Decades before suffragists marched in Washington, won the battle for a federal constitutional amendment or cast their first ballots in the 1920 presidential election, a woman asked the Supreme Court to grant women the right to vote.
The nation’s highest court, composed of nine White men, unanimously turned her down.
“It’s dismissed almost offhand,” said Ellen DuBois, a professor emeritus of history and gender studies at UCLA.
The case, filed by Virginia Louisa Minor, a former volunteer hospital worker, often flies under the radar within the colorful history of the women’s suffrage movement. But experts say the 1875 court decision forced suffragists to abandon their argument that the Constitution ensured them voting rights and ushered in a new phase of their long fight for access to the ballot.
Ahead of the 1872 presidential election between Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Liberal Republican Horace Greeley, Minor was among hundreds — perhaps thousands — of women who illicitly tried to vote so they could mount a legal challenge when they were blocked. Minor was a founder of the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, so it was fitting that her lawsuit was the one to reach the Supreme Court and capture headlines.
Minor was familiar with organizing when she joined the suffrage movement. Her first foray into activism came when she tended to wounded Union soldiers as a member of the Western Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and transported produce from her St. Louis farm to Benton Barracks, a military encampment three miles north.
When the conflict ended in 1865, Minor and other Sanitary Commission volunteers focused their attention on their own rights as women. Before a crowd gathered at a suffrage convention four years later, Minor argued that the 14th Amendment established that women were U.S. citizens and that states could not make any law that blocks citizens’ “privileges or immunities.” Therefore, she claimed, women had a constitutional right to vote.
Congress passed the 15th Amendment the same year to extend voting rights to non-White citizens. Members of the National Woman Suffrage Association, who had worked with abolitionists to demand universal suffrage, felt betrayed by women’s lack of inclusion in the new amendment, said women’s rights scholar Sally Roesch Wagner.
The suffragists’ feeling that they were “thrown under the bus” was partly responsible for their next strategic move, said Wagner, executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.
“Part of what’s driving this is they’re angry,” she said. “They’ve been sold out.”
With the presidential election approaching, Minor tried to register to vote in St. Louis’s 6th District. As she expected, registrar Reese Happersett blocked her because she was not a “male citizen of the United States.”
At the time, Wagner said, laws in every state made it illegal for women to vote.
Minor responded by filing a state lawsuit that her husband, attorney Francis Minor, had to co-sign because married women could not sue independently in Missouri until 1889. The couple argued in their complaint that the 14th Amendment established women’s citizenship and that the Constitution “nowhere gives [states] the power to prevent” citizens from casting ballots.
The lower court decided against the Minors, and the pair appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. That court ruled that the 14th Amendment gave voting rights to people recently freed from slavery but did not retract states’ power to limit suffrage to male citizens.
Finally, the Supreme Court took up the case. Francis Minor told the justices in an oral presentation that his wife brought the lawsuit not only to advocate for her own rights but also to press for the rights of millions of others.
“It is impossible that this can be a republican government, in which one-half the citizens thereof are forever disenfranchised,” he argued.
Chief Justice Morrison Waite issued the court’s ruling in Minor v. Happersett in March 1875: Virginia Minor had always been a citizen, regardless of the 14th Amendment, and was entitled to citizenship’s privileges and immunities. Voting, however, was not one of those benefits.
“No argument as to woman’s need of suffrage can be considered,” Waite said in the court’s opinion. “We can only act upon her rights as they exist.”
And, he added, “The Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one.”
Matilda Joslyn Gage, then the president of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), felt strongly that the Supreme Court was wrong. She argued at the association’s next conference that the federal government’s control of eight classes of voters showed that it, and not state governments, had the authority to determine who got to vote.
At the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, five NWSA officers pushed their way to the platform, presented to officials their Women’s Declaration of Rights and conducted an unsanctioned reading of the document, which excoriated the federal government for limiting voting rights to men.
The dramatic presentation demonstrated that the movement had entered a new phase, kicked off by Virginia Minor. Wagner said the previous argument that women already had a constitutional right to vote crumbled under the weight of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“After that case, it’s like, ‘Boom,'" she said. “The bottom just falls out of it.”
The suffragists, Wagner said, realized that the courts were not going to support their view that voting was their constitutional right — unless they could change the Constitution itself. From then on, the women had a new goal: adding to the venerated document the language that eventually became the 19th Amendment.