Popular contention has it that Belva Lockwood ─ the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court ─ was the first woman to run for president of the United States. Lockwood was sworn in as the first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar on March 3, 1879. In 1880, she became the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court as well. That distinction alone required many years of struggle for her, and she served successfully and with much distinction throughout her legal career. All her drive notwithstanding, she endured at least one occasion when a judge lectured her and told her that God Himself had determined that women were not equal to men and never could be.
In 1884, Lockwood launched a full-fledged campaign for the presidency as candidate of the National Equal Rights Party, with Marietta Stow as vice presidential nominee. She ran also in 1988, with Charles Stuart Weld running for vice president. Her platform included positions on a broad cross-section of 15 issues of the times, including a strong belief in world peace. Lockwood co-edited a journal entitled “The Peacemaker” and was both a member of and exposition delegate to the Universal Peace Union. She was a delegate to an International Peace Congress in London in 1890, and spoke in support of peace and disarmament up until the year of her death in 1917.
Lockwood’s presidential run is partly in dispute based on a technicality. She is safely considered the first serious ─ that is to say, eligible ─ female candidate for president. Also contending for the title of “first to run”, however, is Victoria Woodhull who ran for president in 1872 as Equal Rights Party candidate. She was under the constitutionally mandated age of 35 at the time however , and so would not have been eligible for the presidency.
Woodhull was associated with a variety of causes considered unacceptable or unseemly, and was tagged as a free love advocate and a Communist. She was born to begin with into a family background of sideshow acts, fortune-telling and alcoholism. Her campaign was tarnished with scandal. Former slave Frederick Douglass was nominated by her party for vice president, but he never acknowledged the nomination. In some respects however, she was ahead of her time in her views on sexuality and freedom.
Today the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, by its own representations, “works to affirm sexual freedom as a fundamental human right by protecting and advancing freedom of speech and sexual expression” and “promotes sexuality as a positive personal, social and moral value through research, advocacy, activism, education and outreach.”
Woodhull also made major contributions to the fight for women’s rights. Materials available on Woodhull’s significance today include the DVD “America’s Victoria: Remembering Victoria Woodhull”, featuring Kate Capshaw and Gloria Steinem.