Minor v. Happersett 1875
Minor v. Happersett 1875
Appellant: Virginia Minor
Appellee: Reese Happersett
Appellant's Claim: That Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by refusing to let women vote.
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Francis Minor
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: None
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: March 29, 1875
Decision: The Supreme Court said Missouri did not violate the Constitution.
Significance: With Minor, the Supreme Court said voting is not a privilege of citizenship. Women did not get the right to vote nationwide until the United States adopted the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
Many Americans consider the right to vote to be a privilege of citizenship. When the United States was born in 1776, however, voting was reserved almost exclusively for white men. Women and black men had to fight for the right to vote, which is called suffrage.
When the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States ended slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment. Three years later in 1868, it adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent states from giving black Americans fewer rights than white Americans received. The Fourteenth Amendment says, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge [limit] the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States." In 1870, African American men received the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment.
When the United States adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, Virginia Minor was president of the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri. At the time, Missouri's constitution said only men could vote. Minor decided to challenge the law. On October 15, 1872, Minor went to register to vote in the November 1872 presidential election. Reese Happersett, the registrar of voters, refused to register Minor because she was a woman.
With help from her husband, attorney Francis Minor, Virginia Minor filed a lawsuit against Happersett in the Circuit Court of St. Louis. Minor said Happersett violated the U.S. Constitution by refusing to register her to vote. Minor's main argument was that voting was a right of citizenship. She said the Fourteenth Amendment made it illegal for Missouri to take the right to vote away from any citizens, including women. She also said Missouri's constitution violated many other parts of the U.S. Constitution, such as the guarantee of a republican form of government.
All or Nothing at All
The Circuit Court of St. Louis and the Supreme Court of Missouri ruled in favor of Happersett. Determined to succeed, Minor appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She told the nation's highest court, "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."
With a unanimous decision, however, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Happersett. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waite said, "There is no doubt that women may be citizens." In fact, he said, women had been citizens of the United States from the very beginning, well before adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. The question was whether all citizens are entitled to be voters.
The Constitution does not define the "privileges and immunities" of citizens. To decide if the right to vote was a privilege of citizenship, Waite looked to the American colonies. When the original thirteen colonies adopted the U.S. Constitution, women could not vote anywhere except in New Jersey. Since ratification of the Constitution in 1790, no state that had been admitted to the Union allowed women to vote. Chief Justice Waite said that meant the right to vote was not a privilege of citizenship. Since suffrage was not a privilege of citizenship, the Fourteenth Amendment did not prevent states from denying the right to women.
THE NINETEENTH AMENDMENT
W hen the United States declared independence in 1776, New Jersey was the only colony that allowed women to vote. It took 144 years for the United States to give women the right to vote nationwide with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
The Nineteenth Amendment was the achievement of the women's suffrage movement that began at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton started the movement there by writing the Seneca Falls Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Over the next seven decades, women fought for suffrage through groups such as the National Woman Suffrage Association, the American Woman Suffrage Association, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage.
In 1866, Democratic Representative James Brooks of New York offered the first women's suffrage amendment in Congress. Congressmen offered similar amendments on a regular basis beginning in 1880, only to be defeated time after time. In May 1919, President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress to consider the Nineteenth Amendment. The Senate finally passed it that month and the United States ratified, or approved, it in August 1920.
At the end of his opinion, Chief Justice Waite said, "Our province is to decide what the law is, not to declare what it should be. … If the law is wrong, it ought to be changed; but the power for that is not with us." The power, of course, was with the people of the United States through their representatives in Congress and state government. It was not until 1920, forty-five years after Minor v. Happersett, that the United States gave the right to vote to women and men alike.
Suggestions for further reading
Baughman, Judith S., ed. American Decades: 1920–1929. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1996.
Brill, Marlene Targ. Let Women Vote. Millbrook Press, 1995.
Frost, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont. Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Grote, Joann A. Women Win the Vote. Barbour & Co., 1998.
Harvey, Miles. Women's Voting Rights. Children's Press, 1998.
Meyers, Madeleine. Forward into the Light: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage. Lowell: Discovery Enterprises, 1994.
Nash, Carol Rust. The Fight for Women's Right to Vote in American History. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Pascoe, Elaine. The Right to Vote. Millbrook Press, 2000.
Vile, John R., ed. Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments, Proposed Amendments, and Amending Issues. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1996.