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With Justice Ginsburg’s passing, remember Belva Lockwood

A historic marker reminds people of Belva Lockwood in the Niagara County town of Royalton, where she was born. (Photos provided by George Cassidy Payne)

Tucked away in the sprawling farmlands of Niagara County, 60 miles west of Rochester in a town called Royalton, a woman was born and raised who would go on to live a life that made the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg possible. 

Belva Ann Bennet Lockwood (Oct. 24, 1830, to 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 now that we are mourning 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, arguing Kaiser v. Stickney and later United States v. Cherokee Nation. It was a long and arduous journey to that milestone.

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 Columbian College but was rejected on grounds that the presence of women would distract male students. Despite these prejudices, she attended and graduated from the National University Law School, and went onto establish her own private practice, earning a strong reputation for representing the marginalized. Toward the end of her career, she even became the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1884 and 1888, when she ran 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 ingrained chauvinism of their day. In 1867, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court refused to admit Lockwood to the bar, stating, “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 Colombia Law School, in Lockwood’s time, women could not inherit property, keep their earned income without their husband’s permission, or vote. Nothing stopped her. 

A historic plaque on a boulder reminds people of Belva Lockwood in the Niagara County town of Royalton, where she was born. (Photos provided by George Cassidy Payne)

In 1908, Syracuse University awarded Belva Lockwood an honorary doctorate in law. The National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls inducted her in 1983 and wrote, “She used her knowledge of the law to secure (women’s) suffrage, property law reforms, equal pay (for equal) 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.” (In fact, she was such an impressive figure in her time that during World War II, a Merchant Marine ship, the Liberty Ship USS Belva Lockwood, was named after her.)

Following in Lockwood’s fearless steps, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made strides for all women, breaking down walls that many felt were impenetrable. From Brooklyn to Harvard to Columbia to Rutgers and the American Civil Liberties Union, and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ginsburg never lost sight of why she devoted herself to fulfilling the promise of our democracy. Throughout her career as a lawyer, she fought for every citizen to have the legal right to determine their own destiny, and she never veered from her core principles. She had the spirit of Belva Lockwood raging inside her soul, and the two of them mark a transition in power against the male establishment that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. They did not practice law; they changed it. They did not argue cases; they transformed our understanding of modern justice.

As close as the two were in ideology and life’s purpose (Ginsburg actually wrote the forward to Lockwood’s biography by Jill Norgren), Lockwood will never have the state funeral of an American hero or leave behind a legacy immortalized in pop culture. Yet she was every bit as influential as Ginsburg. There would be no RBJ without Lockwood. She was the first female lawyer in America to change the law from being the domain of men, and that is an achievement more than 6,000 years in the making! It is still reverberating throughout our society today. 

George Cassidy Payne is a social worker living in Rochester.

A historic plaque on a boulder reminds people of Belva Lockwood in the Niagara County town of Royalton, where she was born. (Photos provided by George Cassidy Payne)

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