Social Education 66(2), pp. 117-120
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies

A Bill to Relieve Certain Legal Disabilities of Women


Lee Ann Potter

In February 1878, by a vote of 169 to 87 in the House of Representatives, and twelve months later, by a vote of 39 to 20 in the Senate, Congress approved “A Bill to Relieve Certain Legal Disabilities of Women.” On February 15, 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. Sixteen days later, the Supreme Court’s minute book included an entry that read, “It is ordered that Belva A. Lockwood, of Washington City, District of Columbia, be admitted to practice as an attorney and consellor [sic] of this court and she was sworn in accordingly.” Thus, Lockwood became the first woman admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court. Her admission, however, came after a long struggle.

She was born Belva Ann Bennett in Royalton, New York, in 1830. She began teaching school there when she was fifteen, earning half the salary that her male colleagues earned. She married at eighteen, became a mother at twenty, and was widowed at twenty-two. At twenty-four, in 1854, she enrolled in Genessee College, leaving her daughter with her parents. Following her graduation in 1857, she taught at a seminary and later became a school principal. After the Civil War, in 1866, she moved herself and her sixteen-year-old daughter to Washington, D.C., where she opened the first coeducational school in the city, became involved in the suffrage and temperance movements, and began to study law. In 1868, she married Dr. Ezekiel Lockwood, a dentist and Baptist minister; he died in 1877.

In 1870, at age forty, Lockwood entered the National University Law School (it later became George Washington University) and completed her course work three years later. She was refused her diploma, however, on the basis of her gender. Without the diploma, she could not be admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and could not practice law. So she promptly wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant, ex-officio President of the school, and demanded it. Grant did not respond to her letter, but two weeks later, the university’s chancellor presented Lockwood with her diploma. Soon after, she was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, becoming the second woman attorney in the nation’s capital (following Charlotte E. Ray, who had been admitted in 1872) and one of the few licensed to practice law anywhere in the country.

As a practicing attorney, Lockwood developed a specialization in pension and land claims. The staff of her law office processed thousands of Civil War veterans’ pension claims between the early 1870s and the 1890s. She also represented other clients, and in this capacity her admission to the Supreme Court Bar became necessary.

In 1874, Charlotte Van Cort hired Lockwood to file a case against the government for use and infringement of a patent. Lockwood anticipated the need to argue the case before the U.S. Court of Claims, and in April 1874 she asked Washington attorney A.A. Hosmer to move for her admission to the Claims Court Bar. Surprisingly, given her status as a practicing attorney in the District, her admission was refused. The basis for the denial was her gender; had she been male, the motion for her admission would have been granted. In the denial, Court of Claims Judge Charles Nott indicated that “admission to the bar constitutes an office . . . It is an artificial employment, created not to give idle persons occupation, nor needy persons subsistence, but to aid in the administration of public justice.” He concluded by saying, “if we err, the Supreme Court can review our error and give relief to the applicant by mandamus.”

Immediately, Lockwood turned to Congress, lobbying for legislation that would address the discrimination against women in the federal courts. Neither House took action, though, other than referring her petition to committee, where it sat for two years. She also considered asking the Supreme Court for relief.

Lockwood knew that the Rules of the Supreme Court permitted an attorney to apply for permission to practice at that Court after successfully practicing in a state, territory, or the District of Columbia Supreme Court for three years. By fall 1876, she had met that requirement, and her admission to the Supreme Court’s Bar was moved by local attorney, supporter of women’s rights, and former Ohio congressman, Albert G. Riddle.

Riddle’s motion, however, was denied. In explaining the denial, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite announced, “By uniform practice of the court from its origin to the present time and by the fair construction of its rules, none but men are permitted to practice before it as attorneys and counselors. This is in accordance with immemorial usage in England, and the law and practice in all the States, until within a recent period, and that the Court does not feel called upon to make a change until such a change is required by statute or a more extended practice in the higher courts of the States.”

Waite’s announcement confirmed Lockwood’s belief that legislation was her only option. So she returned to Capitol Hill for the next two years, stubbornly pleading the case for women attorneys’ right to equal treatment. In a four-page brief that she submitted to members of Congress in early 1878, she refuted each item in both Judge Charles Nott’s and Chief Justice Waite’s denials. She referred members of Congress to the inalienable rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, to Article Four of the Constitution, and to the Fourteenth Amendment. She offered instances in which women had practiced law in England and gave other examples of women holding government offices, including pension agents and notary publics.

Many of the same arguments that Lockwood made were also presented by California Senator Aaron Sargent on the floor of the Senate prior to its vote. He stated, “Men have not the right, in contradiction to the intentions, the wishes, the ambition, of women, to say that their sphere shall be circumscribed, that bounds shall be set which they cannot pass. The enjoyment of liberty, the pursuit of happiness in her own way, is as much a birthright of woman as of man.” His arguments also made it clear that the passage of the bill would not only allow women admission to the bar, but also secure for all citizens the right to select their own counsel.

The Senate followed the House’s lead and voted to approve the bill, which is featured in this article. Within days of the president’s signing it, Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court and to the Bar of the U.S. Claims Court. She later moved for the admission of Samuel R. Lowery, the first Southern African-American attorney, to the Bar of the Supreme Court, and became the first woman to offer oral arguments before the Supreme Court. In addition, she ran for President in 1884 and 1888 as the Equal Rights Party candidate.

Her impact on the legal system, however, was not limited to these “firsts.” As an attorney, she assisted many clients and affected the outcome of their cases. The last case in which she participated in full argument was United States v. Cherokee Nation. In it, she represented nearly 6,000 Cherokee whose ancestors had been forced to relocate westward after the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1835. Partly through her efforts, in 1906 (when Lockwood was 76), the Cherokee were awarded damages totaling nearly $5 million.


Teaching Activities

• Write the title “A Bill to Relieve Certain Legal Disabilities of Women” and the years 1878-79 on the chalkboard and ask students what they think the bill referred to. Record their suggestions on the board.

• Distribute copies of the document to students or project it on an overhead screen. Ask one student to read it aloud while the others follow along. Lead a class discussion by posing the following questions: What type of document is it? What is the date of the document? Who created it? For what purpose?

• Inform students that the bill was signed into law in February 1879 due in large part to the efforts of Belva A. Lockwood, a Washington, D.C. attorney. Provide students with copies of the background essay, then ask them to read it and write a one-page biography of Lockwood. Or suggest that they conduct additional research into the lives of the other individuals mentioned in the article and write a one-page biography about one of them. Possibilities include Charlotte E. Ray, Representative Albert G. Riddle, Senator Aaron Sargent, Judge Charles Nott, Chief Justice Waite, and Samuel R. Lowery.

• Remind students that in Lockwood’s four-page brief in support of the bill, she referred Congress to the Declaration of Independence, Article Four of the Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Divide students into three groups, assign each group one of these documents, and ask them to read the document and determine how Lockwood may have used its contents in support of the bill to admit women to the Bar of the Supreme Court. Encourage spokespeople from each group to share their conclusions with the class.

• Divide students into small groups and ask each group to conduct research into another Supreme Court “first” by using library and Internet resources. Possibilities include the first oral arguments made by a woman, the first African American admitted to the bar, the first African American appointed to the Court, and the first woman appointed to the Court. Ask students to present their findings in a newspaper article or a news broadcast performed for the class.

• Explain to students that admission to the Supreme Court’s Bar was one of many milestones achieved by women. Encourage students to refer to their text books, the Internet, and library resources and create a timeline listing ten events: what they judge to be the five most significant milestones achieved by women prior to and following passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Encourage volunteers to share their timelines with the class.

• Invite students to research other parts of the world today and find out what are the restrictions placed on individuals based on gender. Lead a class discussion from the students’ findings.



The document featured comes from the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, and is housed in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.


For More Information

Norgren, Jill. “Before It Was Merely Difficult: Belva Lockwood’s Life in Law and Politics.” Journal of the Supreme Court (1999). Available online at


Lee Ann Potter is the head of Education and Volunteer Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. She serves as the editor for Teaching with Documents, a regular department of Social Education. Documents shown here may be reproduced in any quantity.