Remembering the first woman to argue before the US Supreme Court

The first woman to argue a matter before the US Supreme Court, Belva Lockwood, was also directly responsible for ensuring that the first black lawyer was able to argue in the Supreme Court some time later. Belva Lockwood's landmark first case, Kaiser v Strickney, was argued 140 years ago this week.

 

This week marks the 140th anniversary of the day that Kaiser v Stickney was argued in the US Supreme Court. Though not a case of any great significance in itself, it is remembered as the first time that a woman lawyer was heard in that court.

The attorney, Belva Lockwood, asked to give her views to the judges after her male co-counsel had completed his argument. And the justices agreed to hear what she had to say. She spoke for 20 minutes, author Jill Norgren notes, ‘making history’.

Lockwood was well aware that women were not the only ones facing difficulty in being heard in court, and she took action to help redress that wrong. Some time after her first supreme court appearance she sponsored Samuel Lowery as a member of the supreme court bar, making him just the fifth black attorney to be admitted. Soon after that he became the first black attorney to argue a case in the supreme court.

She was passionate about world peace and votes for women and in 1908 she received an honorary doctorate in law from Syracuse University. Lockwood died in 1917, and some 66 years later, she was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the USA. The citation reads: ‘Using her knowledge of the law, she worked to secure woman suffrage, property law reforms, equal pay for equal work and world peace. Thriving on publicity and partisanship and encouraging other women to pursue legal careers, Lockwood helped to open the legal profession to women.’