Christine Stansell, Edwards Professor of History at Princeton, iswriting a history of feminism.
Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President
By Jill Norgren
(New York University Press,
311 pp., $35)
Women's biographies are the pre-eminent form of popular women'shistory, and the only nonfiction books that female readers willdependably buy. In the past forty years, the genre has flourished,nourished by an unending curiosity about women's lives thatfeminism generates. Famous men's wives and sisters turn out to haveamazing stories of their own (Vera Nabokov, Alice James, ZeldaFitzgerald). Sagas of sisters, spun from strands of rivalry andadoration, are mesmerizing (the Peabodys, the Mitfords). Writers,their struggles for art and life in equal measure inevitablycomplicated by their sex, are an endless store of plots (VirginiaWoolf, Margaret Fuller, Colette). Family relations, marriage,motherhood, isolation, sex, social opprobrium, anger, friendship,and creativity: all are explored in the study of such women'slives.
The same cannot be said about political power. Biographies of JaneAddams and Eleanor Roosevelt illuminate the achievements of womenat the edges of formal politics. Of those who wielded institutionalpower, only Eleanor Rathbone, one of Britain's first female membersof Parliament, has merited a significant book. True, there are anynumber of biographies of queens and aristocrats who practicedpolitics in oblique and unusual ways; and true, there are manystudies of women in protest politics, beginning with the greatfeminists of the nineteenth century (Mary Wollstonecraft, ElizabethStanton, Angelina and Sarah Grimke) and running through the civilrights movement (Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer). But it isundeniable that most biographies of women concern love, creativity,and the search for self, rather than ambition and the scramble forthe nomination.
The obvious reason is that women have been barred from politics forso long that there are few figures of importance to observe and tostudy. Yet the absence of biography redoubles the difficulties inunderstanding the lives of those women who have gone into politics.From a distance, they seem a little dull. It is easier to haul themback into the familiar plots of modern womanhood--thwartedambition, struggle for self-esteem--than to imagine what theymostly do and mostly care about: winning elections, lining upvotes, passing bills, making policy. For these reasons, JillNorgren's study of Belva Lockwood (which comes with a gracefulpreface by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) is a very unusual book.
Belva Green McNall Lockwood was born in 1830, too late for the greatstruggles of abolition and too early for the practical politics ofthe Progressive era. A child of a poor farming family, she grew upin western New York, known as the "burned-over district" for itsspiritual fervor; religion mixed with social reform in evangelicalrevivals, abolition, and temperance. She wanted to finish school,but her father believed there was no point in spending money toeducate a girl. So in 1848, at the age of eighteen, she married oneUriah McNall. "The daughter of a poor farmer, I followed the well-trodden road, and was united in marriage to a promising young farmerof my neighborhood," she said of her choice many years later,unsentimentally and with a touch of sociological asperity.
Also in 1848, reform-minded women several counties away to the east,in Seneca Falls, held a meeting dedicated solely to the subject ofthe rights of woman. Lockwood must have caught something of thatspirit, for when her husband died five years later, leaving herwith a small daughter to support, she insisted on returning toschool, this time to a nearby seminary (the closest there was tocollege education for girls) in order to train as a teacher. Shegraduated and made a go of it, supporting herself and her daughterand, during the Civil War, running her own school. But by the endof the war her ambitions had broadened. She sold the schoolbuilding for a tidy profit, and in 1866, with her teenage daughter,set out boldly for Washington, D.C. Her only motive seems to havebeen a fascination with national politics, a desire to be what wewould call "inside the Beltway."
The town was still a muddy, shambling place, all the more so becausethe aftermath of the war had flooded it with demobilized soldiers,freedpeople, transients, and refugees. Politics were at a feverpitch, with Congress repudiating Andrew Johnson's policies ofappeasement to the South and embarking on its own plan forReconstruction. Belva McNall watched the debates from the "LadiesGallery" in the new Senate chamber. A respectable, self-supportingwidow, she joined a hustling middle class taking shape inWashington, emigres from small towns and the countryside who founda foothold in a government bureaucracy that had vastly expandedduring the war. "Such people resided in boarding houses, toiled asclerks and teachers, and experimented with small enterprise,"writes Norgren, who conveys an interesting sense of the socialhistory of the city.
Belva McNall was one of the strivers, and she soon married another,the much- older Ezekiel Lockwood, an entrepreneurial amalgam ofdentist, real estate agent, and pension-claims agent. It was not alove match, but a practical partnership of two people who were fondof each other. Ezekiel would not share all of Belva's "ultraist"views about women, but he respected her and supported her throughthin patches, and he benefited from her practical bent formoneymaking and capacity for taking risks that paid off.
Belva Lockwood found a way into national politics through women'srights circles. The prewar movement, comprising men and women whosefeminism was born of deep anti-slavery commitments, had gone intoabeyance during the Civil War. It revived in the mid-1860s, only tosplit bitterly over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, whichguaranteed full citizenship and voting rights to the freedmen butnot to the freedwomen, or to any other women. One group ofsuffragists endorsed the Republican Party's judgment that thefreedmen's situation was so dire that it required immediate action,and that an attempt to institute universal suffrage would doom theentire enterprise. The other group, led by Susan B. Anthony andElizabeth Cady Stanton, saw universal manhood suffrage as theRepublicans' capitulation to exigency and a betrayal of democraticprinciple. They denounced their old Republican allies and demandeda Sixteenth Amendment to enfranchise women.
Stanton and Anthony started their own organization, reaching out torecruits just like Lockwood--younger, mostly free of otherpolitical loyalties, and eager for feminist politics that werestraightforward, bold, and uncomplicated. Lockwood was taken withthe intellectual excitement and vigor of the suffrage milieu, aswell as with the opportunity to take on political heft. She movedup in the ranks quickly, and by 1871 she was president of thesuffrage group in the capital.
It was a moment when suffragists in the Stanton-Anthony wing of themovement were interested in the problems of working women. One wayto focus that interest was to protest the disparity in wagesbetween male clerical workers in the federal government and thethousands of women who flooded those jobs during the war andremained in place thereafter. Lockwood took it upon herself topursue the issue and launched her first congressional campaign, aone-woman lobbying effort to secure a bill outlawing paydiscrimination on the basis of sex in federal jobs.
Opponents succeeded in watering down the bill to a mild affirmationof equal opportunity, but Lockwood nonetheless found important maleallies in both houses who could grasp the demeaning,anti-egalitarian meanings of wage discrimination. Norgren judgesthat despite the defeat, the experience was valuable for Lockwoodand efficacious for working women. The percentage of women clerkspaid at the top grade quadrupled in the next decade. It certainlytaught Lockwood a lot about Congress: "Broad principle wassacrificed in the name of a modest but nonetheless affirmativestatement by Congress in the matter of equal employment rights."
Most women's rights reformers were married women supported by theirhusbands. Lockwood's sustained attention to the problems of workingwomen was unusual. But at the edges of the suffrage movement was atiny group who, taking to heart the feminist call for women toutilize their full capacities, determined to acquire sufficienttraining and credentials to enter the heavily defended malebastions of the professions. By the 1870s, token women had squeezedinto law, the ministry, and medicine. Maria Mitchell was even namedprofessor of astronomy at the newly opened Vassar College in 1865.There were several hundred women physicians, a handful of femaleministers, and a half-dozen attorneys around the country. In 1872,Charlotte Ray, daughter of a prominent African American family inWashington, was the first woman admitted to the D.C. bar.
In 1870, shortly after she gave birth to a second child, Lockwoodbegan attending classes at a local law college, setting off aflurry of condescending notice in the newspapers.Characteristically indifferent to notoriety, she completed thecourse of study with the intent of joining the ranks of practicingattorneys. Although the college refused to grant her a degreebecause she was a woman, she went ahead and applied for admission tothe D.C. bar, which denied her petition because she lacked therequisite degree.
It was a tough time to embark on a legal career. In 1873, theSupreme Court dealt a stunning blow to women lawyers in Bradwell v.Illinois, which upheld a lower court's ruling that the Illinois barcould refuse to admit Myra Bradwell, a Chicago attorney whopracticed law with her husband (both were active campaigners forwomen's suffrage), on the grounds of the timidity and the domesticnature of the sex. The situation was uneven and complex: a fewstate bars had admitted women, and by the time Myra Bradwell's casereached the Court, the state of Illinois had passed a law grantingall persons, regardless of sex, the freedom to choose a profession.But Bradwell had a strong negative effect in confirming powerfulprejudices against women's ability to engage in legal reasoning andendure the nasty business of litigation.
Here Lockwood's story departs from the standard plot lines of theplucky nineteenth-century feminist's story. Blocked at twolevels--by the highest court in the country and by a plain littlelaw college--she did not write a stirring tract on injustice towardwomen, or dash off furious letters of protest to the newspapers, ordeliver moving speeches to fellow suffragists on the tyranny of thelaw. She did not tactically retreat, as did Myra Bradwell, whopursued a successful law career in partnership with her husband butdid not re-apply to the Illinois bar until 1890. Such were theeminently reasonable and intellectually satisfying responses ofmany brilliant nineteenth-century women when their ambitions cameup against the inevitable dead end.
Lockwood did something else. She pulled strings. She got Ulysses S.Grant to sign a letter to the law college--he was the institution'spresident ex officio- - requesting that Mrs. Lockwood's diploma beissued. And she formulated her second piece of legislation andmaneuvered it into congressional committee, an act that ensuredthat no qualified woman would be barred from federal court becauseof her sex or marital status. In essence, she tried to do an endrun around Bradwell. When the bill lost in the Senate in 1875, shepetitioned to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court, bettingon a technical loophole. When she lost in the Supreme Court, shewent back to Congress. She lobbied doggedly for years, virtuallyalone, until in 1879 the bill passed. Upon gaining the ability topractice freely in any court, she promptly re-applied to beadmitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. This time she succeeded,and a few weeks later became the first woman admitted to practicebefore the Court, sworn in before almost the same lineup of judgeswho had ruled in Bradwell that women were unsuitable to practicelaw.
"Her genius ... lay in accepting misfortune and moving ahead withnew plans, " Norgren observes. The long trudge, the patience withdisappointment and politicians' prevarications, a sure grasp ofopportunity, and a habit of calculation are all the stuff of many asignificant Washington career, but because Lockwood was anunenfranchised woman, they never took her too far. Still, she madeherself a life she could never have envisioned back in western NewYork. The woman excelled at political truck and barter. It was notthe inner life that engaged her, or the grand drama of Woman in theNineteenth Century (Margaret Fuller's phrase). Lockwood wasfeminist and egalitarian by temperament and belief, but herunderstanding of women's need for power made her more interested inpractical results than in burnishing principles. The operative wordhere is "undeterred."
In 1884, Belva Lockwood ran for president. It was a time of mountingdissatisfaction with the two major parties, which would crest in the1890s with the Populists. Greenbackers and Prohibitionists werealready organized as separate parties. But Stanton and Anthony weremoving against the current, reversing course and cozying up to theRepublicans, hoping to help elect men amenable to granting womenthe vote. Lockwood was fed up with the Republicans and exasperatedwith Stanton and Anthony, whose views she had crossed in an earlierfray over women's suffrage in Utah. Marietta Stow, a suffragistnewspaper editor in California who had flirted with theGreenbackers, suggested in print that it might be time for a womanto run for the highest office in the land. Lockwood wrote tovolunteer: "It is quite time that we had our own party, our ownplatform; and our own nominees. We shall never have equal rightsuntil we take them, nor respect until we command it." Grit andchutzpah won her the nomination of the Equal Rights Party,organized primarily by Stow. Lockwood turned the metaphor intosomething literal.
The charismatic, scandalous Victoria Woodhull, the bad girl ofwomen's suffrage, had entered the presidential race in 1872,running on the imaginary ticket of the People's Party (sprungunbidden from the mind of Woodhull). But she staged her bid as anoutre performance piece, a one-woman show. Lockwood was moreconventional and more serious, a seasoned politico who conductedherself with the savvy and the skill of a professional, and whobelieved she had a chance to win a significant protest vote. Sheestablished campaign headquarters in her home, staffed by herdaughter; printed up publicity materials; and stumped the EastCoast cities and California.
Newspapers treated the campaign as a comic novelty; but, accordingto Norgren, they actually gave Lockwood as much respect as they didJames Blaine and Grover Cleveland, the Republican and Democraticcandidates, respectively. She campaigned on the standardthird-party platform of the era: high tariffs on foreignmanufactures, currency reform, temperance, and a foreign policygeared to international arbitration--the latter a position thatgrew out of her developing pacifism. Cleveland took the presidencyin a close election, but Lockwood won some four thousand popularvotes, and claimed to have won more, had it not been for DemocraticParty fraud.
The suffrage leadership was lukewarm and sniffy. Lockwood was anasset when she operated within the association, but she had turnedinto an upstart. She did not consult any of the reigning women whenshe accepted Stow's invitation. In her campaign, Lockwood took upmainstream issues that were way off-message for the suffragists.Anthony, on hearing her speak in New York, complained to Stantonthat she "kept too little on her own specific ground--of woman &her disenfranchised--her speech was too much like a re-hash of themen's speeches!!" She had ventured off feminist turf. Anthonycriticized Lockwood for dyeing her hair, the first time (but notthe last!) that this issue was raised about a woman candidate.
Lockwood was unflustered. Neither her defeat nor the weakening ofher bonds to the women's movement bothered her. She always remainedproud of her campaign; and she ran again in 1888. Both wings of thesuffrage movement openly repudiated her. By this time, however, shehad honed her thoughts about the meaning of her campaigns: she sawthem as a kind of civil disobedience on the one hand, and atemplate for continuing action on the other. There was no gettingpolitical power unless women tried to grab it, she argued, and thetime was ripe: "The country is prepared to-day for a boldlyaggressive movement on the part of the women of the country."
Lockwood was fifty-eight when the 1888 campaign was over, and shefaced the midlife question of what to do next. Her law practice,always struggling, occupied her time and intelligence, but it wasnever quite enough. She wanted to be a part of bigger things. Thepeace movement, strengthening in Europe in the 1880s, was her nextcause. For many American women who were blocked politically at home(and, in Lockwood's case, bored by and at odds with the women'smovement), the international circuit of voluntary associationsprovided travel, stature, big ideas, and hope for influencinggovernments. Lockwood's longstanding interest in pacifism took herinto the work of the Universal Peace Union thriving on theContinent. She joined the American arm and worked to translate newideas about international arbitration into policies for the UnitedStates.
Fame and eminence always eluded her: despite her standing, PresidentMcKinley did not appoint her to the American delegation to the firstHague treaty convention in 1899. Still, when others did not makeroom for her, she insisted on making room for herself. In 1906, nowseventy-six and pleased with herself for arguing and winning beforethe Supreme Court a long, drawn-out multimillion dollar lawsuit ofthe Eastern Cherokees against the federal government, Lockwoodproposed herself for an honorary law degree at her old college, nowa branch of Syracuse University. She picked up her degree in 1909and next set to work trying to wangle the newly established NobelPeace Prize. She did not succeed, but not for want of trying.
A story of Lockwood's disappointments and sorrows winds through thebook, but Norgren gives it short shrift. It wasn't the woman'snature to dwell on sadness. She struggled for money most of herlife, saw the small fortune in fees she won in the Cherokee casedissolve in legal action with the clients, and lost both herchildren. At eighty-four, she also lost her home--then, as now, apremier measure of dignity for an aging woman. Yet she remainednonplussed: involved in world affairs, interested in youngerfriends, indifferent to the handicap of old age, and very proud ofherself. At eighty- six she regaled reporters with the story of herfeats. She died shortly after, in 1916.
Norgren has the great discernment to see Lockwood's life as largeand anticipatory rather than eccentric and halfrealized. A legalhistorian of considerable skill, she ploughed through reams ofrecords to construct an account of Lockwood's legal career--whichoften spilled over into her Washington affairs. Readers may not bequite as indefatigable as either Lockwood or her biographer, andsometimes the details can be dry. The inveterate reader of women'sbiographies may weary of Congress and the courtroom, and long tosettle down into a story about romance and longing and ambition anddisappointment and anger. And all these elements (except forromance) are probably here--but the fact is that Lockwood, apolitical creature, worked them into the tissue of political ideasand plans that was her life's substance. Which brings us to anotherwoman who would be president.
The century between Belva Lockwood's run for the presidency andHillary Clinton's speaks to the contradictory nature of women'sintegration into the American political system. By the turn of thecentury, women's work in voluntary associations had given themaccess to considerable influence in Progressive-era reformpolitics. One historian has argued that women had more power in the1890s than they did in the 1980s. The huge movement that won womensuffrage in 1919 was the largest popular mobilization forenfranchisement in history. Yet many factors conspired to keepwomen out of political office once they had the vote, including thetight hierarchical structures of the two parties.
For this reason, since the Nineteenth Amendment, the movement ofwomen into political office has been extremely slow--so slow thatthe statistic bruited about in the 1990s was that at the ratethings were going, it would take five hundred years before genderparity came to Congress. The handful of women who did serve usuallycame via the "coffin route," to replace a legislator who died,typically a husband. Before 1978, when Nancy Kassebaum won her seat,exactly one woman had been duly elected to the Senate, MargaretChase Smith, who entered thirty years earlier. In 1969, ShirleyChisholm became the first black woman to be elected to Congress,and there has still only been one African American woman in theSenate, Carol Moseley Braun.
The situation really began to change in the 1970s. In 1973, therewere fifteen women in Congress--about the same as in 1953. In 1971,the liberal wing of the feminist movement organized the nonpartisanNational Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), on the premise that themasculine monopoly of government was in itself a huge problem forwomen, whatever the party alignments. The NWPC's impact wasimmediate and dramatic in the presidential nominating conventionsof 1972. Disarray among Democrats over Vietnam and civil rights andmounting tensions between moderate and conservative Republicanscreated space for women to move in. The numbers of female delegatessoared, almost doubling among Republicans to 30 percent, and morethan doubling among Democrats to 40 percent. NWPC women engineeredplanks on women in both party platforms, calling for federal childcare funding, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), strongmeasures to end job inequities, and the appointment of more women totop positions in government.
It was transformative, although not in the way the NWPC expected.The conventions of 1972 mainly emboldened women afterward to runfor local and state offices; and over the decades, their numbers atthose levels would improve slowly but steadily. But in Congresschange was very slow, almost glacial. Among Democrats, the NWPCquickly assumed a place as an interest group of consequence andfeminists flexed their muscle in the party. Yet between Watergateand the election of Ronald Reagan, the NWPC clique engaged in aseries of self-destructive smackdowns, first embroiling themselvesin squabbles in the campaign over Shirley Chisholm's failed bid forthe nomination and George McGovern's candidacy, and later in thedecade spurning Jimmy Carter for his equivocation on women's rightsissues.
The NWPC powerbroker Bella Abzug worked herself into the role ofwisecracking tough-girl guru for the feminist faithful. She favoreda theatrical politics of brashness, which yielded little. At thezenith of her career, she extricated from Carter a position as headof the huge government- funded International Women's Year (IWY)conference in Houston in 1977 and managed to squander a hugeopportunity by turning it into an extravaganza of Woman Power andfeel-good politics. The IWY handed Phyllis Schlafly, the diva of acounter-demonstration of fifteen thousand women across town, asustained moment in the national spotlight.
The change in the Republican Party was even more constrained. Therise of the far right made it much more difficult for Republicanfeminists--the constituency that was pushing for more femalerepresentation--to move up in the party. Through the 1970s,Republicans backpedaled on the feminist reforms in the 1972platform. In 1980, the Convention dropped the ERA from theirplatform-- the amendment that they had added in 1940. Republicanswere hemmed in and outmaneuvered.
You would think that Schlafly, who was very much a creature of thegender shift in the 1970s, would have opened up access as shewhipped up jihad against the Great Satan, feminism: women, afterall, were her shock troops in the anti- abortion, anti-ERA battles.But protest politics did not produce plausible candidates. TheRepublican women who did stay and run for office tended to bemoderates to whom the young turks of the far right were indifferent.They often ran in swing districts where they were vulnerable (NancyJohnson in Connecticut, for example).
So despite the influx of women into the conventions, the numbers ofwomen in Congress did not budge. Still, there were sources ofundetected change-- primarily among Democrats--in the late 1970sand 1980s. A new kind of political operator appeared, who had beenworking since 1972 in state Democratic organizations and campaignsbefore she ran for office. Ann Richards worked in Texas statecampaigns for years, won her first election as county commissionerin 1976, and state office six years later. Nancy Pelosi, thedaughter of a wealthy and influential Democratic father inBaltimore, became chair of her Northern California branch in 1977and California state chair in 1981, winning her congressional seatin 1987. And those Republican women who managed to hang on hadsimilarly long apprenticeships. Kay Bailey Hutchison came upthrough Texas politics, first elected to the state legislature in1972, and won her Senate seat twenty years later.
The percentages of women in state and local offices steadily rose: 7percent of state officeholders in 1971, 18 percent in 1990, 29percent in 2000. There were so many of these positions thatincremental gains turned them into incubators for hundreds offledgling pols. The NWPC dissolved and feminists despaired ofCongress, but the party machinery ground on. Thus two decades ofchange at the lower levels went into the big change at the top inthe election of 1992, which put Clinton in the presidency, when thenumber of women in Congress jumped from thirty-two to fifty-four.Since then, women have gained seats in every election. Every fouryears the numbers increase by about one- third, around ten morewomen in Congress. There are eighty-seven women in the 110thCongress, up from sixty-five in 1999 and seventy-four in 2005. Ifthis rate continued, we would have gender parity in severaldecades. It won't continue, of course--seats don't turn over thatfast; but the trend shows the glass filling, not emptying.
The present Congress is 16 percent female. The statistic ispathetic, but also significant. It has inched past the 15 percentmark that social psychology identifies as the tipping point where aminority changes from a token symbol of diversity, there onsufferance, to a presence accepted as legitimate and permanent. Andit is 32 percent of the way to the 267 female legislators who wouldcreate strict equality.
Women politicians are too numerous, and a few are too powerful, tobe invisible or dispensable. They are no longer weird and exotic.Their sheer variety--the spectrum of personalities, ages,ethnicities, races, ages, political views, family backgrounds,political views--refutes the old stereotypes. It is no longerpossible to stuff everyone into the primal images and thereby denythem. True, there is no end of references to Lady Macbeth in thecritical discussion of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. But whenPelosi and Clinton--and, it turns out, Condoleezza Rice and DianneFeinstein--are all Lady Macbeth, the image loses some of itssting.
The normalizing tendency will not squelch ridicule, contempt, andcondescension; the misogynist playbook is ancient and cunning. Norwill it stop critics from turning traits that are unremarkable inmale politicians into indictable offenses in women. "Opportunism"is the crime of Hillary Clinton, as if opportunity were not thepolitician's bread and butter. Pelosi is a "self- promoter," whichis really saying no more than that she lives and works inWashington, D.C. And so the comparison with Belva Lockwood isilluminating, because it was Lockwood's instinct for opportunitythat took her out of women's politics, with their intactprinciples, into the thick of things.
"She was certainly as much of an opportunist as any malepolitician," Norgren reflects. She was unabashedly self-promoting."But she was deeply interested in politics ... and knew that publicoffice would never come to women without a fight." As Lockwoodembroiled herself in the grimy business of Washington, she lost thecultural protections that the suffrage movement afforded their own:the image of the idealistic defender of Woman, above partisanship.But she was willing to surrender the myth so as to move about thepolitical world, unimpeded, and take up big issues just like mendid.
In 1914, when Lockwood was eighty-four years old and still lackedthe right to vote, she spoke to reporters about American women'spolitical prospects. She was typically optimistic and even-handed.Women would be elected to the Senate and the House, she predictedwith confidence. (In fact, Jeannette Rankin's election to the Housefrom Wyoming was only three years away.) As for president, that,too, was within reach. "If [a woman] demonstrates that she is fittedto be president she will some day occupy the White House. It willbe entirely on her own merits, however. No movement can place herthere simply because she is a woman." Is Hillary Clinton "fitted tobe president"? The question will be answered over the next year, asshe will be scrutinized for "her own merits." But whatever votersdecide, we owe her, and Nancy Pelosi, and the other female polsacross the spectrum gratitude for devising a new plot. Thebiographies of these women will be composed of the workaday,disenchanted materials of political lives--perseverance,competence, canniness, and, yes, a facility for the quickgrab--that Belva Lockwood cultivated and prized.
By Christine Stansell