Run Like a Girl
Lady Presidential Candidates: Belva Lockwood (1830-1917)

Lady Presidential Candidates: Belva Lockwood (1830-1917)

Oh, Hillary. What a bitch. A liar. A cheat. A man-hater. A one-percenter. The Donald most definitely does NOT rate her a “ten” on his own, patented “Women Donald Trump Thinks Are Hot Scale.” A measure so significant that he even uses it to rate his own daughter!

Is this sad? Yes. Is this bad? Yes. Is it new? Nope.

Hillary, you are in great company. Welcome to the Nursing Clio “Run Like a Girl” series, where we tell you about all the ladies that have run for the esteemed office of President of the United States and all the crappy (but sometimes good) things that people said about them and their political candidacies!

You know a biography has got to be good when the Notorious RBG (aka Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) writes its introduction. The story of Belva Lockwood, the second woman to run for President of the United States, does not disappoint. Not unlike current Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Lockwood was the kind of ambitious, hardworking, feminist force-of-nature that should be in all little girls’ storybooks — hell, maybe she should be on all those little nightgowns and princess dresses instead of Elsa. Lockwood was one of the first female lawyers in the United States, the first woman lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court, a women’s rights and peace activist, and a presidential candidate not once, but twice.

Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood was born in 1830 in Royalton, a tiny farming community in Niagara County, New York. When she was fourteen, her good schoolwork earned her a position as teacher. Later in life, Lockwood looked back on this job as a turning point in her development into a feminist. She discovered that the male teachers were paid twice her salary — even late in life, she recalled this as “odious, an indignity not to be tamely borne.”1 (Considering this was in the 1840s, it certainly sounds like Belva would be more than a little annoyed to find that women are still paid seventy-nine cents for every dollar a man earns.)

"Lawyer Belva Lockwood," c. 1880 and 1890. (US Library of Congress)
“Lawyer Belva Lockwood,” c. 1880 and 1890. (US Library of Congress)

Teaching helped Lockwood realize that she craved further education. Her father refused, failing to see how higher education would benefit a daughter destined for marriage and motherhood. With little other choice, Belva married a well-respected farmer, Uriah McNall, at eighteen, and soon had a daughter, Lura.

The marriage did not last long. By 1853, Uriah had died, leaving Belva a widow and single mother with few prospects. After considering the typical options — remarriage, or perhaps living with relatives — Belva decided to “take destiny into her own hands.”2 She taught school, bringing her daughter with her, and saved money to pay for an education. In 1854, she left Lura in her parents’ care and traveled sixty miles east to Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, a finishing school for young ladies. But when she began her studies, she discovered that Genesee College, the nearby college, was in the beginning stages of co-education. She immediately requested a transfer to the college, where she could study politics and science rather than the feminine arts. She excelled, but also bent the rules that kept students isolated on campus (an attempt to keep students focused) by traveling to nearby Rochester to listen to lectures, particularly those by Susan B. Anthony on women’s rights.

After graduation, Belva returned to teaching, one of the few career paths open to women, and began trying to find a place where she could balance her political ambitions with a career. After purchasing and running a girls’ school for three years, she sold the institution for a handsome profit, and went in search of the next chapter of her life in Washington, DC. Here, she forged important and lasting friendships that might make a women’s history nerd swoon: pioneering female journalists Emily Briggs and Mary Clemmer Ames, and Civil War surgeon and gender non-conformer, Mary Walker. This group of friends, as well as the exciting political atmosphere, gave Lockwood what she was searching for, and she quickly became in involved in the fight for women’s suffrage.

Belva Lockwood with Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman in US history to become a fully ordained minister with a degree from a regularly established theological school, in 1913. Brown also tirelessly campaigned for suffrage and equal rights for women. (US Library of Congress)
Belva Lockwood with Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman in US history to become a fully ordained minister with a degree from a regularly established theological school, in 1913. Brown also tirelessly campaigned for suffrage and equal rights for women. (US Library of Congress)

Lockwood became entrenched in women’s rights organizations, including the Universal Franchise Association and the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and began the work of lobbying for change. One of her first projects hearkened back to that first eye-opening experience of sexism, pay inequity and employment discrimination. In 1870, she helped draft and push through the Arnell Bill, which would outlaw employment discrimination in the civil service. Though it took concessions to get it passed, the bill made meaningful changes in women’s lives: the percentage of women at higher pay grades in the United States Treasury rose from 4% to 20%.

Lobbying was not enough for the inimitable Lockwood. She had been reading the law on her own time, and in 1871, enrolled at National Law School in Washington, DC, along with fifteen other women. This enraged the male students, who caused so much of a ruckus that they not only frightened off all but two of the female students, but influenced the administration to inform Lockwood and her last female classmate that they would have to attend sex-segregated classes and would be barred from the main lectures. Lockwood and her fellow student completed the program, but then found out that the law school had decided they would not be awarded diplomas. Without diplomas, their legal education was useless — they could not be admitted to the bar. Not easily daunted, Lockwood wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant, asking him to intervene on her behalf and grant her the diploma. (Actually, she wrote him twice on the same day with the same request: once with formal supplication, and again with a sharply worded demand. Maybe this was like Lockwood’s version of Luther the Anger Translator?) Within two weeks, the diploma was in her hands.

Belva Lockwood in 1915. (Harris & Ewing/US Library of Congress)
Belva Lockwood in 1915. (Harris & Ewing/US Library of Congress)

Lockwood was admitted to the District of Columbia bar, but that didn’t mean she could practice without incident. Judges were routinely flabbergasted when she appeared in front of them — one, stunned at her presence before the bench, exclaimed “Mrs. Lockwood, you are a woman.”3 She acknowledged he was correct, and then waited while the judge sat, staring and speechless. As an attorney, Belva took a variety of cases — advocating for veterans, rape victims, wronged wives, and women in need.

In 1884, Lockwood’s political activism culminated in her nomination for President on the National Equal Rights Party ticket. Women’s rights activists were conflicted over running female nominees when women could not even vote for them, but Lockwood was nonplussed, stating “we shall never have equal rights until we take them, no respect until we command it.”4 Unlike Victoria Woodhull in 1872, Lockwood’s name appeared on the official presidential ballots and she received several thousand votes, but failed to win the office. She ran again with the Equal Rights Party in 1888 with no more success.

Puck political cartoon, titled "Now Let the Show Go On!," from the 1884 election showing a woman labeled "Mrs. Lockwood" bursting through a stage trap door next to a clown labeled "B.B." (Frederick Burr Opper/Puck/US Library of Congress)
Puck political cartoon, titled “Now Let the Show Go On!,” from the 1884 election showing a woman labeled “Mrs. Lockwood” bursting through a stage trap door next to a clown labeled “B.B.” (Frederick Burr Opper/Puck/US Library of Congress)

This failure did little to slow Lockwood down, though she did retreat from women’s rights organizations. Other prominent activists, including Susan B. Anthony, were frustrated with what they perceived as Lockwood’s “Barnum” antics in running for office, which were considered a distraction from more feasible goals.5 Instead, she became more involved in the peace movement. Always a writer, she poured more energy into journalism, becoming co-publisher of the women’s magazine Equal Rights. She published numerous bold essays about her career in the law, the role of women in politics, and the work of peace. She argued before the Supreme Court in 1905 on behalf of the Eastern and Emigrant band of the Cherokee nation, helping to secure them a significant payout from the federal government. She was ever working, thinking, and writing — even at age 86, just months before her death in 1917, she was regaling journalists with her career history and delivering impassioned speeches to visitors about Woodrow Wilson.

In 1914, pondering what the future might hold for women politicians, Belva Lockwood foreshadowed a conversation we’re still having today: “If [a woman] demonstrates that she is fitted to be president she will someday occupy the White House. It will be entirely on her own merits, however. No movement can place her there simply because she is a woman. It will come if she proves herself mentally fit for the position.”6

Lockwood’s musings are so relevant to the debates of today. Hillary Clinton’s women supporters are accused of many things, one of which is a hysterical desire to see a woman president — any woman president — so badly they’ll vote exclusively with their vaginas. So perhaps Clinton should take solace in Belva Lockwood’s century-old wisdom.

And I don’t know about you, but to me, a woman who has performed public service for much of her working life, a former Senator and Secretary of State, certainly seems “fit” for the job.


  1. Jill Norgren, Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President (New York: New York University Press, 2007), Kindle edition, loc. 241. Return to text.
  2. Norgren, Belva Lockwood, loc. 270. Return to text.
  3. Norgen, Belva Lockwood, loc. 1621. Return to text.
  4. Norgren, Belva Lockwood, loc. 2934. Return to text.
  5. Norgren, Belva Lockwood, loc. 3963. Return to text.
  6. Norgren, Belva Lockwood, loc. 3231. Return to text.

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.