Minor v. Happersett: The Supreme Court and Women’s Suffrage

By: Caiti Anderson
Following the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement followed two different paths to gain the right to vote. The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) advocated a state-by-state approach to suffrage, lobbying individual states to pass laws allowing women to vote. On the other hand, the more radical organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), pushed women’s suffrage on a national scale. After the Fifteenth Amendment excluded women, NWSA leaders brainstormed other ways women could gain suffrage, including an additional amendment. However, there were some who believed that the equal rights clause of the Fourteenth Amendment already granted women the right to vote. In order to prove this, the women’s suffrage movement needed a woman to attempt to register to vote. Upon being turned away, this woman would sue and continually appeal until her case came before the Supreme Court. As one of the architects of this plan, Virginia Minor fit the description perfectly.

Minor’s involvement in the women’s suffrage movement began at the end of the Civil War. While living in St. Louis, Minor and her husband, Francis, both staunchly supported the Union cause. After the tragic death of their son in 1866, both Minors threw themselves into the women’s suffrage movement. In 1867, Virginia Minor founded the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, the first political organization dedicated to enfranchising women. The association elected Minor as president. In an 1869 speech for a national suffrage convention in St. Louis, Minor introduced the idea the women had already gained the right to vote through the Fourteenth Amendment. She stated, “I believe the Constitution of the United States gives me every right and privilege to which every other citizen is entitled; for while the Constitution gives the States the right to regulate suffrage, it nowhere gives them power to prevent it.” Further, the way to solidify this standing was not through the legislature, but through the Supreme Court. Working alongside Susan B. Anthony, the Minors decided that women throughout the country should attempt to register to vote in the 1872 presidential election. When turned away, the women would file a civil suit claiming a violation of their right to vote as granted by the Fourteenth Amendment, and continually appeal until the case reached the Supreme Court.

On October 15, 1872, Minor tried to register to vote. The district registrar, Reese Happersett, denied Minor’s registration based on her gender. Minor and her husband sued. Both the Circuit Court and Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Minor, who appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Minor in October, 1874. In the Opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Waite states that even though women are citizens of the United States, the Constitution does “not necessarily confer the right of suffrage” upon citizens. Rather, suffrage must be expressly granted to citizens, a privilege that the constitution does not grant to women. Further, Waite writes, “If the law is wrong, it ought to be changed; but the power for that is not with us.” With these words, the judicial avenue of gaining women’s suffrage closed. The power to gain the vote lay solely with the legislative branch.

The immediate impact of Minor v. Happersett on the women’s suffrage movement forced the movement to reevaluate how to gain the right to vote. No longer could the movement focus on redefining the privileges of citizenship. Instead, the movement devoted its attention to gaining women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis. Eventually, this morphed into a national movement to ratify a constitutional amendment exclusively granting women suffrage.

Although Minor v. Happersett did not result in the universal suffrage of women, this test case encouraged the use of civil disobedience in reform movements throughout the country. Both Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka utilized this same “test case” mentality; have a person break the law in order to challenge that law’s existence. The women’s suffrage movement would continue to use civil disobedience, especially during the 1910s. Ultimately, Minor’s case held a major impact for how Americans challenge laws. Civil disobedience continues to be one of the most effective methods of bringing attention to problematic issues. Virginia Minor never successfully voted, but her actions of civil disobedience helped pave the way for the Nineteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

 

Note: For an excellent article that further details the impact of Minor v. Happersett, please click here. To read about Susan B. Anthony’s attempt to vote, check out this blog poston her trial.

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