We Shall, We Shall Not Be Moved!

Thursday March 7, 2013

In honor of Women’s History Month, a time each March when Americans pause to remember the role women have played in history and highlight their contributions to society, we’d like to share the unique role St. Louis played in the women’s suffrage movement.

Many Americans think of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when they recall leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. And the 1848 Seneca Falls (N. Y.) Convention, hailed as the first to be organized by women in the Western world, likely comes to mind when they think of the beginnings of the women’s rights movement.

But an exciting hidden gem of history reveals the significant role St. Louis played in the women’s suffrage movement.

While nationally all women didn’t get the right to vote until passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, the heroic efforts of some women to gain full citizenship are an interesting slice of history that is sometimes overlooked.

Which brings us to the fascinating efforts of Virginia Minor, a St. Louis woman who, rather than wait for passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, decided to take another route.

Minor–and others–felt that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which gave African-American men to the right to vote and guaranteed citizenship to all Americans regardless of race or gender gave, by extension, women the right to vote.

Minor and her husband Francis, an attorney, led a movement that argued that when the 14th Amendment guaranteed full citizenship to everyone in the country, it guaranteed voting rights all citizens even though it didn’t say so specifically, Bob Moore, historian at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, said. The Memorial, part of the National Park Service, includes the Gateway Arch and St. Louis’ Old Courthouse where Minor’s case was eventually tried.

The Minors were so passionate about their beliefs that they wrote a pamphlet on the topic which they distributed at a national women’s rights convention in St. Louis in 1869 starting a “nationwide movement of people who thought they were going to test this and push for a woman’s right to vote under the 14th Amendment as a citizen of the United States,” Moore said.

As Rosa Parks did almost a century later, Minor and others were “testing the water” when they attempted to vote in the 1872 presidential election, Moore said.

In Michigan four or five women cast their votes with no questions asked, he said. “But then there were others who made more of a splash,” he added.

Susan B. Anthony and several other women voted in New York State and weren’t challenged at the polls when they did so. But “because she had such celebrity status, the sheriff came to Anthony’s house on Thanksgiving Day and arrested her,” Moore said. She was prosecuted for voter fraud, convicted and fined $100 which she defiantly refused to pay.

“In St. Louis we had a very different situation,” Moore said. Prior to the election, Minor attempted to register to vote. But Reese Happersett, the registrar in the Sixth District of St. Louis, refused to register her because she was a woman. He said women were excluded from the right to vote in Missouri.

The Minors anticipated that would happen and sued Happersett asserting he denied Minor’s civil rights by blocking her from voting.

“That’s the famous case (Minor v. Happersett) that was brought here to the Old Courthouse in early 1873 which the Minors lost on all three levels of their challenge–at the local court level, in the state supreme court and in the U. S. Supreme Court,” Moore said.

The Minors lost even though several high-profile men including John B. Henderson, a U. S. Congressman and author of the 13th Amendment, and John M. Krum, former mayor of St. Louis, were on their team.

“They had a pretty heavy-hitting team of lawyers but in each case they were turned down,” Moore said.

The importance of the case came with the U. S. Supreme Court decision in October 1874 stating that the U. S. Constitution does not confer the right of suffrage on anyone saying suffrage was not co-existent with citizenship, Moore said. The decision of who is entitled to vote was left to the legislative branch.

“What most people don’t know is that has not changed,” Moore added. “That still holds true today–just because you’re a citizen that does not guarantee you the right to vote.”

Today school groups can reenact the Virginia Minor trial in one of two large restored courtrooms at the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

When renovations to the exhibits at the courthouse are complete, visitors will be able to use scripts in the mock courtroom to re-enact several trials, including Minor’s.

Until then, groups–even small groups–can arrange a time to do the Minor program by calling 314-655-1700 for reservations.

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