• Last updated on November 10, 2022

In this setback to the woman suffrage movement, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states could constitutionally forbid women to vote, despite their holding U.S. citizenship.

Summary of Event

Long before the concerted effort for woman suffrage developed during the nineteenth century, American women had exercised the right to vote. In January, 1648, Margaret Brent Brent, Margaret had petitioned the Maryland Maryland;woman suffrage assembly for permission to vote in their proceedings, and the assembly agreed. The governor of Maryland vetoed the decision, and Brent lodged an official protest. In the same decade, in Rhode Island Rhode Island;woman suffrage and New York New York State;woman suffrage , women participated in community affairs by voting. In 1776, in New Jersey New Jersey;woman suffrage , all references to gender were omitted from suffrage statutes. During the first fourteen years after the laws were passed, women did not vote, thinking that the laws referred only to men. By 1800, women were voting throughout New Jersey. However, a legislature made up entirely of white men voted in 1807 to change the New Jersey law to include only white male voters, with the strange argument that allowing women to vote produced a substantial amount of fraud. Minor v. Happersett (1875) Woman suffrage;Minor v. Happersett Supreme Court, U.S.;on woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] Minor, Virginia Louisa Happersett, Reese Citizenship, U.S.;and women[Women] [kw]Minor v. Happersett (Mar. 9, 1875) [kw]Happersett, Minor v. (Mar. 9, 1875) Minor v. Happersett (1875) Woman suffrage;Minor v. Happersett Supreme Court, U.S.;on woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] Minor, Virginia Louisa Happersett, Reese Citizenship, U.S.;and women[Women] [g]United States;Mar. 9, 1875: Minor v. Happersett[4790] [c]Women’s issues;Mar. 9, 1875: Minor v. Happersett[4790] Bushnell, Horace Claflin, Tennessee Celeste Emerson, Ralph Waldo [p]Emerson, Ralph Waldo;and woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] Woodhull, Victoria

During the first half of the nineteenth century, some U.S. women joined with the abolitionist movement in an attempt to blend their search for legal rights for themselves with rights for the slaves. At the time, these women were more concerned with obtaining rights to own property and to enter into contracts than with the right to vote. At the women’s first convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton did mention as part of the platform that women should have the right to vote, but this right did not become a paramount issue until after the Civil War (1861-1865). At that time, when the slaves were freed and all male citizens were given the right to vote, women were shocked to discover that in spite of all the work that they had done on behalf of the slaves, they themselves had been denied that right. The right to vote thus became the central issue to concerned women over the next seventy years.

Woman suffrage was an issue that divided the country along race, gender, religious, and political lines. Among the many men opposed to granting women the right to vote was Horace Bushnell, Bushnell, Horace who wrote Women’s Suffrage; The Reform Against Nature (1869). In that tract, he argued a traditional nineteenth century position that men and women lived in separate spheres, public and private. Men inhabited the public sphere, women, the private. If women entered into the public sphere, the moral nature of current life would be jeopardized. He asserted that it was a historic fact, extending back to biblical times, that women were unsuited to any role in the government of countries. Last, he argued that granting suffrage to women would have a negative effect upon married life. Because men were the accepted heads of households at that time, to grant women the right to vote might threaten this arrangement. Such thinking exemplified that of many men who opposed woman suffrage.

The noted nineteenth century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo [p]Emerson, Ralph Waldo;and woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] rejected such thinking. He believed that because all humans are fallible and biased about one issue or another, granting women the right to vote would only be correcting the biases. He believed that if one brought together all of the various opinions existing in the country, such a franchise would produce something better.

Two parties existed that women could join in their fight for suffrage. One, the American Party American Party , remained a single-issue party. The other, the Nationals, opened itself to other issues, so as to attract wider membership. Among the people it attracted were the sisters Victoria Woodhull Woodhull, Victoria and Tennessee Celeste Claflin Claflin, Tennessee Celeste . Woodhull advocated women’s rights, in addition to free love, spiritualism, and faith healing, and argued before Congress that women already had the right to vote under the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Claflin wrote a treatise in support of woman suffrage, Constitutional Equality. She argued that women and men should not exist in separate spheres, and that if it were feared that the entrance into politics would corrupt women, it was time that women entered into, discovered, and exposed what was so corrupting about politics. She also argued that the refusal of men to relinquish their claims to dominance over women was selfishness on their part.

In early 1872, Thomas Nast pilloried Victoria Woodhull in this cartoon by depicting her as a devil offering salvation through free love.

(Library of Congress)

For a time, both parties published newspapers. In 1869, The Revolution, the newspaper of the Nationals, published a set of resolutions that stated, as Woodhull Woodhull, Victoria had declared before Congress, that the Constitution already conferred the right to vote upon women because of its privileges and immunities clause. Francis Minor, an attorney from St. Louis, Missouri, wrote the resolution. His wife, Virginia Louisa Minor, was president of the Missouri Missouri;woman suffrage Woman Suffrage Association. When Virginia was turned away from the polls by registrar Reese Happersett in November, 1872, she and Francis, who was required to participate in any legal action his wife might bring, petitioned the courts of St. Louis for damages in the amount of ten thousand dollars.

While Minor’s suit was making its way through the courts, other suffragists were challenging the law. In 1871 and 1872, at least 150 other women tried to vote in various states throughout the country. Among these was Susan B. Anthony Anthony, Susan B. [p]Anthony, Susan B.;trial of Women’s movement[Womens movement];Anthony trial , who headed a group of sixteen women in Rochester, New York, in first registering and then voting in the presidential election of 1872 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1872 . The women did this knowing that they risked being fined up to three hundred dollars and imprisoned for up to three years. Anthony was not allowed to testify at her trial and was denied the right to a genuine decision by the jury when the judge directed the jury to return a guilty verdict. After the jury returned the verdict, the judge refused to commit Anthony to jail. She therefore lost the right she would have had to appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, however, did eventually hear the Minor case and passed down its ruling on March 9, 1875. However, it summarily rejected the couple’s claims under the Fourteenth Amendment’s privileges and immunities clause. The Court held that Virginia Minor, like all American women, was a citizen of the United States, but it dismissed her additional claim that citizenship conveyed upon her the right to vote. This right was not intended as part of the privileges and immunities clause in the Constitution, according to the Court’s decision.

Significance

The Supreme Court’s ruling ignored the social factors that were at the root of arguments over whether women should have the vote. These factors, as expressed by Bushnell Bushnell, Horace , Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo [p]Emerson, Ralph Waldo;and woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] , and Claflin Claflin, Tennessee Celeste , for example, continued to disturb the country after the Minor case was decided and until women achieved suffrage in 1920. The Minor case merely indicated to those who were determined to obtain woman suffrage how far they had to go before achieving that right.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Agonito, Rosemary. “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” In History of Ideas on Woman: A Source Book. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977. Emerson, a firm suffragist, believed that the right to vote for women was an inevitable and positive change in society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Jean H, ed. Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002. Scholarly history of the woman suffrage movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bushnell, Horace. Women’s Suffrage; The Reform Against Nature. New York: Charles Scribner, 1869. Opposes woman suffrage on the grounds that it would undermine women’s natural and moral position in society, that is, the private sphere of domesticity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Claflin, Tennessee C. Constitutional Equality: A Right of Woman. New York: Woodhull, Claflin, 1871. This early feminist tract expounded on woman’s right to equality and to vote in a world where men and women would share the same life, if men would allow it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959. Comprehensive study of the women’s movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which places the struggle for woman suffrage in a historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont. Women’s Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts On File, 1992. Contains many primary sources concerning woman suffrage, including the Minor petition to the lower courts and the later opinion in the Minor case by the Supreme Court.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstein, Leslie Friedman. The Constitutional Rights of Women: Cases in Law and Social Change. Rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Includes little-known commentary on woman suffrage, as well as the Supreme Court opinion in the Minor case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Thomas T., and Richard L. Wilson, eds. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Supreme Court. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Comprehensive reference work on the Supreme Court that contains substantial discussions of Minor v. Happersett and many related subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFadden, Margaret, ed. Women’s Issues. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1997. Comprehensive reference work with numerous articles on Susan B. Anthony, woman suffrage, and related issues.

Seneca Falls Convention

Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth Amendment

Woman Suffrage Associations Begin Forming

Wyoming Gives Women the Vote

Anthony Is Tried for Voting

Declaration of the Rights of Women

Women’s Rights Associations Unite

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Susan B. Anthony; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Lucy Stone; Victoria Woodhull. Minor v. Happersett (1875) Woman suffrage;Minor v. Happersett Supreme Court, U.S.;on woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] Minor, Virginia Louisa Happersett, Reese Citizenship, U.S.;and women[Women]

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