From Seneca Falls to the 15th Amendment

Minor v. Happersett

Having failed to secure constitutional protections of the right to vote for women, suffragists turned briefly to a new legal strategy to win the right to vote. They latched on to the language in the new 14th Amendment, which declared “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.” There was no doubt that women were citizens. The Constitution now guaranteed that none of the privileges of citizens could be taken away by law—and suffragists could make a strong argument that voting was one of these privileges. 

Women in several localities made their way to the polls on election day and demanded to be able to vote. Those who were turned away filed suit, claiming that they had been prevented from exercising their rights as citizens. 

Virginia Minor was one of those women who attempted to exercise her right to vote. When she was turned away from the polls in St. Louis in 1872, she brought suit against the registrar who prevented her from registering. She argued that the Missouri Constitution and the state’s voter registration laws, which restricted the ballot to men, violated the U.S. Constitution—both by restricting her 1st Amendment right to free speech and by abridging a privilege of citizenship as protected by the 14th Amendment. The argument put forth by Minor seems quite straightforward and convincing to modern ears, but the Supreme Court found against Virginia Minor unanimously. 

Upholding the lower court decision, the Court ruled that suffrage was not coextensive with citizenship and thus that states possessed the authority to decide which citizens could and could not vote.  The decision in Minor v. Happersett was a landmark ruling in the development of American suffrage law: the Court had formally severed citizenship from suffrage, ending one facet of the debate over suffrage that had been at issue since the ratification of the Constitution. Minor v. Happersett closed off one promising route to suffrage for women, and in the process reiterated the principle that suffrage was a state rather than a federal matter.

It would take women another 50 years to gain the right to vote after the decision was handed down in Minor v. Happersett. But the women’s suffrage movement was coalescing. The supporters of women’s suffrage believed deeply in their cause—in the rights of women and in the justice of equal treatment for both genders. Women, as adult citizens, deserved to have a say in how they were governed and who would do that governing. And the suffragists were genuinely optimistic that they would succeed, as they lived in an era when a righteous cause—the abolition of slavery—had triumphed over ferocious, entrenched opposition. In less than 10 years, the Constitution had been amended three times—to abolish slavery, to guarantee the citizenship of African Americans, and to protect their voting rights. Leaders of the women’s suffrage movement had good reason to believe that profound ideological and legal changes could happen quickly in an environment of moral conflict. The words “right to vote” were now inscribed in the Constitution, and if voting was a right, then it was one that could be guaranteed to women, too.