Today in 1879: Female attorneys are first allowed to practice before the Supreme Court

February 15, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryMany individuals often note that women have only achieved equality in our legal system relatively recently.

For example, the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted to women the right to vote, was only ratified in 1920, less than 100 years ago.

By contrast, the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed African American males the right to vote, was ratified 50 years earlier in 1870 – just five years after slavery was officially abolished nationwide.

Interestingly, though, women were able to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court before they were allowed to vote.  41 years before, actually.

This was accomplished through a law enacted 134 years ago today, on February 15, 1879:

 1879 Law allowing women to practice before SCOTUS

The law’s final language mostly mirrored a draft bill proposed to Congress several years earlier by Belva A. Lockwood, an attorney based out of Washington, D.C.

Lockwood lobbied for the law after she applied for, and was denied, admission to practice before the Supreme Court in 1876.

The Court’s rationale was that no women were ever admitted previously to the Court’s bar, and that the current practice of admitting only men was “in accordance with immemorial usage in England, and the law and practice in all the States until within a recent period.”

After over two years of lobbying, Lockwood’s efforts paid off, and on March 3, 1879, just over two weeks after the law was signed, Lockwood was admitted to the Supreme Court bar – the first woman to do so.

Lockwood also has the distinction of being the first woman to present oral argument in the Supreme Court, which she did in 1880’s Kaiser v. Stickney.

Her struggle for admission to the Supreme Court’s bar wasn’t the first time that Lockwood had fought for her rights.

She received her law degree from National University Law School (now part of George Washington University), but, even though Lockwood completed all of the requisite coursework, she, as a woman, was not permitted to attend her class graduation or receive her diploma.

Belva Lockwood

Belva Lockwood

To get her diploma, Lockwood petitioned directly to President Ulysses S. Grant, who also served as President of National University.  Lockwood subsequently received her diploma, the only one of the women in her class to do so.

Moreover, Lockwood’s effort toward changing the laws to allow women to practice before the Supreme Court wasn’t her first lobbying endeavor.

Earlier in her life, Lockwood worked as headmistress at Lockport Union School in New York, but was distressed by the disparity of the wages between men and women, with men often making twice as much as their female counterparts.

In 1870, she drafted a bill that would make it illegal to pay female employees of the federal government lower wages than their male counterparts.  The bill was passed in 1872 (it wasn’t until June of 1963 that an equal pay law was passed affecting all employers – public and private).

However, Lockwood’s fight for equality between the sexes wasn’t limited to areas that personally affected her.

In the 1884 election, Lockwood ran for president as the Equal Rights Party’s nominee (the second woman to run for the office, and the first to run a full campaign).

Afterward, Lockwood continued both her struggle for equality and her legal career.  In fact, she again presented oral argument in the Supreme Court in 1906’s United States v. Cherokee Nation, in which she successfully represented the Cherokee Nation against the U.S. government for a treaty violation.

Lockwood died at the age of 86 on May 19, 1917, before she could see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

However, the advances for gender equality that she helped produce during her lifetime were remarkable and truly ground-breaking.

Without Lockwood, who knows how much later it would have been until women were allowed to practice before the Supreme Court.