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Minor, Virginia L. (1824–1894)

Minor, Virginia L. (1824–1894)

American suffrage leader and Civil War relief worker. Born Virginia Louisa Minor on March 27, 1824, in Caroline County, Virginia; died of liver disease on August 14, 1894, in St. Louis, Missouri; daughter of Warner Minor (a landowner and university "hotelkeeper") and Maria (Timberlake) Minor; married Francis Minor (an attorney), on August 31, 1843; children: Francis Gilmer Minor (1852–1866).

Was co-founder and president of the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri (1867–71); filed lawsuit against St. Louis registrar and lost (1872); Supreme Court upheld lower courts' ruling on lawsuit (1874); was president of the St. Louis branch of the National Woman Suffrage Association (1879–90) and the St. Louis branch of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1890–92).

Descended from a Dutch sea captain who settled in Virginia in the late 1600s, and possessing a distinguished family lineage, Virginia Louisa Minor was born in Caroline County, Virginia, in 1824. In 1826, her family moved to Charlottesville when her well-respected father was chosen by the University of Virginia to manage both the material and moral details of its dormitories. Other than this, little is known about her early life and education. On August 31, 1843, she married Francis Minor, a distant cousin who had graduated from Princeton and the University of Virginia Law School. They lived for one year in Mississippi, then settled permanently in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1844. In 1852, they had one son, Francis Gilmer, who would be killed in a shooting accident 14 years later.

Although both Virginians, the Minors supported the Union cause upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, and Minor joined the recently founded St. Louis Ladies Union Aid Society. Established to assist injured soldiers and their families, it soon became the largest affiliate of the Western Sanitary Commission, which supported army hospitals with food and supplies and helped the destitute refugees who flocked to the cities from rural areas that had become battlegrounds. As she witnessed women successfully handling the complexities of running a relief organization, Minor's belief that women merited political equality was cemented. When the Commission disbanded at the end of the war in 1865, she and a few other women, in an expansion of the new idea of African-American enfranchisement, turned their civic attentions to the voting rights of women. Minor was the first woman in Missouri to publicly support suffrage.

In early 1867, she secured 355 signatures on a petition urging that a proposed constitutional amendment which would allow (male) African-Americans to vote also include women. It was submitted to the state legislature, where it was overwhelmingly rejected. Regrouping to increase their effectiveness, she and her fellow suffrage workers formed the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri in 1867, with Minor as president. She was reelected every year and served until 1871, when she resigned because the association voted to align itself with the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) under Lucy Stone . Minor herself belonged to the rival National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton , which later, in 1879, formed a St. Louis branch with Minor as president.

In these roles, Minor was an intelligent, effective, and charming advocate for suffrage who spoke frequently before legislative and congressional committees. She is probably best known, however, for the legal strategies she pursued along with her husband, who was himself an ardent suffragist. They contended that existing laws supported suffrage in that a woman's right to vote as a citizen was already ensured by the Constitution and the 14th Amendment (which begins by stating that all "persons" born or naturalized in the United States are considered citizens of the country and of the state in which they reside). The Minors presented that argument in 1869 to the NWSA, which endorsed and adopted it. In 1872, Minor and her husband filed a test case against a St. Louis registrar who had denied her voter registration, and after losing the case in lower courts, appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Minor v. Happensett in 1874, the Supreme Court held unanimously that women's political rights were controlled by the states, and that U.S. citizenship did not necessarily confer suffrage on anyone. Although it was unsuccessful, the case helped to highlight the suffrage movement in the minds of the American public.

After the NWSA merged with Lucy Stone's AWSA to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, Minor retained her position as president of the St. Louis branch, and retired in 1892 due only to her advancing years and poor health. She died from an abscess of the liver two years later, at age 70, and was buried without benefit of clergy, whom she felt had opposed her life-long cause of suffrage.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Jacquie Maurice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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