Monday, June 13, 2016

Reflecting on Belva Lockwood – the first woman to run for President

Last week, Hillary Clinton secured the Democratic presidential nomination, becoming the first woman, in the eyes of many, to officially run for that office. Not to belittle her accomplishments, but she is not the first. To properly identify what Clinton has accomplished, one must say she is the first woman to run for president via a major political party. In terms of being the first woman on a presidential ticket from any party (large or small), she was bested by someone who was born and raised right here in Niagara County: Belva Lockwood.

Lockwood ran for the office of the president in 1884 and 1888, both times under the National Equal Rights Party. In 1884 she received 4,100 votes, a fraction of those received by winner Grover Cleveland — ironically, another candidate with a solid Western New York background — who garnered 4.87 million votes.

Limited numbers notwithstanding, Lockwood’s performance far rivals what Clinton has done. Since Lockwood’s passing, women have had a long history of holding federal office dating back to 1917 in the House (when Jeanette Rankin was elected) and 1932 in the Senate (when Hattie Caraway was elected).

But back when Lockwood ran, women were looked at as second-class citizens; they couldn’t even vote. Back then the common sentiment was that they belonged in the home and shouldn’t participate in more manly pursuits like governance and law. The majority of the “gentlemanly” press painted her as a joke when she campaigned, just as they did any other woman who counted herself as a suffragist fighting for women’s voting rights.

Lockwood was incredibly instrumental in changing those disgusting ways in which we viewed and treated women in the public arena. She overcame the negative coverage and showed that she was up to the task of debating and developing a platform, a 15-position masterpiece that was arguably more substantial than that of Cleveland or his Republican foe, James Blaine. Had women possessed the right to vote, she would have been a formidable opponent and definitely a game changer (The 1884 election was close: Cleveland had 48.5 percent of the vote while Blaine had 48.02 percent).

Outside of politics, she was just as impressive. As a teacher, she developed new curriculum in her schools and expanded the knowledge base afforded young women, exposing them to studies that only men once took. She also became one of the first female lawyers to practice in the U.S. and ultimately the first one allowed to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

She was a successful lawyer at that; she fought the case of the Eastern Cherokee Indians against the government, winning them a settlement of $5 million (which in today’s dollars is $97 million). Somehow, she managed all this while running a boarding house and tirelessly fighting for women’s rights.

She was an entirely self-made woman; her achievements were not the result of privilege. Lockwood empowered herself and gave women the hope that they could do the same. In her time she ranked with Susan B. Anthony (who was immortalized on a dollar coin) as one of the most powerful and well-known women in the country.

Despite all of that, America has forgotten who she was and what she did, as made evident by the accolades thrown upon Clinton with nary any praise for Lockwood having paved the way. Sadly, Lockwood has not even become a footnote. And, her name never came up in discussions regarding who should succeed Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill.

It’s high time Belva Lockwood got her due – she was the first woman to appear on a presidential ticket and, as made evident by everything she accomplished, she truly was presidential material.  

From the 13 June 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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