Belva Lockwood and the Precedents She Set for Women’s Rights

By Ann Marie Linnabery

This lesson will examine the Woman’s Rights Movement in the context of the life and career of Belva Lockwood. By studying the precedents Lockwood set for women’s rights against the backdrop of national suffrage events, students will be able to comprehend how one individual’s actions can influence others to take additional steps to bring about change for a particular group of people. The students will achieve this understanding by reading texts, analyzing images and discussing how the resolution of past injustices could be applied to current situations involving discrimination based on gender, race, religion, socio-economic status, gender identity or other circumstances. 

Guiding Questions :

  • How did Belva Lockwood set precedents in woman’s rights? What is a precedent?
  • What actions did she take to achieve these important milestones?  

30-45 minutes


The learning objective of the lesson is for students to develop reading and analytical skills by examining written materials (historical documents, Lockwood’s own writings) as well as photographs, political cartoons and other images, and then draw conclusion based on the evidence; analyze certain words and phrases used in Lockwood’s writing; identify any current situation in which the participation/equality rights of an individual or a particular group has been called into question (i.e. some religious denominations, certain types of sports, some gender-specific organizations); discuss what actions might be taken to resolve conflicts over these rights. 


Students should have a general understanding on the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States.


Warm Up 

Teacher should show the “Belva Lockwood: From Log Cabin to the Supreme Court” PowerPoint to students. Explain that they are going to do a close reading and a close looking activity focused on Lockwood’s life. The PowerPoint provides a general overview of Lockwood’s life. Before starting the PowerPoint, teachers can tell the students the following: 

“Belva Lockwood was a young wife and mother at about the time of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. After her first husband died, she decided to continue her education and embark on a career in teaching. After spending more than 10 years as an educator, Belva made the decision to study law in Washington, D.C. After pushback and discrimination due to her gender, Lockwood received her law degree in 1873 and became the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court Bar in 1879. In 1884, Lockwood ran for President on the Equal Rights Party ticket, receiving over 4,000 votes but losing the election. She continued to practice law and advocate for women’s rights and suffrage until her death in 1917.” 


Activity #1  

Hand out the attached excerpts to small groups of students. Have students read the following passages and discuss the phrases that are bolded

Excerpts from “My Efforts to Become a Lawyer” 1888  

“Graduating from the district school [in 1844 at age 14], I was soon a teacher of those who so recently been my associates. Here again came up the odious distinction of my sex. The male teachers in the free schools of the State of New York received more than double the salary paid to the women teachers at that time, simply because they were men, and for precisely the same work. It was an indignity not to be tamely borne by one with so little discriminations of the merits and demerits of sex, and of course, impolite as it may seem, I at once began to agitate this questions, arguing that pay should be for work, and commensurate to it, and not be based on sex. To-day [1878] this custom is changed.” 

Discussion: Belva Lockwood grew up at a time, and in a family, when it was accepted by most men, and many women, that females were inherently inferior to males. Why do you think the young Belva was so indignant about salary inequality between male and female teachers in the 1840s? What does she mean by “odious distinction” and “an indignity not to be tamely borne”?   

In 1876, on learning the fate of her third failed attempt to be admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court, Lockwood wrote: 

“Those nine gowned judges looked at me in amazement and dismay. The case was taken under advisement, and on the following Monday an opinion was rendered, of which the following is the substance: “As this court knows no English precedent for the admission of women to the bar, it declines to admit, unless there shall be a more extended public opinion, or special legislation.” No pen can portray my utter astonishment and surprise with which I listened to this decision.”   

Discussion: Why do you think the judges looked at Lockwood with “astonishment and dismay”? Why would the Supreme Court of the United States defer to the “English precedent” rather than setting their own precedent for who should be admitted to the bar?  


Activity #2 

Have students work in small groups to examine the political cartoon (linked) from the cover of Judge magazine (Vol. 7 No. 157) for October 18, 1884. This edition was published three weeks before the 1884 election in which Belva Lockwood was a candidate for president on the Equal Rights Party ticket. (Teachers: Explain the context of cartoon to the students): One of the reform measures that was of great interest at the time was the “temperance movement” which advocated the restriction, and eventual elimination, of alcohol in the United States. Lockwood was a vocal supporter of temperance and included it as one of her 15 campaign platform points). Using the See-Think- Wonder approach. Have students discuss the following questions related to this cartoon

Discussion: Who does the figure holding the chair represent? Why might they be in a stable? Who might the “coachman” be that caption is referring to? What is “Mash”? Why do you think Lockwood is saying “Peek-A-Boo” to the figure holding the chair? Why might the figure be fearful of Lockwood? The man at the top of the picture is “The Judge.” Who might he represent? What might he be judging? 


Teachers may consult any of the additional images located in the Further Research/Resource section below to either replace or supplement the close-looking exercise. 


Wrap Up 

Teacher should explain to students that Belva Lockwood may not have broken the glass ceiling for women who wished to enter the legal profession, or the political arena, but she defiantly put a large crack in it with the two precedents she set as the first woman to argue a case in the United States Supreme Court in 1879, and the first woman to run for president with her name on the official ballot and receive votes in the elections of 1884 and 1888. As wrap up  questions, the teachers can ask one or a few of the following: 

  1. Ask the students if they can name any other woman who set a precedent in the United States (i.e. Shirley Chisholm, Hillary Clinton, Sally Ride, Kamala Harris) or the world (Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher). 

  1. Ask students to identify any incidents in their own lives or the lives of family members/friends/classmates when action was taken to change a situation that led to the improvement of the lives or circumstances for an individual or group of people 

  1. Explain what positive action you might take when you encounter a situation where your rights are being violated? How could you set a precedent that would enable others to exercise their rights to continue to make positive change? 

Assessment / Homework

As an extension activity, teachers can assign either as homework or as a class activity the Belva Lockwood – Women's Rights Timeline Comparison. The students will use the timeline to understand Belva’s life and how her life relates to, was influenced by, and relates to the Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. After examining the Timeline, students should provide an evidence-based answer to the following question: “How was Belva Lockwood’s life and career influenced by the Women’s Rights Movement?” 

Length of the written assignment can be determined by the teacher. If additional resources are required or desired for the students to use to answer the question, a list is provided in the Further Research/Resources section below.  

Future Research / Resources

Additional Images for Close-Looking Activity 


Additional Resources for Extension Activity (Timeline)