As I write this, four prominent female senators have announced their interest in running for the presidency in 2020.
They are, no doubt, encouraged by the results of last year’s mid-term elections when so many women won their electoral races. I am intrigued by this and decided to check out the first woman who ran for the office of president of the United States.
The very first was Virginia Woodhull, a New York publisher who attempted such a bid in 1872. Her candidacy, though, was extremely limited.
The first woman to mount a nationwide campaign for that office was Belva Bennett Lockwood who ran in 1884 and 1888. Smart, well-spoken and politically savvy, Lockwood was a serious candidate even though she was challenging the then-prevalent ideas of feminine propriety.
Born in 1930, the child of poor farmers in Niagara Falls, N.Y., she was widowed at the age of 22. A teacher with a young daughter to support, she fought convention to obtain a college degree and dreamed of a life in law or politics.
In 1866, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she remarried and applied for admission to several law schools. The new National University Law School admitted her and several of her reform-minded friends in 1871.
Despite pressure and prejudice because of her gender, Belva persevered and petitioned President Ulysses S. Grant, titular head of the law school, to approve her degree.
Throughout the 1870s, Lockwood practiced law in the capital. She waged and won a fight to get qualified women attorneys the privilege of practicing in federal courts. She was the first woman to be sworn into the Supreme Court bar and, in 1880, became the first woman to argue and win a case before that high court.
In 1884, the California-based Equal rights Party drafted her as its presidential nominee. She soon made it clear that she intended to be taken seriously, outlining principles that expressed both bold positions and comfortable compromise.
She promised to promote and maintain equal political privileges for “every class of our citizens, irrespective of sex, color or nationality.” Her campaign slogan was simply “I cannot vote, but I can be voted for.”
I find it interesting that suffrage leaders refused to support her, thinking her candidacy distracted from the issue of women’s vote. Lockwood supported her travels as a paid lecturer and found that journalists treated her with even-handed professionalism.
The election of Nov. 2, 1884, was close with Grover Cleveland defeating James J. Blaine and over 10 million votes cast. Lockwood collected 5,000 votes in the eight states where her name had been allowed on the ballot. She made the presidential candidacy of a woman a part of American political history and ran again in 1888.
Babies and towns were named for her. She increased her public appearances throughout the world on behalf of human rights, advocating the use of arbitration and international courts as a means of preventing war. She also maintained her law office in Washington.
Well into her 80s, she made public appearances urging passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all women the right to vote. She died in 1917, three years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Belva Lockwood is honored today in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, primarily for her efforts to promote women in the field of law. She was definitely a trailblazer, and we can hope that today’s candidates follow her example.