This Election Day will mark an interesting centennial date in the evolution of women's rights, one that will be appropriately celebrated when millions of Americans vote for the first time for a woman running on the presidential ticket of a major party.
The presidential election of 1884 also saw the name of a woman on a national ticket, and it was the women's movement alone that put her there. She didn't get nearly as many votes as Geraldine Ferraro will, but then it was a time when the candidate herself couldn't even cast a ballot.
The year was 1884, when James G. Blaine opposed Grover Cleveland for the presidency. It was a time of transition for the women's movement. Although much progress had been made since the first women's rights convention in 1848, there had been countless defeats.
The quest for political rights had been the most frustrating aspect of the struggle. In the 36 years since 1848, all conceivable arguments for and against women's suffrage had been heard and thoroughly debated. As early as 1876 The Washington Star editorialized that "the arguments of the opponents are coming more and more to be based on expediency. . . ."
The movement's leader, Susan B. Anthony, once an object of scorn, was revered by women throughout the country. Yet women could vote in no state. The courts had uniformly denied women's claims to the ballot.
The year 1884 saw women's groups pleading the suffrage cause, and as the presidential election approached, women's rights advocates turned their attention to the political parties. Many of them were former abolitionists who had been closely associated with the early Republican Party. Most of the leading male abolitionist Republicans had supported the principle of women's suffrage, too, though they said it should wait until after Reconstruction.
Many woman suffragists in 1884 still believed the Republican Party would someday repay what they felt was a debt owed them. They noted, for example, that on a House bill to establish a standing committee on women's suffrage, 72 Republicans voted in favor, and only four against, while only 13 Democrats voted for it and 120 against.
So, as Belva Lockwood tells it: "About this time Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and . . . Susan B. Anthony came out in a circular, directed to the leading women of the country, urging them to use their influence for the Republican party; a copy of it was sent to me. I had been present . . . at the convention in Chicago which had nominated Mr. Blaine, and we had besought the resolutions committee in vain to adopt a plank in their platform giving some recognition to women.
"The circular of these distinguished ladies appeared to me to be . . . out of harmony with real conditions. . . ."
Lockwood was a highly successful Washington lawyer with a thriving pension law practice. Her personal struggle to win the right to practice law had been a dramatic and protracted one.
She wrote a reply to the circular, concluding that "The Republican party, claiming to be the party of progress, has little else but insult for women, when they appear before its 'conventions' and ask for recognition. . . . It is quite time that we had our own party; our own platform, and our own nominees. . . ."
This was published in the Woman's Herald of Industry, a paper edited by Miss Marietta Stone of San Francisco. It started a ripple of indignation that culminated in September 1884 when a handful of women convened in San Francisco as the National Equal Rights Party and chose Lockwood as its presidential nominee, with Marietta Stone as her running mate.
Lockwood's platform, besides advocating women's suffrage, called for better relations with Central and South America, a fair tariff, reduction of the national debt (does any of this sound familiar?), civil service reform and world peace.
Most leaders of the movement, fearing that Lockwood's candidacy could undo years of painstaking work, did not support her, but the campaign attracted immediate media attention and, as she put it: "next morning I was famous."
Lockwood did not win a single electoral vote, but she did manage to draw a respectable 4,149 votes, concentrated in six states.
It was a close election, with New York's pivotal 36 electoral votes going to Cleveland, who won with 219 electoral votes to Blaine's 182. Blaine lost New York by a plurality of only 1,149. No one will ever know how many of those 1,149 votes went to Belva Lockwood, who received 1,336 votes in New York State.