Belva Lockwood and the admission of women to the federal bar

belva-lockwood-205x256

On this day in 1879, President Hayes signed into law a bill permitting women to practice before all federal courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States. The legislation was largely the handiwork of Belva Lockwood, a pioneering attorney who had lobbied Congress on the matter for years.

Lockwood fought tenaciously to advance her legal career, as well as that of others. When the National University School of Law (now George Washington University) refused to give her a diploma upon completion of her studies, she appealed directly to President Ulysses S. Grant. (She received her diploma a week later.) Even though local judges professed to have no confidence in her, she built a successful law practice in Washington, DC. And when she was rejected for admission to the Supreme Court bar on account of her gender in 1876, she worked to pass legislation that, three years later, opened the Court to all qualified women. Lockwood would argue her first case before the Supreme Court in 1880, and later sponsored for admission Samuel R. Lowery, the first black lawyer to argue a case before the Court.

The landmark 1879 legislation did not open all doors for women in the legal profession. It would be many more decades before most law schools would admit women, and even then on largely unequal terms.* And, of course, the push to create a fully equal workplace (in and out of court) continues today. But Belva Lockwood played a central role in creating a path for so many successful female lawyers over the past 150 years, and it is fitting that we remember her today.

* Here I once more have to kvell about the honor of teaching at New England Law Boston, which in 1908 became the first law school exclusively for women.