Is it time for a woman candidate to seek the presidency or vice-presidency? Indeed, it's long overdue, especially in view of the fact that it was exactly 100 years ago that the first female ran for the White House. Her name - Belva A. Lockwood - is not a household word, even in the homes of historians. But Mrs. Lockwood, who ran on the ticket of the National Equal Rights Party, was testimony that the best person doesn't always come out the winner.
Belva Lockwood, born in Royalton, N.Y., in 1830, received a formal education despite the restrictions imposed on her sex. She was also forced to support herself and child after the death of her first and second husbands by teaching school for $3 a week, less than half the salary earned by male teachers. She complained about her pay to the school's trustees, even appealing their decision to the wife of her Methodist minister. ''I cannot help you,'' the minister's wife told her. ''You cannot help yourself, for it is the way of the world.''
After the Civil War, Mrs. Lockwood ventured to the nation's capital to attend the National University Law School, graduating in 1873 at the age of 43. The school, however, refused to grant her a diploma, and she appealed to the president of the United States. Finally, the diploma was awarded, and she was admitted to practice in the District Court, although two other courts in the area refused her admission on the grounds of sex and marital status. In 1879, she became the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court.
Mrs. Lockwood's accomplishments as a lawyer were significant: She helped draft legislation that provided women in the District of Columbia with equal property and child guardian rights. She drafted amendments authorizing woman suffrage to the statehood bills of three western territories. And she served as counsel to the Cherokee Indians in their successful $5 million suit against the federal government. In later years, she worked in international peace congresses and served on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
As a presidential candidate in 1884, Mrs. Lockwood ran against Republican James G. Blaine and Democrat Grover Cleveland, both of whom had reputations and abilities that were, at best, questionable. Mrs. Lockwood's only problem was her sex. One reporter, in one of the few stories about her entry into the race, chose to emphasize her looks: ''Mrs. Lockwood is a pleasant-featured lady, appearing to be about 50 years old. She is above the medium stature, and her dark brown hair is just beginning to be streaked with gray. She was attired in figured black silk, and wore a wide lace collar, the ends of which were fastened in front by a brooch the size of a sardine box. . . .''
The press intimated that Mrs. Lockwood was a divorcee, a charge she handled with tact. ''It might be well to mention the fact that both of my husbands died natural deaths,'' she said to reporters, ''as some papers have said that I am a divorced woman, and while I can conceive of a divorced woman being perfectly pure and reputable as any other woman, still I prefer to be known as a widow.'' Then there was the editorial contention that women were not eligible for the presidency. Mrs. Lockwood's response was to the legal point: ''There is nothing in the Constitution or in its several amendments that tends to render a woman citizen ineligible. . . .''
She was at her best in discussing the issues of the day. ''I am an unswerving friend of the laboring man,'' she said in a New York speech, ''but I want a platform broad enough for the laboring woman, broad enough to take in every adult woman in the land, a platform in which the rights of woman will be respected as well as the rights of man, a platform on which justice as well as courtesy will not only be expected but exacted.''
''Do you expect to be elected?'' a reporter asked her in October of 1884.
''Not this year. But I expect to be elected some time.''
Of course, Mrs. Lockwood was not elected in 1884 or 1888, when she ran again, but her quest should provide contemporary political parties, and their qualified females, with a critical issue to ponder - and, one would hope, to act on in the summer conventions.