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Precedent: The Legal History of St. Louis

America recently marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women across the country the right to vote. Many may be aware of the efforts of figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but few are familiar with the activities of Missouri suffragists to push forward the cause of women’s suffrage. This essay, the first of three, will explore the history of the women’s suffrage movement in Missouri, addressing efforts made through the court system and otherwise.

The women of St. Louis took a restrained approach to sway public opinion on the issue of women’s suffrage, at least by contrast to the more revolutionary approaches of the suffragettes of the United Kingdom. Because the topic of women’s votes was controversial, and because the culture of St. Louis mandated polite (if any) discussion on the matter, the suffrage movement in St. Louis was slow to grow. The movement gained some traction in Missouri around 1867, with St. Louis serving as the stronghold of Missouri’s women’s suffrage movement. However, public support for the suffrage movement ebbed and flowed from the 1840s to the 1880s, in part due to the Civil War and its aftermath, and in part due to the public’s strong interest in the temperance movement.

Nonetheless, through their work, the suffrage-supporting women and men of St. Louis made an important mark on the legal history of women’s right to vote. One of the most prominent suffrage-era voting rights cases, Minor v. Happersett, began in the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1873, making its way to the Missouri Supreme Court and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it became a landmark case in the history of the American suffrage movement.

The plaintiff was Virginia Minor, who was denied the right to register to vote in 1872. Minor, who was born to a family of prominent Virginia planters in 1824 and later moved to St. Louis with her husband, petitioned the Missouri House of Representatives to grant women the right to vote in 1867. After the House of Representatives declined the petition by a vote of 89 to 5, Minor attempted to register to vote in the 1872 presidential election. Reese Happersett, the registrar in St. Louis, declined her registration attempt.

Because married women were denied standing to sue in Missouri at the time, Minor’s husband Francis, a licensed attorney, filed suit on her behalf and represented her in the proceedings.

In a 16-page brief to the St. Louis Circuit Court, Minor argued that the practice of allowing individual states to place limits on suffrage was a violation of the “supremacy” of the federal government. Minor reasoned that women were full citizens of the United States and should receive all of the benefits of citizenship, including the right to vote. Minor argued that she was denied a fundamental privilege of citizenship without due process of law, thereby violating the Privilege and Immunities clause of the Constitution. The Circuit Court disagreed and ruled in Happersett’s favor. Minor appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s judgment. In doing so, the court looked to the history surrounding the enactment of the 14th Amendment. The court noted that, at the time the 14th Amendment was enacted, only white male citizens over the age of 21 were permitted the right to vote. The court then reasoned that the 14th Amendment only enfranchised black male citizens, not women. Because all women were prohibited from voting before the enactment of the 14th Amendment, the court held that the 14th Amendment did not extend the right to vote to women.

Minor appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in 1874. Happersett did not file a brief or send an advocate to the oral arguments, a sad testament to how seriously women’s suffrage was taken at the time. The Supreme Court, nonetheless, affirmed the Missouri Supreme Court decision and resolved the issue of whether suffrage was one of the privileges and immunities of citizenship.

First, the Court agreed with Minor that women were citizens of the United States. (Minor, by virtue of her birth in Virginia, was a natural-born citizen of the United States.) In examining the language of the 14th Amendment, however, the Court noted that it did not define the “privileges and immunities” of citizens, nor did it expressly confer any additional rights. Rather, the Court held, the Amendment merely created an additional guaranty for protections already possessed by citizens.

The Court then reviewed state practices. The Court emphasized that the states always had and exercised the ability to regulate the vote, and they almost universally denied that right to women. As the Court described, as states were first being admitted to the Union, they were never denied admittance on the grounds that their constitutions barred certain citizens from voting. Throughout the 19th century, the practice of restricting suffrage continued. The Court reasoned that this history indicated that suffrage was not coextensive with being a citizen of the United States.

According to the Court, the 14th Amendment did not change this fact. The 14th Amendment only prohibited the states from abridging the privileges and immunities already granted to U.S. citizens. The Court looked to the 15th Amendment, which specifically forbade the denial of suffrage based on race. The Court questioned why, if suffrage was indeed a privilege of citizenship, Congress would have felt the need to pass the 15th Amendment.

In sum, the Court held that once a citizen has been conferred the right to vote, that right can only be deprived by due process of law. But, the Court said, unless an individual can first show she previously had the right to vote, she cannot claim to have been deprived of that right. Because it found that the Constitution “does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one, and that the constitutions and laws of the several States which commit that important trust to men alone are not necessarily void,” the Court affirmed the judgment.

The Minor case was the last attempt the St. Louis suffragists took to secure the right to vote through the courts. From 1874 onward, suffragists attempted to win the vote by legislation. Finally, in 1920, they succeeded on a federal level when Congress passed the 19th Amendment. The fight for suffrage, however, did not end in 1920. Theoretically, the 15th and 19th Amendments allowed all adult citizens the right to vote. In practice, however, this right was often abridged, thus necessitating the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

This series on the suffragists of St. Louis will continue to explore the suffragist movement in St. Louis throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the meantime, check out “Beyond the Ballot: St. Louis and Suffrage” at the Missouri History Museum through June 5, 2022.

Article written by Associate Attorney Tayler Bertelsman | Featured in The St. Louis Bar Journal Vol. 68, No. 4 Spring Issue

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