Belva Ann Lockwood is not spinning in her grave. I went there and checked.
Some other women went there, too, weaving between the headstones of Congressional Cemetery in the nation’s capital, finding the tombstone of the feminist pioneer tucked between a pair of tall Italian cypress trees.
They left their “I Voted” stickers for Lockwood, who became the first woman to appear as an official candidate on a presidential ballot back in 1884, when she wasn’t even allowed to vote in the election.
And on Wednesday, after the country had once again refused to elect a woman to the White House, someone left a handwritten apology: “I’m so sorry. We tried but we couldn’t do it.” And then someone else added “Yet” to the end of the note.
The “Yet” matters. And so does Lockwood, who was one of the United States’ first female lawyers and whose law school wouldn’t give her a degree — even after she aced all the classes — until President Ulysses S. Grant intervened on her behalf. Her campaign for the presidency predated Hillary Clinton’s by 132 years, but the outcome was exactly the same. The response has to be the same, too.
The fight by American women for equal representation in government, equal pay, equal human rights has never been easy and probably will never be over. At least not in our lifetimes.
The soaring hopes of so many women this week weren’t so much about a single person — an accomplished but flawed former first lady, senator and secretary of state — as they were for a milestone breakthrough. Finally, a woman as president, the crashing of the ultimate glass ceiling.
So when Clinton lost to the misogynistic Donald Trump, it left millions of women reeling, feeling like the reset button was just pushed on 200 years of progress.
In Lockwood’s days, the sexism was so blatant it was almost funny. When she applied to law school at Columbian College (now George Washington University) in 1869, her rejection letter said “such admission would not be expedient, as it would be likely to distract the attention of the young men.”
She fought until another law school let her in. Then she fought to get her degree. Then she fought to be allowed to practice in a court.
“Born a woman, with all of a woman’s feelings and intuitions, I had all of the ambitions of a man, forgetting the gulf between the rights and privileges of the sexes,” she wrote in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in a February 1888 article about her struggles.
So many women still face resistance in pursuing their ambitions in modern-day America.
Capt. Kristen M. Griest became one of the first two women to graduate from the Army’s notoriously demanding Ranger School last year, 233 years after Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man to fight for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.
In 2004, Susan Hockfield became the first female president of MIT, 131 years after the Ellen Swallow Richards became the school’s first female graduate.
It took 91 years for the U.S. House of Representatives to elect a female speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), after the first woman, Jeanette Rankin (R-Mont.), was elected in 1916.
All of these women have battled, been knocked down and got back up.
Belva Ann Lockwood died in 1917, three years before the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote. She had to push relentlessly for every bit of progress she achieved in making it in a man’s world.
Not long after the presidential campaign in 1884, she wrote about her struggles to be taken seriously in the legal profession.
“In the autumn of 1877 some of the newspaper men of Washington, who had begun to be interested in the long and unequal contest that I had waged, asked me what I intended to do next,” she remembered.
“Get up a fight all along the line,” she told them.
Get up a fight. It’s what American women have always done. And it’s what we will keep doing.