Belva Lockwood was an early feminist and one of the first women to ever run for president. She ran twice in 1884 and again in 1888 in the days before women even had the right to vote. While doing research on Greenpoint history I have come across sources, including Memorable Greenpoint by Professor Virginia Felter, stating Lockwood was from Greenpoint, however other sources contradict this claim. At any rate, her story is fascinating.
Belva Lockwood was, by most accounts, born Belva Bennett in Royalton, New York on October 24, 1830. The Bennetts were one of the oldest Greenpoint families and perhaps she was related to them and even lived with them for a time. She first went to public school then to Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, which was very unusual at the time for a woman. In 1844 at age 14 she began teaching for five dollars a month plus board, half of what male teachers made. In 1848, at the age of 18, she married a farmer named Oriah McNall who died six years later, leaving Belva with a daughter. In 1854, she took the highly unusual step of enrolling in Genesee College, graduating in 1857. She began teaching, but received less money than her male colleagues. After the Civil War she moved to Washington, D.C. where she opened the city’s first co-educational school, and began to study law.
In 1870, at the age of 40, Belva entered the National University Law School. She completed her study, but the school refused her diploma until she demanded it of President Grant who granted her appeal. She was then admitted to the Washington D.C. bar, and took cases against the government. In 1874, she was denied permission to practice before the U.S. Court of Claims on the grounds of her gender. Belva said, “For the first time in my life I began to realize it was a crime to be a woman, but it was too late to put in a denial so I pled guilty.” In 1879, a bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Hayes, allowing Belva to become the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court. One of Belva’s first actions was to nominate a black Southern colleague for admissions to the court. She also won a $5,000,000 settlement for the Cherokee Indians.
Her groundbreaking 1884 candidacy for president was scoffed at by many men and women were not yet allowed to vote and support her candidacy and her campaign pledge to grant women equal rights. Belva’s legal work often focused on gaining rights for women. She helped women gain equal property rights and guardianship of children. On the lecture circuit, she promoted women’s rights, temperance, peace, and arbitration and in 1890 lectured on Greenpoint Avenue, further giving credence to the idea of her Greenpoint roots. A pacifist as well as a believer in equality, she attended international peace conferences between 1880 and 1906, and even on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Belva Lockwood died on May 19, 1917 at age 86 and her portrait hangs in the gallery of the National Museum in Washington. In 1983 Belva was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and on June 18, 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a Belva Lockwood stamp.