Tucked away in the sprawling farmlands and vineyards of Niagara County, in Royalton, NY, a woman was born who would live a life that made the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg possible.
Belva Ann Bennet Lockwood (October 24, 1830-May 19, 1917) will never achieve the iconic status of Ginsburg — no Hollywood films or t-shirts with her face on them. But Lockwood’s legacy is worth remembering, especially as we mourn the loss of a great Supreme Court Justice who benefited from her trailblazing achievements.
For starters, Belva Lockwood was the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, first Kaiser v. Stickney and later United States v. Cherokee Nation. It was a long and arduous journey to that milestone.
After establishing herself as a progressive educator and principal in Western New York, she moved to Washington D.C. in 1866 and opened a private coeducational school after one year of teaching. She applied to law school at Columbia College but was rejected on grounds that the presence of women would distract male students. Undeterred, she successfully attended and graduated from the National University Law School, establish her private practice, and then earn a national reputation for representing minorities and the marginalized. Towards the end of her career, she was so well known and admired that she became the first woman to run for president of the United States (in 1884 and 1888) on the National Equal Rights Party ticket.
In many ways, Lockwood’s life mirrored Justice Ginsburg’s. They belonged to different generations, but both had to overcome the prevailing chauvinism of their day. In 1867, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court refused to admit Lockwood to the bar. They stated: “none but men are permitted to practice before us as attorneys and counselors.”
A Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice wrote that “discussions are habitually necessary in courts of justice, which are unfit for female ears. The habitual presence of women of these would tend to relax the public sense of decency and propriety.”
And a Judge in Maryland lectured her by telling her that God himself had determined that women were not equal to men, not in legal matters or any matter. More than 100 years before Ginsburg was unable to land a job as an attorney after graduating at the top of her class from Harvard Law School and Colombia Law, Lockwood fought for equal rights. During a time when women could not inherit property, keep their earned income without their husband’s permission, or vote, she graduated from law school, became a successful lawyer, and reached the apex of her profession.
In 1908, Syracuse University awarded Belva Lockwood an honorary doctorate in law. In 1983, The National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, inducted her, citing that:
She used her knowledge of the law to secure woman suffrage, property law reforms, equal pay work, and world peace. Thriving on publicity and partisanship and encouraging other women to pursue legal careers. Lockwood helped to open the legal profession to women.”
Following in Lockwood’s fearless path, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made strides for women in this country and all over the world, breaking down walls that many felt were impenetrable. From Brooklyn to Harvard to Columbia to Rutgers and the ACLU, and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ginsburg devoted herself to fulfilling the promise of our democracy. She deserves every bit of the praise that is being showered upon her.
But we should not forget those who came before her. Simply put, there would be no RBG without Lockwood.
George Cassidy Payne is a social worker in Rochester with philosophy and history degrees from St. John Fisher College, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and Emory University.