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Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President
by Jill Norgren
Published by New York University Press, © 2007

A review by Jo Freeman published on Senior Women Web.

Belva Lockwood was an ambitious women, and Belva Lockwood is an ambitious book.

Belva LockwoodFamous in her day for many firsts, the US Postal service put her face on a stamp in 1986. Because her papers were largely destroyed by her grandson after her death in 1917, to write this biography Norgren had to track Lockwood's footprints through newspapers, legal archives, and letters sent to others that found their way into family files. This took a prodigious amount of work over many years. The result is worth the wait.

Although best known for running for President in 1884 and 1888, Lockwood was one of the pioneers who broke the barriers to women practicing law. She was the second woman admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia and the first admitted to practice before the US Supreme Court. Active for suffrage, peace, temperance and other causes, she was constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible.

Born on October 24, 1830, in upper New York state, Belva Ann Bennett had an early appetite for education. At the age of 14 she taught in a rural school, chafing that she was paid half the salary of her male counterpart. She would eventually get a degree from a Methodist seminary for women and a law degree from National University Law School but each of these required surmounting obstacles created by her sex and her need to support herself.

Her seminary education and early career as a teacher — a common but poorly paid position for a woman — might not have been possible had she not been widowed at age 22. Teaching sharpened her ambition. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Belva sent her 16-year-old daughter to be educated at her own alma mater and set off to Washington DC in search of opportunity. She found it as "Washington's Lady Lawyer" after a long and rocky trek to her law degree and admission to various bars. In the meantime she earned her living as a rental agent, newspaper correspondent and sales representative, and lecturer.

Drawn to politics, Belva traveled the South in 1872 as a paid campaigner for Horace Greeley. In May of that year the notorious Victoria Claflin Woodhull had herself nominated for President at a convention she called for that purpose, but did little more. How Lockwood came to run for President in 1884 on the same Equal Rights Party ticket is "colored by ego and memory." Suffice it to say that men ridiculed her and some prominent Suffrage leaders strongly disapproved. But Lockwood did what Woodhull did not do and ran a full campaign.

Lockwood was very pleased with her efforts. Her campaign generated enormous publicity, opportunities to travel, large audiences who paid to hear her speak, and almost five thousand votes. She even made a small profit. Success prompted her to try again in 1888 but this campaign produced more disapproval and less satisfaction.

Norgren repeatedly points out Lockwood's flair for self-promotion, of which her Presidential campaign was just one example. That talent not only made her a prominent figure in her lifetime but left the newspaper stories which made her biography possible. Lockwood's love of publicity was merged with genuine devotion to several causes, making it difficult to identify her motivations.

Despite her ardor for universal suffrage, she never found a niche for herself in the Suffrage Movement. Instead she became a fixture in the peace movement and a spokeswoman for the Universal Peace Union. She was a frequent delegate to conferences urging peace and arbitration as the solution to conflict. She spoke up for popular causes such as temperance and unpopular causes such as the Mormons.

Belva married twice, but spent most of her life as a widow — the best situation for an educated woman during an era when wives were subject to their husbands and spinsters seen as less than full women. Her first husband died four and a half years after their marriage, leaving behind the daughter who would remain Belva's companion until an early death at age 44. In 1868 she married Ezekiel Lockwood, an elderly dentist, becoming a widow for the second time nine years later. Their only child died at 18 months.

Family was very important to Belva. In 1877 she bought a large house on F St. where she housed her law practice, her daughter, and various members of her extended household. Spare rooms were rented out. The day-to-day law practice of mostly pension and land claims was handled by her daughter and other relatives. Belva was the 'rainmaker' for the family firm, attracting clients through her travels and lectures. She wrote the briefs and conducted the trials for the occasional high profile case. After her daughter died, her law practice disintegrated.

By the time she died at age 86, Lockwood's star had long since faded. Her house was sold to pay her debts. Her only heir shipped her papers to a pulp mill. She had lived through a vast transformation of her society but her fondest goals were yet to be realized. She still could not vote. Her country had just voted to go to war and the prohibition amendment had not yet passed. Much more time would pass before her life and her dreams would be celebrated.

This book is a good read. It provides an enjoyable and enlightening narration of US history and women's history as well as the history of a life.