One of the latest people elected to the Hall of Famous Missourians certainly could have stood up for herself in court during what became a landmark voting rights case.
But because of her gender, and Missouri law at the time, Virginia Minor had to rely on a couple of guys.
One was her husband, Francis. The other was a crusading former Missouri U.S. Senator from Louisiana named John Brooks Henderson, who also was one of this year’s 10 Hall nominees.
Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, chose Minor and former Congressman Mel Hancock to be enshrined in the Hall, which features busts of famous residents at the capitol in Jefferson City.
A doctor credited with starting a school of osteopathic medicine in Kirksville and a noted science fiction writer received the top votes in public balloting. Minor finished sixth and Henderson eighth.
“During the submission process, many Missourians built a strong case for this remarkable woman and why she belongs in the Hall,” Jones said of Minor. “After learning more about her and her amazing story, it became clear to me that she is extremely deserving of induction.”
Henderson fought nobly, if unsuccessfully, for Minor.
In 1872, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant sought a second term as president. In Grant’s former hometown of St. Louis, Minor went to the election office on Oct. 15 and asked to be put on the list of voters.
Registrar Reese Happersett denied the request, citing Missouri law that said only men were allowed to cast ballots.
Minor’s argument was that the 14th Amendment, passed while Henderson was still in the Senate, mandated that she be treated as any other American citizen – the now-famous “equal protection clause.”
“The Constitution of the United States gives me every right and privilege to which every other citizen is entitled,” Minor had said during an 1869 convention in St. Louis.
A little more than three weeks after Happersett declined to register Minor to vote, her husband filed a civil lawsuit.
Francis Minor had graduated from Princeton and the University of Virginia law school, and said his wife was “entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizenship chief among which is the elective franchise,” but that she had “knowingly, willfully, maliciously and corruptly” been denied.
Minor, Henderson and another lawyer said it was “impossible” for government to keep the vote from women forever and challenged the St. Louis Circuit Court to find justification “for such discrimination.”
The case was tried at what is now the historic old county courthouse downtown, and is one of two heard there that dealt specifically with American freedoms. The other was the Dred Scott slavery case.
The circuit court ruled against Minor, as did the Missouri Supreme Court, which said the “almost universal practice of all of the States…from the adoption of the Constitution to the present time” left voting rights strictly to men,” adding that the 14th Amendment did not apply.
The Minors appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The legal team that included Henderson used many of the same citations as in the state case. Henderson infused the debate with some of the arguments he had used for passage of the 13th Amendment.
“Men accept (voting) as a matter of fact, and take for granted it must be right,” he and the other lawyers wrote. “So, in the days of African slavery, thousands believed it to be right – even a Divine institution. But this belief has passed away, and, in like manner, this doctrine of the right of the States to exercise unlimited and absolute control over the elective franchise of citizens of the United States must and will give way to a truer and better understanding of the subject.”
The two argued that the Constitution left the regulation of elections to the states, but not the authority to restrict voting.
“There can be no division of citizenship, either of its rights or its duties,” according to the legal brief. “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.”
The brief went on to outline the idea that the Constitution should be the only source for voting limitations, and that no lower court could take away the rights guaranteed at the federal level.
“A limitation not found (in the Constitution), or authorized by that instrument, cannot be legally exercised by any lesser or inferior jurisdiction,” it reads.
The Supreme Court justices said that the only point of contention was whether the Constitution gave women the right to vote despite the state law against it.
On March 29, 1875, Chief Justice Morrison Waite issued the court’s unanimous judgment. The justices agreed that women were citizens, but rejected the argument that the 14th Amendment applied to the Minor case.
“The Constitution does not define the privileges and immunities of citizens,” Waite wrote for his colleagues. “In this case, we need not determine what they are, but only whether suffrage is necessarily one of them.”
Waite went on to say that “the Constitution has not added the right of suffrage” to those that “existed at the time it was adopted.”
“If the law is wrong, it ought to be changed; but the power for that is not with us,” he said. “No argument as to woman’s need of suffrage can be considered. We can only act upon her rights as they exist. It is not for us to look at the hardship of withholding. Our duty is at an end if we find it is within the power of a state to withhold.”
Waite added that his fellow justices agreed the Constitution “does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone, and that the constitutions and laws of the several states which commit that important trust to men alone are not necessarily void.”
The Minors and Henderson continued to argue for women’s voting rights, but none lived long enough to see passage of the 19th Amendment outlawing the denial of the ballot based upon gender.
Editor’s note: This story contains some info provided by The Associated Press and KOMU TV.
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