belva lockwood

Summer Reading: Ballots for Belva

Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman’s Race for the Presidency by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Reading level: Elementary

Whatever your opinion about this year’s Presidential election (and if my friends on Facebook are any indication, most of you probably have a lot of opinions!), it’s pretty amazing that just a century after women won the right to vote, a woman has a real shot at becoming President of the United States. 

But Hillary Clinton won’t be the first woman to appear on the ballot—that distinction goes to Belva Lockwood, who — in 1884 and again in 1888 — decided to do something about the fact that women weren’t allowed to vote by running for President. (That’s right—though there were laws prohibiting some from voting, no laws said women couldn't run for President.) It was a bold move, but Belva’s life had already been a history of bold moves: Unlike most of her peers, Belva went to college and to law school, and became a lawyer, even arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Plenty of people thought Belva was being unladylike and inappropriate, but she was undeterred. And she had a surprising amount of support: Even though women couldn’t vote for her, Belva managed to receive more than 4,000 votes in the 1884 election as the official candidate for the National Equal Rights Party. Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman's Race for the Presidency tells her story—one that doesn't appear in most U.S. history books.

This picture book biography of Belva’s life keeps things simple, introducing readers to Belva through a series of events in her extraordinary-for-her-time life. The author pays special attention to Belva’s passion for equal rights for everyone—for women, yes, but Belva’s campaign also advocated equal rights for African-Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups. She also takes a fairly matter-of-fact approach to the criticism Belva received for her unorthodox activities—from both the media and more traditional people and sometimes even from her fellow women’s rights activists. 

Though this is a picture book, it’s not just for younger readers. Older kids will find Belva fascinating, too, and this book is a great introduction to her life. (The bibliography at the back of the book guides you to further reading suggestions,) I liked the period illustrations (though what’s with the random cats?), which really help tell the story. There are a few places where the storytelling falls a little flat for me, but Belva is absolutely interesting enough to pull you along through an occasional dry patch.

(If you’re playing summer reading bingo, this one counts as a biography of a historical figure you learned about this year if you’ve been following the 2016 election, as a nonfiction book, or as a book you can finish in one day.)