Background and Trial for the Right to Vote

Portrait of Virginia Minir
Virginia Louis Minor

Trial for the Right to Vote:
Virginia Minor v Happersett


The Virginia Minor case, held at the St. Louis Courthouse in 1873, is an important part of the nineteenth century women’s suffrage movement. Virginia Minor was born in Virginia but moved to St. Louis with her husband, a lawyer, sometime in the late 1840s As many women of the era, Mrs. Minor focused her efforts on welfare and relief activites for the Union troops quartered just 3 miles from their home at Fort Benton. Even after the war she was a crusader for social progress. In 1866 after the untimely death of her only child, she began to work full-time towards winning women the right to vote. She is credited with founding the first organization dedicated exclusively to women’s right to vote. She gathered signatures to try to get the Missouri State Legislature to change the law so women could vote. She spoke about women’s rights at national conventions alongside Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, and others. Her and her husband wrote essays and letters for pamphlets and newsletters. In 1869 they wrote an influential book which stated that under the terms of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified July 9th, 1868, women were citizens of the United States and entitled to all the benefits and immunities of citizenship. Thus, by law, women already had the right to vote. All they had to do was go out and exercise this right. Eventually Virginia Minor joined the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and rose to officer level. During the 1872 presidential election the NWSA decided to challenge United States voting restrictions that excluded women, which leads to our Trial for the right to Vote.

The Minors used the first section of the 14th Amendment to make their case. This states, "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 wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or 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."

Virginia and her husband Francis Minor belonged to the National Women's Suffrage Association (NWSA), which opposed ratification of the 15th amendment, which stated "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 or servitude." The NWSA opposed the amendment on the grounds that it ensured the right of African-American men to vote but not did give the vote to women. The NWSA broke with another suffrage faction in 1869 over this issue. The rival faction, called the American Women's Suffrage Association and led by Lucy Stone, supported the 15th Amendment on the grounds that change would come about gradually.

Influenced by the Minors’ ideas several women tried to vote in the 1870 and 1871 elections in various parts of the country. Wyoming Territory granted universal suffrage in 1869, and Utah followed suit in 1870. In 1871, a Michigan woman voted successfully because voting officials did not question her rights, and she continued to vote for several years thereafter.

On October 15, 1872, Virginia Minor tried to register to vote in the upcoming election, but was refused by St. Louis' sixth district registrar, Reese Happersett. Happersett refused to register Minor because she was female, thus provoking a civil suit brought by Virginia and her lawyer husband, Francis Minor. Minor's action was part of a nationwide pattern of civil disobedience, in which hundreds of women across the country attempted to vote. Susan B. Anthony led a small delegation of women to the polls in Rochester, New York, and was successful in casting her vote for Ulysses S. Grant. Three weeks later, however, on Thanksgiving Day, Anthony was arrested on the charge of voting fraud. Anthony was a celebrity who was used by the judicial system as an example and a warning to all women in the United States. When Anthony's case came to trial early in 1873, the judge had written his opinion before the trial started, and directed the jury to find a guilty verdict. Anthony was ordered to pay a fine of $100, which she refused to do.

Virginia Minor's case was different from Anthony's in that she was not prosecuted criminally for trying to vote, instead, she brought suit (through her husband, for married women could not sue in Missouri courts until after the passage of the Married Women's Act of 1889) in a civil action against the registrar because he would not allow her to register to vote. Minor contended that women were U.S. Citizens under the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which "nowhere gives [states] the power to prevent" a citizen from voting.

The following is an abbreviated trial script derived from the actual 1873 trial records. Although the actual case was decided by a judge, without witnesses or a jury, this script is based on actual facts and is a representation of what may have happened had it been tried as a jury trial. Each group taking part in the reenactment will be allowed to reach their own verdict. The decision is yours. At the end of the program, the ranger assigned to your group will discuss your trial and the significance of the Minor Case.

Virginia Minor Trial Script

.pdf file

Struggle for the Right to Vote Follow-Up Activities

Last updated: July 14, 2021

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