Amazing Women Who Should Be Way More Famous

Belva Ann Lockwood in 1915. Library of Congress

19. Belva Ann Lockwood Fought to Become America’s First Female Lawyer to Argue Before the Supreme Court

Belva Ann Lockwood (1830 – 1917) was an early women’s rights advocate, who became the first female attorney to argue a case before the US Supreme Court. Widowed in her early 20s and left in dire straits to raise a daughter by herself, Lockwood decided to better her lot through higher education. That was highly unusual back then, and her decision was opposed by family and friends, but Lockwood persisted, and persuaded the administrators of Genesee College in New York to admit her. She graduated with honors in 1857, then got a job as a school headmistress. However, upon discovering that she was paid only half of what her male counterparts’ salary, she decided to become a lawyer and work for herself.

Lockwood moved to Washington, DC, after the Civil War, and attended into George Washington University Law School. However, although she completed the coursework in 1873, the school refused to give her a degree because of her gender. So she appealed to president Grant, and he made the school give her the degree, which allowed her to join the District of Colombia Bar. When Lockwood applied to the US Supreme Court Bar, she was turned down on gender grounds. So she spent years lobbying Congress for an anti-discrimination bill to allow all qualified female lawyers to practice in federal courts. The bill finally passed and became law in 1879. Lockwood then went back to the Supreme Court, and was finally sworn into its bar. The following year, she became the first woman to argue a case before the highest court in the land.