by Jill Norgren. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 311pp. Cloth. $35.00. ISBN: 9780814758342. Paper. $21.00. (forthcoming March 2008).

Reviewed by Deborah E. Sulzbach, Drake University Law Library, Drake University. Email: Deborah.Sulzbach [at]


Jill Norgren, Professor Emerita of Government at John Jay College, has written an engrossing and insightful book about Belva Lockwood, a woman who, through tenacity, drive and self worth, accomplished more in the 19th century than many modern women accomplish. Because Lockwood was known to few and most of her personal papers were destroyed after her death, Norgren has done an exemplary job of illuminating the life of this varied and accomplished woman.

Born in 1830 in Western New York, Lockwood (nee Belva Ann Bennett) was born into a small farming family, the second of five children. Belva excelled at school and at 14 was offered a teaching position in a rural school. Due to her family’s financial troubles, Belva’s formal education ended and her career as a schoolteacher began. Desiring a better life than teaching afforded, plus irritated at receiving half the salary of her male colleagues, she asked permission from her father to return to school. When her father balked at the idea of spending money to educate a woman, she did what was expected of a young lady of that time. She married Uriah McNall, a young neighborhood farmer, in November 1848. When Uriah died four and one-half years later due to a mill accident, Belva was left a 22-year-old widow with a three-year-old daughter, Lura. Realizing the need to support herself and her daughter, Belva entered the local Methodist seminary for women to train as a teacher. Upon graduation she ran her own school until after the end of the Civil War, when her fascination with the political scene led her to sell the school and move to Washington, D.C.

Shortly after arriving in Washington in 1866, and needing to support herself and Lura, Belva began teaching at a local girls’ school. Though it paid poorly, her teaching position afforded her plenty of free time to explore the halls of Congress and the United States Supreme Court. While in Washington, Belva became active in the awakening women’s suffrage movement and the newly formed American Equal Rights Association (AERA). She also married her second husband, Ezekiel Lockwood, an elderly lay minister and dentist in 1868. A daughter born to Belva and Ezekiel died at the age of 18 months. Nine years later she once again became a widow. Ever the achiever, Belva decided to pursue her first love and enrolled in the National University Law School. Despite completion of the course work, the Law School refused to award her a diploma because of her gender. Lacking a diploma, Belva was refused entry to the D.C. Bar, thus keeping her from practicing the profession she had so diligently pursued. Despite repeated applications to the D.C. Bar, it was only [*773] after a brusque letter to President Ulysses Grant that her diploma arrived and entry into the Bar was approved. Thus began a legal career which spanned the next forty years.

Not content to rest on her laurels and ever the self-promoter, Belva’s aspirations took her to the women’s rights and international peace movements. She served as vice president of another newly formed organization, the District of Columbia Universal Franchise Association (U.F.A.), a group devoted to the belief that all citizens, regardless of race or sex, are entitled to equal rights. Her ardent support of suffrage matters led her to petition Congress on behalf of these causes, and by 1870 she successfully attained passage of a bill providing equal pay for female civil service employees. The rest of the decade and into the 1880s, Belva’s law offices specialized in pension claims of Civil War veterans and represented clients, especially females, in equity, criminal and divorce proceedings. In 1874, foreseeing the possibility of arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Claims, Belva petitioned each to be admitted to their bar. Once again Belva was met with roadblocks at every turn, but she refused to relinquish the fight. In 1879, after five years of battling with the Courts and Congress, Belva became the first woman allowed to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

In 1884, the Equal Rights Party, recognizing Belva’s enthusiastic support of the women’s rights movement, nominated her as its presidential candidate. Though the chances of winning were improbable, Belva put everything into her candidacy and became the first woman to run a full-fledged presidential campaign. Stumping the country allowed her to spread the word of her presidential platform: equal rights for every class of citizen, a national temperance policy, along with proposed tariff, currency and land policies. It also served Belva’s self interest, allowing her to earn money from various lecture invitations and acquire clients in need of a Washington lawyer. In the end, Belva received more than 4000 votes. In 1888, nearing sixty, Belva was again nominated as the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party. Due to Belva’s lackluster campaigning and a woman running for the presidency no longer a newsworthy novelty, “no votes for her appear to have been recorded” (p. 167) in this election.

The rest of Belva’s life was spent as an activist for minority rights and international peace. She became a leader of the Universal Peace Union and represented the United States at peace conferences in Berne, Antwerp and Geneva. She worked assiduously for and wrote and lectured about world peace. Belva also continued the fight for voting rights by writing the women’s suffrage clauses in the Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma state bills. In addition, she worked tirelessly in securing passage of a property rights law for Washington, D.C. women. However, she did not abandon her law practice entirely. One of her more significant cases was argued on behalf of the Cherokee Indians who were seeking monetary compensation against the United States for forced removal. In a case that went to the [*774] Supreme Court, Belva won a $5 million settlement for the Cherokees.

Belva died in 1917 at the age of eighty-six. She outlived two husbands, two daughters and many of her contemporaries. Despite having a successful law practice for forty years, Belva died destitute. Her later years had been funded by a widow’s pension, funds from supporters and friends, and a small monthly stipend from Andrew Carnegie. To the end Belva remained a force to be reckoned with, a staunch and vocal advocate of women’s rights and a leader in the movement for world peace.

Although little has previously been written about Lockwood, Norgren has done an outstanding job of piecing together bits of information to reveal the life and times of this extraordinary woman. From the beginning, one gets a sense of the kind of woman to be encountered in this biography. Comments like “Lockwood exuded ego” (p.xiv), “inherent sense of her own worth” (p.9), and “Belva did not shy from controversy” (p.10) reveal a woman confident in herself and born to make history.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Deborah E. Sulzbach.