FERRARO WAS NOT THE FIRST
By Bob Confer
With the recent passing of Geraldine Ferraro the press, the Democratic Party, and Americans in general abused history with their remembrance of her life. People everywhere celebrated her role in the 1984 presidential campaign and most said that she was the first woman to appear on a presidential ticket.
Not to belittle her accomplishments, but she was not the first. To properly identify what Ferraro accomplished, one must say she was the first woman to appear on a presidential ticket of a major political party. In terms of being the first woman on a presidential ticket from any party (large or small), she was bested by someone who was born and raised right here in Niagara County: Belva Lockwood.
Lockwood ran for the office of the President (not just Vice-President) exactly one century before Ferraro’s feat. She repeated that task in 1888, both times under the National Equal Rights Party. In 1884 she received 4,100 votes, a fraction of those received by the winner Grover Cleveland – ironically, another candidate with a solid Western New York background – who garnered 4.87 million votes.
Limited numbers notwithstanding, Lockwood’s performance far rivals that of Ferraro. When Ferraro was Walter Mondale’s running mate women had a long history of holding federal office dating back to 1917 in the House (when Jeanette Rankin was elected) and 1932 in the Senate (when Hattie Caraway was elected). But, when Lockwood ran, women were looked at as second-class citizens; they couldn’t even vote. Back then the common sentiment was that they belonged in the home and shouldn’t participate in more manly pursuits like governance and law. The majority of the “gentlemanly” press painted her as a joke when she campaigned, just as they did any other woman who counted herself as a suffragist, one who fought for women’s voting rights.
Lockwood was incredibly instrumental in changing those disgusting ways in which we viewed and treated women in the public arena. She overcame the negative coverage and showed that she was up to the task of debating and developing a platform, a 15-position masterpiece that was arguably more substantial than that of Cleveland or his Republican foe, James Blaine. Had women possessed the right to vote, she would have been a formidable opponent and definitely a game changer (The 1884 election was close: Cleveland had 48.5% of the vote while Blaine had 48.2%).
Outside of politics, she was just as impressive. As a teacher, she developed new curriculum in her schools and expanded the knowledge base afforded young women, exposing them to studies that only men once took. She also became one of the first female lawyers to practice in the US and ultimately the first one allowed to practice before the US Supreme Court. She was a successful lawyer at that; she fought the case of the Eastern Cherokee Indians against the government, winning them a settlement of $5 million (which in today’s dollars is $97 million). Somehow, she managed all this while running a boarding house and tirelessly fighting for women’s rights.
It’s high time Lockwood got her due. She was an entirely self-made woman; her achievements were not the result of privilege. Lockwood empowered herself and she gave women the hope that they could do the same. In her time she ranked with Susan B. Anthony (who was immortalized on a dollar coin) as the most powerful and well-known women in the country. Despite that, we seem to have forgotten who she was and what she did, as made evident by the accolades thrown upon Ferraro. Nationally, primary schools look at her as nothing more than a footnote, if she’s even mentioned at all.
It’s really disappointing to find that some of the local school districts are guilty of the same. You would certainly think that someone of her historical importance who was born in Royalton and lived and worked in the Lockport area until her early 30s would get great coverage in local history classes. That begs the question: If she’s not an honest-to-goodness local – and national - hero(ine), then just who is?
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at email@example.com.
This column originally ran in the 04 April 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers
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