With all the attention lately around the selection of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States, it seems only fitting that we touch upon the history of Belva Lockwood of Royalton. Lockwood ran for president twice, in 1884 and again in 1888. She was the first woman to officially appear on the ballots for that position. There were a few firsts in her life.
Belva Ann Bennett was born in the Town of Royalton on October 23, 1830, to Lewis J. Bennett and his wife, Hannah Green. She attended one-room schoolhouses near her home. In 1845, she taught summer school as a means to raise enough money to attend the Royalton Academy.
The Royalton Academy at Royalton Center cost $4 per quarter. According to the Niagara Democrat in 1837, “The enterprise is that of a small neighborhood of farmers, principally, and it tells well for their public spirit in the cause of education. They have done more than Lockport has done with its five thousand inhabitants. And our village stands reproved by our Royalton neighbors.”
In order to raise enough money to attend the Academy, Belva taught school in the summer of 1845. In those days, summer was when the youngsters went to school, and winter was when the bigger children attended classes. For the next several years, she taught in the summer months and used the money earned to take classes for herself in the winter.
When Belva was 18, she married Uriah McNall, a local farmer, in 1848. They set up a home on Mill road. They had one daughter, Lura (sometimes misspelled as “Laura”). Uriah was an invalid for most of their short marriage after being injured at his sawmill. The injury, directly or indirectly, led to his death in 1853.
As a widow with a young child, Belva returned to her education in the fall of 1853. She was accepted to Genesee College in Lima. At the same time, her family moved to Illinois, taking little Lura with them. She did not see her daughter for a couple years, until after she landed a position at the Lockport Union School. After three years of school in Lima, she spent another year at Syracuse University earning a second degree.
Upon her graduation from Syracuse in 1857, she moved to Lockport and accepted a position as preceptress of the Union School. She maintained that position until 1861. The first impression of Belva at the school in Lockport was not a good one. She “started classes for girls in gymnastics and public speaking.” Both were considered unladylike in those days. She was called a “crazy school teacher” by some of the villagers.
She persevered and it paid off. After an outcry by some of the more old-fashioned elders of the area, female students and many prominent residents blocked her dismissal from the school. Belva oversaw three other teachers. She also taught courses in mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and botany. She was additionally tasked with disciplinary duties.
Finally, at the end of the semester near Christmastime, she was reunited with Lura. It was the first time in three years that she had seen her daughter. At the end of the 1861 session, upset that she still made less than her male counterparts, Belva accepted a position in Gainesville a the Female Seminary. Unfortunately, the building burned with all its contents shortly after she began there. Unswayed, she moved to Hornellsville where she was employed for a short time. The preceptress there did not agree with Belva’s advanced ideas of female equality. She then went to Owego Female Seminary in 1863, and stayed there as a teacher until its closure in 1865.
It was at this point that Belva moved to Washington, DC. Ever eager to advance women’s rights, she opened McNall’s Ladies Seminary. The school was an immediate success. By the second year, she was also accepting male students, one of the first co-ed, private schools in the District.
While in Washington, Belva met and married Dr. Ezekiel Lockwood. Sixteen years her senior, Lockwood was a retired dentist and Baptist minister. A year after her second marriage, she decided that studying law would allow her to serve the growing equal rights for women movement. Invited by George W. Samson, president of Columbia College, to a lecture, she formally requested to be admitted as a student. She was denied, Samson stating that her presence would “distract the young men.”
Undeterred, Belva start began a public campaign in the media to inform the masses of the rejection of women by Columbia. It evidently worked as she and 14 other women were permitted to attend National University Law School. Only she and one other woman actually graduated, but they were not allowed to appear on stage with the men or to receive their diplomas. Ever the firebrand, Belva penned a letter to President Grant demanding that she recieve her hard-earned diploma. A diploma was delivered in short order, signed by Grant, and she was allowed to practice in district court.
In September 1873, she was admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia. Two years later in 1875, she was allowed to practice before the US Court of Claims. A six year battle ensued as she tried to get Congress to pass a bill allowing her to argue a case before the Supreme Court. It passed, and she was the first woman to appear before that body. For six years, she was the only woman to do so.
During this time, her husband died, leaving her once again a widow. She turned even more of her focus to the suffrage movement. She argued that while there was no right for women to vote, there was no law forbidding them from being “voted for.” The National Equal Rights Party nominated Belva as their candidate to run for president in 1884.
She said, “...I would tell you this evening why I wanted to be President, and although it is not a part of my lecture, I am going to tell you. Doesn’t a woman always want what she can’t get? I wanted to be President in order to use my influence to have justice done to everybody without regard to color, sex or nationality.”
Belva garnered 4,149 votes, the first woman in the United States to receive votes for the office of the Presidency. The state of Illinois wished to change their electoral votes from Grover Cleveland to Lockwood, but that was not permitted. Votes for her were disregarded and dumped into the trash in both Oregon and Pennsylvania. The National Equal Rights, impressed with her campaign, once again nominated her in 1888.
After her two Presidential runs, Lockwood kept up her life of activism. In 1894, her daughter, Lura died, leaving Belva with a grandson to watch after. In 1914, she demonstrated with suffragettes at the Capitol in Washington. Unfortunately, when Belva died May 19, 1917, the United States was still three years away from the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
There have been several memorials honoring Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood. On July 16, 1983, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. In 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp as part of the Great Americans Series. A state marker was dedicated on the site near birth on Griswold Street in Royalton on October 24, 1998.
Belva Lockwood was a pioneer along with some of the big names in suffrage -- Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Gage. A daughter of Niagara County was influential in the suffrage movement of our nation. She was the first woman admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia. She was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. She was the first woman to officially appear on a ballot for the office of the Presidency. She was the first woman to receive votes for that same office.
Western New York played an important role in firsts for women. It didn’t end with Belva Lockwood. Shirley Chisholm was the first woman to run for the Democratic party’s Presidential nomination in 1972. In fact, she was the first African-American major-party candidate for President, male or female. She received over 400,000 votes in the primary, good enough for 7th place.
Her tie to Western New York? After she retired from Congress, she married Arthur Hardwick of Buffalo. Together they lived in Williamsville. Chisholm died January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach, Florida. Her body was returned to Buffalo, where she is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
This week’s nomination of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic challenger for President is another milestone for women. Her accomplishments are a testimony to the hard work and perseverance of the women who came before her. Topping that list is Niagara County’s Belva Lockwood.
Craig Bacon owes a huge debt of gratitude to Jesse Bieber, the Town of Royalton Historian, for his assistance with research on Belva Lockwood.