Today in Feminist History: This 1875 Supreme Court Case Claimed Women (Already) Had the Right to Vote

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

February 9, 1875: This difficult, already decades-long battle for woman suffrage may have entered its final phase today thanks to the 14th Amendment, ratified seven years ago, and the determination of Virginia Minor to use it to win the vote.

Only five out of nine men on the Supreme Court now need to be convinced that the 14th Amendment applies to women, as well as to the issue of voting rights, to suddenly expand the number of places where women can vote from two (the Territories of Wyoming and Utah) to all 37 States and the other eight Territories.

The case, Minor vs. Happersett, began on October 15, 1872, when Minor, co-founder and first president of the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, went to Reese Happersett, a St. Louis Registrar of Voters, to register to vote in the 1872 General Election. Despite the fact that she met every other qualification for being a Missouri voter, Happersett refused to register her because the Missouri Constitution states that only every ” … male citizen of the United States shall be entitled to vote.”

PHOTO: Virginia Minor

Her husband sued on her behalf, because as a married woman she could not bring suit in court herself. She lost, but appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. It affirmed the judgment of the lower court, and though that ruling was a loss as well, Minor was encouraged by the fact that the court did think that the 14th Amendment protected the right of citizens to vote, though only in regard to race, not sex. The justices said that it gave those newly freed from slavery “the right to vote and thus protect themselves against oppression.” The fact that half of those recently freed and in need of protection from oppression were women was not relevant to the justices, because they wrote that those who proposed the 14th Amendment had “no intention to abridge the power of the States to limit the right of suffrage to the male inhabitants.”

According to the sex-neutral language of the 14th Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State in which they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Attorney Francis Minor, Virginia’s husband, argued the case before the High Court today. His logic was quite simple: If voting is a right of U.S. citizens, then as a person born in the U.S., and therefore a citizen, Virginia Minor cannot have her right to vote arbitrarily denied by the State of Missouri.

The Constitution also provides for a republican form of government, and as Mr. Minor pointed out: “It is impossible that this can be a republican government, in which one-half the citizens thereof are forever disenfranchised.”

Mr. Minor made many eloquent statements in court today, but perhaps the best was: “There can be no half-way citizenship. Woman, as a citizen of the United States, is entitled to all the benefits of that position, and liable to all its obligations, or to none.”

Virginia Minor’s belief in the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of woman suffrage goes back to at least October 6, 1869, when at the first Statewide convention of the suffrage organization she co-founded, she stated: “The Constitution of the United States gives me every right and privilege to which every other citizen is entitled.” When someone asked why she didn’t exercise her right to vote if she believed she had it, she said that she planned to do so, and in 1872, the first Presidential election after that day, she tried to register. 

It should be noted that Minor’s was not the only challenge to unjust voting laws in the Presidential election of 1872. Susan B. Anthony “illegally” voted in New York State, was arrested, tried, and convicted for this “crime,” but has never paid a penny of her fine and has vowed never to do so. Ward Hunt, the judge who sentenced her after directing the jury to find her guilty, presently serves as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Since he has already expressed an opinion in the Anthony case that the 14th Amendment does not grant suffrage to women, hope lies with the other eight Justices unless the eloquence of the arguments heard in court today have changed his mind. 

Though this new amendment is still legally untested in many respects, the discrepancy between the wording of the 14th Amendment and that of the Missouri Constitution is so obvious that we can all hope for a speedy, as well as favorable, decision by the Court. It would be highly appropriate if the ruling should come down in time for women to celebrate the nation’s Centennial next year by exercising their right to vote nationwide. With so many other issues of sex inequality, such as in the workplace, educational institutions, and domestic life that still need to be addressed, the sooner the energies now being expended in pursuit of suffrage can be freed to work on these other injustices, the better it will be for women—and the country.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.