging, indeed requiring, physical exercise for her your female students. She met Susan B Anthony and became interested and involved in the struggle for women’s civil rights. She watched the Civil War with horror, noting later that the cost to fight the bitter struggle could have purchased the freedom of all slaves several time over. The terrible loss of life moved her to spend much of the rest of life in the advocacy of peace. When the war ended, she moved to Washington, D.C., determined to learn more about the law and “to learn something of the practical workings of the machinery of government, and to see what the great men and women of the country felt and thought.” Already interested in a career in law and politics, Mrs McNall tried an approach unused by women at the time.


newspaper illustration of notable American women with Lockwood in the center

“Born a woman, with all of a woman’s feelings and intuitions, I had all of the ambitions of a man, forgetting the gulf between the rights and privileges of the sexes. . . . . There was a vacancy in the consulship at Ghent. Conceiving that I could fill this position, I had the audacity to make application for it. Preparatory to a prospective appointment, I reviewed my German, read all the authors that I could find on International Law in the United States Supreme Court Library, and, procuring through my member of Congress a copy of the Consular Manual, made myself quite familar with its contents, so that I fully believed that I was competent to perform the service required of a consular officer, never once stopping to consider whether the nation to which I should be accredited would receive a woman. To my disappointment and chagrin, no notice was ever taken of my application, and I was too weak-kneed to renew it. The fact that Andrew Johnson soon afterwards became involved in many complications with Congress, which ended in his impeachment by that body, may account in a measure for the lack of interest taken by him and by the public at large in my humble aspirations.”

 In March, 1868, after fifteen years of widowhood and 37 years old at the time, Belva McNall married Reverend Ezekiel Lockwood, some 20 years her senior. When Belva Lockwood decided to pursue formal study to become a lawyer, her husband did not stand in her way, indeed, encouraging and supporting her.. Initially two different law schools refused her admission.

 However, in 1870, “the National University Law School [now the George Washington University Law School] was opened, and, ostensibly as a part of its plan to admit women to membership on the same terms as young men, I was invited, with other ladies, to attend the classes, and gladly accepted. At its first session, fifteen ladies matriculated, partly as a novelty, I suppose, but certainly without any adequate idea of the amount of labor involved. Many of them left with the close of the first quarter; but some continued through the year, and a few of them held on until the middle of the second year. Only two persons, Lydia S. Hall and myself, completed the course. At first, besides the regular class-recitations, we were admitted to the lectures with the young men, although the recitations had been separate. This was a compromise between prejudice and progress. It was not long before there commenced to be a growl by the young men, some of them declaring openly that they would not graduate with women. The women were notified that they could no longer attend the lectures, but would be permitted to complete the course of studies. As Commencement day approached, it became very evident that we were not to receive our diplomas, nor be permitted toappear on the stage with the young men at graduation. This was a heavy blow to my aspirations, as the diploma would have been the entering wedge into the court and saved me the weary contest which followed. For a time I yielded quite ungracefully to the inevitable, while Lydia S. Hall solaced herself by marrying a man named Graffan and leaving the city. She was not a young woman at that time, but a staid matron, past forty; and after her departure I entirely lost sight of her, and suppose she became ‘merged,’ as Blackstone says, in her husband. I was not to be squelched so easily.”

 Rebuffed by the school’s administration, Belva Lockwood took drastic action. By that time, Ulysses S Grant was President of the United States and titular head of the law school’s board of trustees. So Mrs Lockwood wrote him a letter.

Ulysses S Grant during the Civil War


“‘SIR,– You are, or you are not, President of the National University Law School. If you are its President, I desire to say to you that I have passed through the curriculum of study in this school, and am entitled to, and demand, my diploma. If you are not its President, then I ask that you take your name from its papers, and not hold out to the world to be what you are not. Very respectfully, Belva A. Lockwood.’ This letter contained about as much bottled-up indignation as it was possiblefor one short missive to conceal under a respectful guise.”

 The woman who as a youngster tried to walk on water and to raise the dead did receive a miracle. President Grant made no direct response; however, the next week she did receive her diploma and was admitted to the bar of the District of Columbia.

“On my admission, the clerk [of the court] remarked, ‘You went through to-day, Mrs. Lockwood,like a knife. You see the world moves in our day.’ Judge Cartter said, ‘Madam, if you come into this court we shall treat you like a man.’ Judge Arthur McArthur remarked, ‘Bring on as many women lawyers as you choose: I do not believe they will be a success.’ These comments did not affect me, as I already had my hands full of work, and cases ready to file in anticipation of my admission. My friends had confidence in my ability; and the attention that had been called to me in the novel contest I had made not only gave me a wide advertising, but drew towards me a great deal of substantial sympathy in the way of work.”

In 1874 when Mrs Lockwood tried to plead a case before the United States Court of Claims, Judge Charles Drake silenced the courtroom, looked her over, then refused to allow her to proceed, asserting, “Mistress Lockwood, you are a woman.” She later remarked, “For the first time in my life I began to realize that it was a crime to be a woman, but it was too late to put in a denial so I pled guilty.” She hired a male replacement to handle the case but complained, “He was saying very badly in three days what I could have said well in an hour.”

In 1876, having practiced law in the District of Columbia for three years, Belva Lockwood qualified for, and sought U.S. Supreme Court Bar membership. Albert Gallatin Riddle, a distinguished lawyer and former Congressman, sponsored her and made the motion for her admission. “Those nine gowned judges looked at me in amazement and dismay. The case was taken under advisement, and on the following Monday an opinion rendered, of which the following is the substance: ‘As this court knows no English precedent for the admission of women to the bar, it declines to admit, unless there shall be a more extended public opinion, or special legislation.’”

 Mrs Lockwood was appalled at the Coutrt’s lack of knowledge of legal history. No English precedent? “How about Queens Eleanor and Elizabeth, who sat in the aula regia and dispensed the duties of chief chancellor of the English realm in person? How about Anne, Countess of Pembroke, who was hereditary sheriff of Westmoreland, and who at the assizes at Appleby sat with the judges on the bench?”

historical plaque near Ms Lockwood’s birthplace

The Supreme Court had opened a door by saying they would admit her under “special legislation.” Obviously the justices did not fully now the mood of Congress. And they underestimated Belva Lockwood. Ms Lockwood, who became a widow for the second time, petitioned Congress to pass legislation on her behalf. She gained the support of Senator Aaron Augustus Sargent of California, among others. The legislation was entitled “a bill to relieve certain legal disabilities of females.” Every time it came to the floor of the House or the Senate, Ms Lockwood sat in the gallery to watch and listen and sent a basket of flowers to every member who spoke in her favor. Eventually, the bill passed, was signed by President Rutherford B Hayes and in early March of 1879, Ms Lockwood officially became the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. The First Lady, Lucy Hayes, a practicing Methodist as Ms Lockwood was, gave a party at the White House in Ms Lockwood’s honor.

 Belva Ann Lockwood practiced law for over 35 more years. In 1880, she sponsored the admission to the bar of Supreme Court of Samuel Lowery, only the second African American lawyer to be so admitted. In 1906 Ms Lockwood won five million dollars in damages for the Cherokee Nation in a landmark Supreme Court case.

Ms Lockwood’s grave in Washington, D.C.

“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, . . . She was a woman of sense and steel. Along with legions of others, I am inspired by her example.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Happy birthday wishes for the 182nd time to Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood, pioneering American Portia.



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