The Real Tale of the First Woman to Run for President

The Real Tale of the First Woman to Run for President

–Erin L. Cody, Esq.

In last week’s edition of “Shattered Glass,” my good friend Diana linked to the April 9, 2015 Politico article entitled “The Strange Tale of the First Woman to Run for President,” an honor which author Carol Felsenthal claimed belonged to Victoria Woodhull. Unfortunately for Politico, this is not entirely true. Woodhull was many things – spiritualist, stock broker, and grassroots advocate among them – but she was not the first woman to actually run for President. Knowing my passion for telling the true story of the first woman to take a stab at the Oval, Diana invited me to correct the record – although if you read last week’s newsletter (as you should have) you’d know that it was as much of a calling-out as it was an invitation. Never one to back down from a challenge, I graciously accepted, and am here to set the record straight.

The honor of being the true first woman candidate for President belongs to Niagara County native Belva Lockwood, who was (to Politico’s credit) mentioned briefly in the article, albeit incorrectly billed as the second woman to run. Before I delve too deep into Lockwood’s story, it is important to clear up the confusion that may have driven Felsenthal’s story regarding Woodhull’s candidacy. As with so many things, the devil here is in the details – although Woodhull declared herself to be a Presidential candidate a full 12 years before Lockwood ran, Woodhull never took the necessary steps to appear on any ballot. Essentially, Woodhull ran for President in the same fashion as someone who decides to become a doctor, but never takes the MCATs or applies to medical school. Add to that the fact that, by Felsenthal’s own admission, Woodhull’s “running mate” never chose to be on the ticket and in fact actively campaigned for her opposition, and you have a “campaign” that is dubious at best. Come on, Politico – even Stephen Colbert’s run for the White House was more legitimate. Lockwood’s campaigns for the Presidency in 1884 and 1888 may not have been as flashy or juicy as Woodhull’s attempt, but the truth remains that Lockwood was the first woman who took the necessary steps to be named on the ballot.

Belva LockwoodLockwood’s dedication to run a proper campaign in no way diminishes her as a revolutionary. She was a career woman and single mother in a time where either pursuit (much less both) was considered so scandalous as to send proper society into hysterics. Lockwood blazed trails where no woman had trod before, but she was enough of a pragmatist to blaze those trails through the existing legal framework.

Lockwood’s rise to power was a lesson in pragmatism itself. The daughter of a farmer in rural Western New York, she was married by the age of 18 as women of her generation and social stature were wont to do. Her husband died three years after their first child was born, leaving her with no way to support her family. Mid-1800’s social norms would have relegated the young widow to a life of destitution and societal irrelevance, but Lockwood had other plans. She girded her loins, graduated with honors from Genesee College (now Syracuse University), and began a career as a headmistress at several area schools. Troubled by the lack of preparation given to her female students, Lockwood used her status as an administrator to institute curriculum reforms that taught girls marketable skills. If she had anything to say about it, none of her female students would suffer the same misfortunes that she narrowly avoided in her early days as a housewife.

However, her power to affect reform was limited by her status as a lowly female headmistress in rural Western New York. Thus, she moved with her daughter to Washington, D.C., where she studied at the National University Law School (now the George Washington University School of Law). Although she completed her coursework, the school initially denied her a diploma, which in turn prevented her from being admitted to the D.C. bar. After her demand for her diploma fell on deaf ears among the law school’s administrators, Lockwood appealed directly to President Ulysses S. Grant as the titular head of the National University. Her diploma was awarded one week later.

Although she was now admitted as an attorney, many judges refused to allow her the right to appear and speak in court. Lockwood persevered and earned a reputation as a competent attorney, continuing her legacy of changing the establishment by working within it. She was an ardent advocate for both gender and racial equality, including equal pay for equal work. In order to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, Lockwood drafted a bill to Congress to forbid all discrimination in bar admissions, and then lobbied to have her bill passed. Shortly after that, Lockwood became the first woman admitted to practice and the first woman to argue a case before this high court.

Ultimately, Lockwood’s passion for equal rights led her to run for President. She campaigned in 1884 and 1888 as a member of the Equal Rights Party (the same party whose endorsement Woodhull claimed in 1872). Although she knew her chances were slim, Lockwood went to great lengths to run an official, legitimate campaign, and to guard against fraud and unfairness. Her most popular campaign slogan was “I cannot vote, but can be voted for” – made all the more fitting by the fact that she was the first woman to actually appear on Presidential ballots. Upon hearing that ballots cast in her favor had been destroyed by election officials, Lockwood petitioned Congress in 1885 to have her votes officially tallied. In that election, she received over 4,000 popular votes across six states.

Lockwood’s perseverance for the Presidency and for racial equality eventually led to her falling out with Susan B. Anthony and the established suffragist movement. Rather than supporting the Equal Rights Party, Anthony favored trying to convince the Republican Party to take up the banner of women’s equality. Further, Anthony opposed efforts to secure the right to vote for blacks, arguing that racial equality would be a distraction from women’s equality. Undeterred by Anthony’s disapproval and relative power in the women’s movement, Lockwood continued to lobby for an America free from all forms of discrimination. Anthony, in true “Real Housewives of the Suffrage Movement” fashion, began working to ostracize Lockwood from the women’s movement altogether as punishment for Lockwood’s dissent (while ironically preaching that women needed to band together for the cause of equal rights). Thus, Lockwood’s legacy faded to near-obscurity.

Perhaps Anthony’s efforts to freeze out Lockwood contributed to the popular, but misinformed, notion that Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President. Perhaps Woodhull’s juicy personal details and passion for the dramatic made her story easier to spread. Either way, Lockwood’s legacy as the true first woman candidate for President deserves telling.

Erin is a local attorney and unapologetic feminist.

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