Tucked away in the sprawling farmlands of Niagara County, in little old Royalton, a woman was born who made the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg possible.
Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood (Oct. 24, 1830-May 19, 1917) will never achieve the iconic status of Ginsburg — no Hollywood films about her life 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.
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. She was also 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 lived a life that mirrored Justice Ginsburg’s. They belonged to different generations, but both had to overcome the prejudices of the day, which were fundamentally chauvinistic and against a woman’s right to work outside the home.
From the humblest beginnings, Lockwood went on to become a famous lawyer and a pioneer in the universal struggle for human rights. Syracuse University awarded her an honorary doctorate in law in 1908, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., inducted her in 1983. Upon her induction, the committee wrote: “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.” (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 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 ACLU, 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. That was Lockwood’s legacy in action.
So let us honor both women. Lockwood will never get the state funeral of an American hero or have her court decisions immortalized in textbooks. Yet she was every bit as influential in the movement for equal rights as Ginsburg. Lockwood was the first female lawyer in America to change the law from being the domain of men only to the province of every human being who aspires to get an education and follow their dreams.
George Payne is a social worker and domestic violence counselor in Rochester. He has degrees in philosophy and American history from St. John Fisher College and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.