“All men are created equal.” Despite the pronoun chosen, the meaning of the Declaration of Independence’s most recognizable sentence is clear: this is a nation founded on the principles of equality. Despite this, only within the last century have women achieved suffrage. Women achieved suffrage though the efforts of individuals who dissolved prejudices and dismantled stereotypes by entering male-dominated fields. One such prejudice held in the nineteenth century was that women were unfit to hold careers similar to those of men.

Material Culture Methods Bleva

Legal Certificate, Lockwood (Belva Ann), 1879, Ink on Paper, H: 14 x W: 17 in., Fenimore Art Museum Research Library, Cooperstown, New York, The Ormes-Winner Collection, FM-60.71, Coll. 213.

A document in the Fenimore Art Museum Library’s collection, reveals the story of a woman who entered such a career in 1879. Her life blossomed into a career that pushed the issue of woman’s equality and suffrage into the national spotlight. By writing the name of a woman, Belva A. Lockwood, on a space traditionally held for men, the document is a physical representation of the first step an individual took towards achieving woman’s suffrage in the United States.

On the surface, the document is a straightforward legal certificate from the nineteenth century. Along the top is printed “Supreme Court of the United States.” Below the heading are images of the Judicial branch: blinded Justice carrying her scales, an angelic figure pointing to the Constitution, and a bald eagle standing atop a collection of legal texts. These documents with their seal from the Supreme Court were released to numerous male attorneys annually. What makes these documents unique are the handwritten names of the recipients, in this case, Belva A. Lockwood. With this document, she was given the title, “Attorney and Counselor of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Becoming a female Attorney of the Supreme Court was a groundbreaking achievement in the nineteenth century. Consequently, Lockwood encountered numerous setbacks. The Claims Court Bar denied her admission in 1874 due to her gender. In explaining his decision, Chief Justice Charles Drake, who presided over the admissions process, wrote: “Mistress Lockwood, you are a woman…a married woman!” [1] This charge was a continuation of coverture, that upon marriage, the legal existence of a woman was incorporated into that of her husband’s.

Despite the resistance she encountered, Lockwood was the first woman to present oral arguments before the Supreme Court,Kaiser v. Stickney in 1880. [2] Lockwood was also the first woman to run a full presidential campaign. She ran her campaign believing that it would help woman gain both the right to vote and be accepted into another male-dominated arena: politics. Her campaign garnered national attention to the issue of suffrage. [3]

Lockwood reflected, “of great men…law has been the stepping stone to greatness.” She believed that after penetrating the legal profession, women could attain further achievements. [4] Once her name was written on a space traditionally reserved for men, she launched herself, and womankind, into other male-dominated fields. Ultimately, her career led her to politics where she put suffrage into the spotlight.

By James Connally

[1] Certificate to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court issued to Belva Lockwood, 3 March 1879, Belva Ann Lockwood Papers. & Jill Norgren, Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 68.

[2] Jill Norgren, “Belva Lockwood: Blazing the Trail for Women in Law, Part 2,” Prologue Magazine, Spring 2005, https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/spring/belva-lockwood-2.html.

[3] Norgren, “Belva Lockwood: Blazing the Trail for Women in Law.”

[4] Belva A. Lockwood, “My Efforts to Become a Lawyer,” in Belva A. Lockwood, ed. Julia Hull Winner (Niagara Falls: Fose Printing, Inc, 1969), 116.