Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President
by Jill Norgren
A review by Christine Stansell
Women's biographies are the pre-eminent form of popular women's history, and the only nonfiction books that female readers will dependably buy. In the past forty years, the genre has flourished, nourished by an unending curiosity about women's lives that feminism generates. Famous men's wives and sisters turn out to have amazing stories of their own (Vera Nabokov, Alice James, Zelda Fitzgerald). Sagas of sisters, spun from strands of rivalry and adoration, are mesmerizing (the Peabodys, the Mitfords). Writers, their struggles for art and life in equal measure inevitably complicated by their sex, are an endless store of plots (Virginia Woolf, Margaret Fuller, Colette). Family relations, marriage, motherhood, isolation, sex, social opprobrium, anger, friendship, and creativity: all are explored in the study of such women's lives.
The same cannot be said about political power. Biographies of Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt illuminate the achievements of women at the edges of formal politics. Of those who wielded institutional power, only Eleanor Rathbone, one of Britain's first female members of Parliament, has merited a significant book. True, there are any number of biographies of queens and aristocrats who practiced politics in oblique and unusual ways; and true, there are many studies of women in protest politics, beginning with the great feminists of the nineteenth century (Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Stanton, Angelina and Sarah Grimké) and running through the civil rights movement (Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer). But it is undeniable that most biographies of women concern love, creativity, and the search for self, rather than ambition and the scramble for the nomination.
The obvious reason is that women have been barred from politics for so long that there are few figures of importance to observe and to study. Yet the absence of biography redoubles the difficulties in understanding the lives of those women who have gone into politics. From a distance, they seem a little dull. It is easier to haul them back into the familiar plots of modern womanhood -- thwarted ambition, struggle for self-esteem -- than to imagine what they mostly do and mostly care about: winning elections, lining up votes, passing bills, making policy. For these reasons, Jill Norgren's study of Belva Lockwood (which comes with a graceful preface
by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) is a very unusual book.
Belva Green McNall Lockwood was born in 1830, too late for the great struggles of abolition and too early for the practical politics of the Progressive era. A child of a poor farming family, she grew up in western New York, known as the "burned-over district" for its spiritual fervor; religion mixed with social reform in evangelical revivals, abolition, and temperance. She wanted to finish school, but her father believed there was no point in spending money to educate a girl. So in 1848, at the age of eighteen, she married one Uriah McNall. "The daughter of a poor farmer, I followed the well-trodden road, and was united in marriage to a promising young farmer of my neighborhood," she said of her choice many years later, unsentimentally and with a touch of sociological asperity.
Also in 1848, reform-minded women several counties away to the east, in Seneca Falls, held a meeting dedicated solely to the subject of the rights of woman. Lockwood must have caught something of that spirit, for when her husband died five years later, leaving her with a small daughter to support, she insisted on returning to school, this time to a nearby seminary (the closest there was to college education for girls) in order to train as a teacher. She graduated and made a go of it, supporting herself and her daughter and, during the Civil War, running her own school. But by the end of the war her ambitions had broadened. She sold the school building for a tidy profit, and in 1866, with her teenage daughter, set out boldly for Washington, D.C. Her only motive seems to have been a fascination with national politics, a desire to be what we would call "inside the Beltway."
The town was still a muddy, shambling place, all the more so because the aftermath of the war had flooded it with demobilized soldiers, freedpeople, transients, and refugees. Politics were at a fever pitch, with Congress repudiating Andrew Johnson's policies of appeasement to the South and embarking on its own plan for Reconstruction. Belva McNall watched the debates from the "Ladies Gallery" in the new Senate chamber. A respectable, self-supporting widow, she joined a hustling middle class taking shape in Washington, émigrés from small towns and the countryside who found a foothold in a government bureaucracy that had vastly expanded during the war. "Such people resided in boarding houses, toiled as clerks and teachers, and experimented with small enterprise," writes Norgren, who conveys an interesting sense of the social history of the city.
Belva McNall was one of the strivers, and she soon married another, the much-older Ezekiel Lockwood, an entrepreneurial amalgam of dentist, real estate agent, and pension-claims agent. It was not a love match, but a practical partnership of two people who were fond of each other. Ezekiel would not share all of Belva's "ultraist" views about women, but he respected her and supported her through thin patches, and he benefited from her practical bent for moneymaking and capacity for taking risks that paid off.
Belva Lockwood found a way into national politics through women's rights circles. The prewar movement, comprising men and women whose feminism was born of deep anti-slavery commitments, had gone into abeyance during the Civil War. It revived in the mid-1860s, only to split bitterly over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guaranteed full citizenship and voting rights to the freedmen but not to the freedwomen, or to any other women. One group of suffragists endorsed the Republican Party's judgment that the freedmen's situation was so dire that it required immediate action, and that an attempt to institute universal suffrage would doom the entire enterprise. The other group, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, saw universal manhood suffrage as the Republicans' capitulation to exigency and a betrayal of democratic principle. They denounced their old Republican allies and demanded a Sixteenth Amendment to enfranchise women.
Stanton and Anthony started their own organization, reaching out to recruits just like Lockwood -- younger, mostly free of other political loyalties, and eager for feminist politics that were straightforward, bold, and uncomplicated. Lockwood was taken with the intellectual excitement and vigor of the suffrage milieu, as well as with the opportunity to take on political heft. She moved up in the ranks quickly, and by 1871 she was president of the suffrage group in the capital.
It was a moment when suffragists in the Stanton-Anthony wing of the movement were interested in the problems of working women. One way to focus that interest was to protest the disparity in wages between male clerical workers in the federal government and the thousands of women who flooded those jobs during the war and remained in place thereafter. Lockwood took it upon herself to pursue the issue and launched her first congressional campaign, a one-woman lobbying effort to secure a bill outlawing pay discrimination on the basis of sex in federal jobs.
Opponents succeeded in watering down the bill to a mild affirmation of equal opportunity, but Lockwood nonetheless found important male allies in both houses who could grasp the demeaning, anti-egalitarian meanings of wage discrimination. Norgren judges that despite the defeat, the experience was valuable for Lockwood and efficacious for working women. The percentage of women clerks paid at the top grade quadrupled in the next decade. It certainly taught Lockwood a lot about Congress: "Broad principle was sacrificed in the name of a modest but nonetheless affirmative statement by Congress in the matter of equal employment rights."
Most women's rights reformers were married women supported by their husbands. Lockwood's sustained attention to the problems of working women was unusual. But at the edges of the suffrage movement was a tiny group who, taking to heart the feminist call for women to utilize their full capacities, determined to acquire sufficient training and credentials to enter the heavily defended male bastions of the professions. By the 1870s, token women had squeezed into law, the ministry, and medicine. Maria Mitchell was even named professor of astronomy at the newly opened Vassar College in 1865. There were several hundred women physicians, a handful of female ministers, and a half-dozen attorneys around the country. In 1872, Charlotte Ray, daughter of a prominent African American family in Washington, was the first woman admitted to the D.C. bar.
In 1870, shortly after she gave birth to a second child, Lockwood began attending classes at a local law college, setting off a flurry of condescending notice in the newspapers. Characteristically indifferent to notoriety, she completed the course of study with the intent of joining the ranks of practicing attorneys. Although the college refused to grant her a degree because she was a woman, she went ahead and applied for admission to the D.C. bar, which denied her petition because she lacked the requisite degree.
It was a tough time to embark on a legal career. In 1873, the Supreme Court dealt a stunning blow to women lawyers in Bradwell v. Illinois, which upheld a lower court's ruling that the Illinois bar could refuse to admit Myra Bradwell, a Chicago attorney who practiced law with her husband (both were active campaigners for women's suffrage), on the grounds of the timidity and the domestic nature of the sex. The situation was uneven and complex: a few state bars had admitted women, and by the time Myra Bradwell's case reached the Court, the state of Illinois had passed a law granting all persons, regardless of sex, the freedom to choose a profession. But Bradwell had a strong negative effect in confirming powerful prejudices against women's ability to engage in legal reasoning and endure the nasty business of litigation.
Here Lockwood's story departs from the standard plot lines of the plucky nineteenth-century feminist's story. Blocked at two levels -- by the highest court in the country and by a plain little law college -- she did not write a stirring tract on injustice toward women, or dash off furious letters of protest to the newspapers, or deliver moving speeches to fellow suffragists on the tyranny of the law. She did not tactically retreat, as did Myra Bradwell, who pursued a successful law career in partnership with her husband but did not re-apply to the Illinois bar until 1890. Such were the eminently reasonable and intellectually satisfying responses of many brilliant nineteenth-century women when their ambitions came up against the inevitable dead end.
Lockwood did something else. She pulled strings. She got Ulysses S. Grant to sign a letter to the law college -- he was the institution's president ex officio -- requesting that Mrs. Lockwood's diploma be issued. And she formulated her second piece of legislation and maneuvered it into congressional committee, an act that ensured that no qualified woman would be barred from federal court because of her sex or marital status. In essence, she tried to do an end run around Bradwell. When the bill lost in the Senate in 1875, she petitioned to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court, betting on a technical loophole. When she lost in the Supreme Court, she went back to Congress. She lobbied doggedly for years, virtually alone, until in 1879 the bill passed. Upon gaining the ability to practice freely in any court, she promptly re-applied to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. This time she succeeded, and a few weeks later became the first woman admitted to practice before the Court, sworn in before almost the same lineup of judges who had ruled in Bradwell that women were unsuitable to practice law.
"Her genius...lay in accepting misfortune and moving ahead with new plans," Norgren observes. The long trudge, the patience with disappointment and politicians' prevarications, a sure grasp of opportunity, and a habit of calculation are all the stuff of many a significant Washington career, but because Lockwood was an unenfranchised woman, they never took her too far. Still, she made herself a life she could never have envisioned back in western New York. The woman excelled at political truck and barter. It was not the inner life that engaged her, or the grand drama of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Margaret Fuller's phrase). Lockwood was feminist and egalitarian by temperament and belief, but her understanding of women's need for power made her more interested in practical results than in burnishing principles. The operative word here is "undeterred."
In 1884, Belva Lockwood ran for president. It was a time of mounting dissatisfaction with the two major parties, which would crest in the 1890s with the Populists. Greenbackers and Prohibitionists were already organized as separate parties. But Stanton and Anthony were moving against the current, reversing course and cozying up to the Republicans, hoping to help elect men amenable to granting women the vote. Lockwood was fed up with the Republicans and exasperated with Stanton and Anthony, whose views she had crossed in an earlier fray over women's suffrage in Utah. Marietta Stow, a suffragist newspaper editor in California who had flirted with the Greenbackers, suggested in print that it might be time for a woman to run for the highest office in the land. Lockwood wrote to volunteer: "It is quite time that we had our own party, our own platform; and our own nominees. We shall never have equal rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it." Grit and chutzpah won her the nomination of the Equal Rights Party, organized primarily by Stow. Lockwood turned the metaphor into something literal.
The charismatic, scandalous Victoria Woodhull, the bad girl of women's suffrage, had entered the presidential race
in 1872, running on the imaginary ticket of the People's Party (sprung unbidden from the mind of Woodhull). But she staged her bid as an outré performance piece, a one-woman show. Lockwood was more conventional and more serious, a seasoned politico who conducted herself with the savvy and the skill of a professional, and who believed she had a chance to win a significant protest vote. She established campaign headquarters in her home, staffed by her daughter; printed up publicity materials; and stumped the
East Coast cities and California.
Newspapers treated the campaign as a comic novelty; but, according to Norgren, they actually gave Lockwood as much respect as they did James Blaine and Grover Cleveland, the Republican and Democratic candidates, respectively. She campaigned on the standard third-party platform of the era: high tariffs on foreign manufactures, currency reform, temperance, and a foreign policy geared to international arbitration -- the latter a position that grew out of her developing pacifism. Cleveland took the presidency in a close election, but Lockwood won some four thousand popular votes, and claimed to have won more, had it not been for Democratic Party fraud.
The suffrage leadership was lukewarm and sniffy. Lockwood was an asset when she operated within the association, but she had turned into an upstart. She did not consult any of the reigning women when she accepted Stow's invitation. In her campaign, Lockwood took up mainstream issues that were way off-message for the suffragists. Anthony, on hearing her speak in New York, complained to Stanton that she "kept too little on her own specific ground -- of woman & her disenfranchised -- her speech was too much like a re-hash of the men's speeches!!" She had ventured off feminist turf. Anthony criticized Lockwood for dyeing her hair, the first time (but not the last!) that this issue was raised about a woman candidate.
Lockwood was unflustered. Neither her defeat nor the weakening of her bonds to the women's movement bothered her. She always remained proud of her campaign; and she ran again in 1888. Both wings of the suffrage movement openly repudiated her. By this time, however, she had honed her thoughts about the meaning of her campaigns: she saw them as a kind of civil disobedience on the one hand, and a template for continuing action on the other. There was no getting political power unless women tried to grab it, she argued, and the time was ripe: "The country is prepared to-day for a boldly aggressive movement on the part of the women of the country."
Lockwood was fifty-eight when the 1888 campaign was over, and she faced the midlife question of what to do next. Her law practice, always struggling, occupied her time and intelligence, but it was never quite enough. She wanted to be a part of bigger things. The peace movement, strengthening in Europe in the 1880s, was her next cause. For many American women who were blocked politically at home (and, in Lockwood's case, bored by and at odds with the women's movement), the international circuit of voluntary associations provided travel, stature, big ideas, and hope for influencing governments. Lockwood's longstanding interest in pacifism took her into the work of the Universal Peace Union thriving on the Continent. She joined the American arm and worked to translate new ideas about international arbitration into policies for the United States.
Fame and eminence always eluded her: despite her standing, President McKinley did not appoint her to the American delegation to the first Hague treaty convention in 1899. Still, when others did not make room for her, she insisted on making room for herself. In 1906, now seventy-six and pleased with herself for arguing and winning before the Supreme Court a long, drawn-out multimillion dollar lawsuit of the Eastern Cherokees against the federal government, Lockwood proposed herself for an honorary law degree at her old college, now a branch of Syracuse University. She picked up her degree in 1909 and next set to work trying to wangle the newly established Nobel Peace Prize. She did not succeed, but not for want of trying.
A story of Lockwood's disappointments and sorrows winds through the book, but Norgren gives it short shrift. It wasn't the woman's nature to dwell on sadness. She struggled for money most of her life, saw the small fortune in fees she won in the Cherokee case dissolve in legal action with the clients, and lost both her children. At eighty-four, she also lost her home -- then, as now, a premier measure of dignity for an aging woman. Yet she remained nonplussed: involved in world affairs, interested in younger friends, indifferent to the handicap of old age, and very proud of herself. At eighty-six she regaled reporters with the story of her feats. She died shortly after, in 1916.
Norgren has the great discernment to see Lockwood's life as large and anticipatory rather than eccentric and half-realized. A legal historian of considerable skill, she ploughed through reams of records to construct an account of Lockwood's legal career -- which often spilled over into her Washington affairs. Readers may not be quite as indefatigable as either Lockwood or her biographer, and sometimes the details can be dry. The inveterate reader of women's biographies may weary of Congress and the courtroom, and long to settle down into a story about romance and longing and ambition and disappointment and anger. And all these elements (except for romance) are probably here -- but the fact is that Lockwood, a political creature, worked them into the tissue of political ideas and plans that was her life's substance. Which brings us to another woman who would be president.
The century between Belva Lockwood's run for the presidency and Hillary Clinton's speaks to the contradictory nature of women's integration into the American political system. By the turn of the century, women's work in voluntary associations had given them access to considerable influence in Progressive-era reform politics. One historian has argued that women had more power in the 1890s than they did in the 1980s. The huge movement that won women suffrage in 1919 was the largest popular mobilization for enfranchisement in history. Yet many factors conspired to keep women out of political office once they had the vote, including the tight hierarchical structures of the two parties.
For this reason, since the Nineteenth Amendment, the movement of women into political office has been extremely slow -- so slow that the statistic bruited about in the 1990s was that at the rate things were going, it would take five hundred years before gender parity came to Congress. The handful of women who did serve usually came via the "coffin route," to replace a legislator who died, typically a husband. Before 1978, when Nancy Kassebaum won her seat, exactly one woman had been duly elected to the Senate, Margaret Chase Smith, who entered thirty years earlier. In 1969, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to Congress, and there has still only been one African American woman in the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun.
The situation really began to change in the 1970s. In 1973, there were fifteen women in Congress -- about the same as in 1953. In 1971, the liberal wing of the feminist movement organized the nonpartisan National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), on the premise that the masculine monopoly of government was in itself a huge problem for women, whatever the party alignments. The NWPC's impact was immediate and dramatic in the presidential nominating conventions of 1972. Disarray among Democrats over Vietnam and civil rights and mounting tensions between moderate and conservative Republicans created space for women to move in. The numbers of female delegates soared, almost doubling among Republicans to 30 percent, and more than doubling among Democrats to 40 percent. NWPC women engineered planks on women in both party platforms, calling for federal child care funding, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), strong measures to end job inequities, and the appointment of more women to top positions in government.
It was transformative, although not in the way the NWPC expected. The conventions of 1972 mainly emboldened women afterward to run for local and state offices; and over the decades, their numbers at those levels would improve slowly but steadily. But in Congress change was very slow, almost glacial. Among Democrats, the NWPC quickly assumed a place as an interest group of consequence and feminists flexed their muscle in the party. Yet between Watergate and the election of Ronald Reagan, the NWPC clique engaged in a series of self-destructive smackdowns, first embroiling themselves in squabbles in the campaign over Shirley Chisholm's failed bid for the nomination and George McGovern's candidacy, and later in the decade spurning Jimmy Carter for his equivocation on women's rights issues.
The NWPC powerbroker Bella Abzug worked herself into the role of wisecracking tough-girl guru for the feminist faithful. She favored a theatrical politics of brashness, which yielded little. At the zenith of her career, she extricated from Carter a position as head of the huge government-funded International Women's Year (IWY) conference in Houston in 1977 and managed to squander a huge opportunity by turning it into an extravaganza of Woman Power and feel-good politics. The IWY handed Phyllis Schlafly, the diva of a counter-demonstration of fifteen thousand women across town, a sustained moment in the national spotlight.
The change in the Republican Party was even more constrained. The rise of the far right made it much more difficult for Republican feminists -- the constituency that was pushing for more female representation -- to move up in the party. Through the 1970s, Republicans backpedaled on the feminist reforms in the 1972 platform. In 1980, the Convention dropped the ERA from their platform -- the amendment that they had added in 1940. Republicans were hemmed in and outmaneuvered.
You would think that Schlafly, who was very much a creature of the gender shift in the 1970s, would have opened up access as she whipped up jihad against the Great Satan, feminism: women, after all, were her shock troops in the anti-abortion, anti-ERA battles. But protest politics did not produce plausible candidates. The Republican women who did stay and run for office tended to be moderates to whom the young turks of the far right were indifferent. They often ran in swing districts where they were vulnerable (Nancy Johnson in Connecticut, for example).
So despite the influx of women into the conventions, the numbers of women in Congress did not budge. Still, there were sources of undetected change -- primarily among Democrats -- in the late 1970s and 1980s. A new kind of political operator appeared, who had been working since 1972 in state Democratic organizations and campaigns before she ran for office. Ann Richards worked in Texas state campaigns for years, won her first election as county commissioner in 1976, and state office six years later. Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of a wealthy and influential Democratic father in Baltimore, became chair of her Northern California branch in 1977 and California state chair in 1981, winning her congressional seat in 1987. And those Republican women who managed to hang on had similarly long apprenticeships. Kay Bailey Hutchison came up through Texas politics, first elected to the state legislature in 1972, and won her Senate seat twenty years later.
The percentages of women in state and local offices steadily rose: 7 percent of state officeholders in 1971, 18 percent in 1990, 29 percent in 2000. There were so many of these positions that incremental gains turned them into incubators for hundreds of fledgling pols. The NWPC dissolved and feminists despaired of Congress, but the party machinery ground on. Thus two decades of change at the lower levels went into the big change at the top in the election of 1992, which put Clinton in the presidency, when the number of women in Congress jumped from thirty-two to fifty-four. Since then, women have gained seats in every election. Every four years the numbers increase by about one-third, around ten more women in Congress. There are eighty-seven women in the 110th Congress, up from sixty-five in 1999 and seventy-four in 2005. If this rate continued, we would have gender parity in several decades. It won't continue, of course -- seats don't turn over that fast; but the trend shows the glass filling, not emptying.
The present Congress is 16 percent female. The statistic is pathetic, but also significant. It has inched past the 15 percent mark that social psychology identifies as the tipping point where
a minority changes from a token symbol of diversity, there on sufferance, to a presence accepted as legitimate and permanent. And it is 32 percent of the way to the 267 female legislators who would create strict equality.
Women politicians are too numerous, and a few are too powerful, to be invisible or dispensable. They are no longer weird and exotic. Their sheer variety -- the spectrum of personalities, ages, ethnicities, races, ages, political views, family backgrounds, political views -- refutes the old stereotypes. It is no longer possible to stuff everyone into the primal images and thereby deny them. True, there is no end of references to Lady Macbeth in the critical discussion of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. But when Pelosi and Clinton -- and, it turns out, Condoleezza Rice and Dianne Feinstein -- are all Lady Macbeth, the image loses some of its sting.
The normalizing tendency will not squelch ridicule, contempt, and condescension; the misogynist playbook is ancient and cunning. Nor will it stop critics from turning traits that are unremarkable in male politicians into indictable offenses in women. "Opportunism" is the crime of Hillary Clinton, as if opportunity were not the politician's bread and butter. Pelosi is a "self-promoter," which is really saying no more than that she lives and works in Washington, D.C. And so the comparison with Belva Lockwood is illuminating, because it was Lockwood's instinct for opportunity that took her out of women's politics, with their intact principles, into the thick of things.
"She was certainly as much of an opportunist as any male politician," Norgren reflects. She was unabashedly self-promoting. "But she was deeply interested in politics...and knew that public office would never come to women without a fight." As Lockwood embroiled herself in the grimy business of Washington, she lost the cultural protections that the suffrage movement afforded their own: the image of the idealistic defender of Woman, above partisanship. But she was willing to surrender the myth so as to move about the political world, unimpeded, and take up big issues just like men did.
In 1914, when Lockwood was eighty-four years old and still lacked the right to vote, she spoke to reporters about American women's political prospects. She was typically optimistic and even-handed. Women would be elected to the Senate and the House, she predicted with confidence. (In fact, Jeannette Rankin's election to the House from Wyoming was only three years away.) As for president, that, too, was within reach. "If [a woman] demonstrates that she is fitted to be president she will some day occupy the White House. It will be entirely on her own merits, however. No movement can place her there simply because she is a woman." Is Hillary Clinton "fitted to be president"? The question will be answered over the next year, as she will be scrutinized for "her own merits." But whatever voters decide, we owe her, and Nancy Pelosi, and the other female pols across the spectrum gratitude for devising a new plot. The biographies of these women will be composed of the workaday, disenchanted materials of political lives -- perseverance, competence, canniness, and, yes, a facility for the quick grab -- that Belva Lockwood cultivated and prized.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.