This year passed a milestone for law schools. For the first time, women make up a majority of law students with just over 50 percent of the seats at accredited law schools in the United States. It is a particularly poignant moment for those of us at George Washington Law School where Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood graduated and ultimately became not only one of the very first female lawyers in the United States but the first woman admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. The incoming class owes a debt of gratitude to pioneers like Lockwood who bravely fought entrenched discrimination and ignorance to reach this incredible moment in history.
This is believed to be the first time that the number of women has surpassed the number of men in law school with currently 55,766 women in law school nationwide as opposed to 55,059 men. In the first-year, there are now more than 51 percent women, or 19,032, and 48.6 percent men, or 18,058.
Our story involving Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood is not an entirely redeeming. In 1870 Lockwood applied to the Columbian Law School in the District of Columbia, but was denied entry. She and other women then learned about the new National University Law School (now the George Washington University Law School). To the school’s lasting honor, it admitted Lockwood and there other women. However, in 1873, the law school withheld her diploma. It took a year, but Lockwood wrote to the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, as president ex officio of the National University Law School. In September 1873, after only a week of Grant receiving her letter, Lockwood received her diploma. At 43, Lockwood was now a lawyer but, even after the District of Columbia bar admitted her, she faced open discrimination. She was denied admission to the Supreme Court based on her gender. She fought for admission and won. In 1880, Lockwood became the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court with Kaiser v. Stickney and later United States v. Cherokee Nation.
Lockwood would later show how important it is for those who prevail over discrimination to help those who still struggle against it. She sponsored Samuel R. Lowery to the Supreme Court bar and he would later become the first African American to argue a case before the court. Lowery’s admission as the fifth African American in the Supreme Court bar was captured in this picture.
So on this historic date, it is important to reflect upon all of those pioneers like Lockwood who refused to yield to prejudice and ignorance and fought for equal rights. It is also equally important to remember the continuing struggle of women in Saudi Arabia and other countries where they are denied rights that even Lockwood had in the nineteenth century before her struggle for equality.