Today in Feminist History: Great News! Court Says Women are “Persons,” “Citizens” (March 29, 1875)

March 29, 1875: The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that American women are “persons” and “citizens,” but not persons or citizens entitled to vote as a result of passage of the 14th Amendment.

PHOTO: Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Morrison Waite.

The ruling in Minor v. Happersett (88 U.S. 162), written by Chief Justice Morrison Waite, could have successfully ended the struggle for woman suffrage had it been decided differently. But though disappointed, supporters of equal suffrage are not discouraged or defeated.

Virginia Minor, the plaintiff, certainly has no intention of giving up her struggle for the vote. She has been an active suffragist since founding the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri eight years ago. After the 14th Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868, she decided that the best and quickest route to nationwide woman suffrage was to bring a case under its provisions, noting in 1869 that: “The Constitution of the United States gives me every right and privilege to which every other citizen is entitled.”

Casting a ballot seemed the most obvious right or privilege of citizenship, but the Missouri Constitution states that only “every male citizen of the United States shall be entitled to vote.” A test case was clearly in order, so on October 15, 1872, Minor went to register to vote in the November 5th General Election. Registrar Reese Happersett turned her down solely on account of her sex.

After losing in the original trial court, then in the Missouri Supreme Court, Minor’s case was finally appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued that: “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.”

But the High Court concluded: ” … the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one,” so it could not confer it upon women. The Justices had no doubt that women were both persons and citizens, and always had been. But though the 14th Amendment states: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States,” the Constitution does not define what the privileges and immunities of U.S. citizens are, so they have to be inferred.

The Court’s view is that history shows voting is not a privilege of U.S. citizenship bestowed by the Federal Government. It has always been conferred by the individual States, each having its own rules regarding such things as age, length of residency, property requirements—and sex—in determining which of its citizens may vote. In no State have all U.S. citizens ever enjoyed an automatic right to vote, so U.S. citizenship and suffrage have never been identical.

Therefore women—or any other group of citizens—can be denied a right to vote by their State unless the U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits discriminating against that group in regard to voting rights. 

A woman suffrage amendment, with wording similar to the 15th Amendment—”The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—only in this case outlawing discrimination “on account of sex” would prevent the States from withholding the vote from women solely because they are women.

Hopefully this ruling will cause such an amendment to be introduced into Congress soon. Of course, the effectiveness of any amendment is dependent upon vigorous enforcement by Congress. 

But even in the Court’s rejection of the 14th Amendment argument, it has shown some sympathy for our movement. In the ruling, Chief Justice Waite said:

“Our province is to decide what the law is, not to declare what it ought to be …if the law is wrong it ought to be changed …No argument as to woman’s need of suffrage can be considered. We can only act upon her rights as they exist. It is not for us to look at the hardship of withholding. Our duty is at an end if we find it is within the power of the State to withhold.”

Despite today’s setback, the battle will go on. Women have already won the vote in the Territories of Wyoming and Utah, and whether national suffrage is achieved on a State-by-State basis or by amending the U.S. Constitution, laws barring women from the polls ARE wrong and WILL be repealed or invalidated.


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.