Worth the Read: Belva Lockwood’s “My Efforts to Become a Lawyer”

Worth the Read: Belva Lockwood’s “My Efforts to Become a Lawyer”

Belva A. Lockwood
Belva A. Lockwood

I discovered a new hero tonight, and it’s not just because Belva Lockwood advocated in the 1860s for the notion that girls should be taught to roller skate. Lockwood was one of this country’s first woman lawyers, and the first woman to be admitted to practice under and argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.  My partner was reading a history book about Lockwood, CA this evening and declared that our apprentice blog could potentially be called LikeLockwood, instead of LikeLincoln.  Lockwood wasn’t a lawyer’s apprentice, but since she was repeatedly blocked from attending law school and lectures in her attempt to become a lawyer, she was partially a self-taught lawyer.  Lockwood’s story could be an inspiring one for the legal apprenticeship movement, and it’s not only because she found many creative ways to learn the law outside of law school.  I’m also struck by the fact that, in the same way that women were denied the ability to practice law in the 1800s, being low-income today may constructively block someone from doing so by virtue of the high costs of law school.

Lockwood’s 17-page article entitled “My Efforts to Become a Lawyer,” is attached here, and also posted as a public service by the late Janet Kagan. (Thank you, Janet!)  Lockwood’s witty style makes it a good read, and her story is amazing. A widowed single mother by the age of 23, she put herself through college and set the intention to study law. She hit so many roadblocks, it’s amazing that she didn’t give up.  Here are some highlights from her story:

  • Her law study began with a renegade law professor in her village: “There was at this time no Law Department connected with [my college], or I should undoubtedly have asked admission thereto. But a law class was opened in the village by a young law professor, and a goodly number of college and seminary students, myself among the number, commenced attendance thereon. Naturally enough, the class was frowned upon by the faculties of both seminary and college, as an intrusion upon their rights; but this was the beginning of my study of the law.”
  • Though she barely had any money, she moved to Washington D.C. to learn about government… kinda like how artists move to New York City and actors move to L.A. to try to “make it.”In February, 1866, I sold out my school property in Owego, and came to Washington, for no other purpose than to see what was being done at this great political centre,—this seething pot,—to learn something of the practical workings of the machinery of government, and to see what the great men and women of the country felt and thought.”
  • She took a part-time job as a teacher and spent all her spare time exploring D.C., taking in Congressional hearings and U.S. Supreme Court arguments. She later started a school, and, she writes: “All my leisure hours were employed in study. And now, possessing myself of an old copy of the Four Books of Blackstone’s Commentaries, I gave myself daily tasks until I had read and re-read them through.”
  • She then re-married, but, she writes, “marriage did not cure my mania for the law. The school was given up, and during the following year I read Kent’s Commentaries, occupying all the spare moments in the midst of my domestic work.”
  • In 1869, she applied to study at Columbian College of Law, but was denied in a letter from the college President, who wrote that her admission “’would be likely to distract the attention of the young men.’”
  • Next she was allowed to enroll in the National University Law School, but was later denied access to lectures and was, for a long time, denied a diploma. She writes: “It was not long before there commenced to be a growl by the young men, some of them declaring openly that they would not graduate with women. The women were notified that they could no longer attend the lectures, but would be permitted to complete the course of studies. As Commencement day approached, it became very evident that we were not to receive our diplomas, nor be permitted to appear on the stage with the young men at graduation.”
  • Lockwood was finally granted a diploma in 1873 after writing this scathing letter to President Ulysses S. Grant: “To His Excellency U.S. Grant, President U.S.A.:  “SIR,—You are, or you are not, President of the National University Law School. If you are its President, I desire to say to you that I have passed through the curriculum of study in this school, and am entitled to, and demand, my diploma. If you are not its President, then I ask that you take your name from its papers, and not hold out to the world to be what you are not.  “Very respectfully, “Belva A. Lockwood.”
  • Lockwood was admitted to practice in the District Court, but later denied admission to practice in the Federal Court of Claims, because, as the judge delivering the opinion in response to her petition wrote: “’The position which this court assumes is that under the laws and Constitution of the United States a court is without power to grant such an application, and that a woman is without legal capacity to take the office of attorney.’”  Lockwood writes, “[o]f course this was a squelcher,” but she carried on practice and hired a male attorney to argue her cases in that court.
  • When one of her cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court, she writes:Those nine gowned judges looked at me in amazement and dismay. The case was taken under advisement, and on the following Monday an opinion 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.’”
  • Lockwood spent the next couple years pursuing legislation to allow women to practice law, and eventually succeeded: “On the 3d of March, 1879, on motion of the Hon. A. G. Riddle, I was admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court. The passage of that bill virtually opened the doors of all the Federal courts in the country to the women of the land, whenever qualified for such admission.”

I love the whole story. I’m inspired that she worked so hard to solidify women’s right to practice law. I’m inspired by all the ways that Lockwood found to study law while she was denied access to formally study it. In many ways, that’s what this LikeLincoln blog is about – exploring the many ways to learn about law without going to law school.

There are many other little gems in Lockwood’s article. Here’s the bit about roller skating: Lockwood’s early work running a seminar for women included teaching gymnastics and calisthenics, and she adds: “I quite shocked the lady proprietor who was associated with me in the school by recommending, as the cold weather came on, skating as a proper exercise for the young ladies. This good dame looked upon the innovation as not only immodest, but as highly irreligious. The roller-skate and the skating-rink had not then been dreamed of.”

On top of everything else, did Lockwood invent the roller skating rink??