Virginia Minor

Voting Illegally Became a Way to Fight for the Vote

Virginia Louisa Minor
Virginia Louisa Minor. Getty Images / Kean Collection

Virginia Minor Facts

Known for: Minor v. Happersett; founding first organization dedicated entirely to the single issue of women's voting rights
Occupation: activist, reformer
Dates: March 27, 1824 - August 14, 1894
Also known as: Virginia Louisa Minor

Virginia Minor Biography

Virginia Louisa Minor was born in Virginia in 1824. Her mother was Maria Timberlake and her father was Warner Minor. Her father’s family went back to a Dutch mariner who became a citizen of Virginia in 1673.

She grew up in Charlottesville, where her father worked at the University of Virginia. Her education was, typically for a woman of her time, mostly at home, with a brief enrollment at a female academy in Charlottesville.

She married a distant cousin and attorney, Francis Minor, in 1843.  She moved first to Mississippi, then the St. Louis, Missouri.  They had one child together who died at age 14.

Civil War

Although both of the Minors were originally from Virginia, they supported the Union as the Civil War erupted.  Virginia Minor was involved in Civil War relief efforts in St. Louis and helped found the Ladies Union Aid Society, which became part of the Western Sanitary Commission.

Women’s Rights

After the war, Virginia Minor became involved in the woman suffrage movement, convinced that women needed the vote for their position in society to improve. She believed that as emancipated (male) slaves were about to be given the vote, so should all women have the right to vote.

She worked to get a petition widely signed to ask the legislature to expand the constitutional amendment then being considered for ratification, which would include only male citizens, to include women. The petition failed to win that change in the resolution.

She then helped form the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, the first organization in the state formed entirely to support women's voting rights.

  She served as its president for five years.

In 1869, the Missouri organization brought to Missouri a national suffrage convention.  Virginia Minor’s speech to that convention laid out the case that the recently-ratified Fourteenth Amendment applied to all citizens in its equal protection clause. Using language that today would be considered racially charged, she denounced that women were, with the protection of black male citizenship rights, placed “below” black men in rights, and at the same level as American Indians (who were not yet considered full citizens).  Her husband helped her to craft her ideas into resolutions which passed at the convention.

At this same time, the national suffrage movement split over the issue of excluding women from the new constitutional amendments, into the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). With Minor’s leadership, the Missouri Suffrage Association allowed its members to join either.  Minor herself joined the NWSA, and when the Missouri association aligned with the AWSA, Minor resigned as president.

The New Departure

The NWSA adopted Minor’s position that women already had the right to vote under the equal protection language of the 14th Amendment.

Susan B. Anthony and many others attempted to register and then vote in the 1872 election, and Virginia Minor was among those.  On October 15, 1872, Reese Happersett, the county registrar, did not permit Virginia Minor to register to vote because she was a married woman, and thus without civil rights independent of her husband.

Minor v. Happersett

Virginia Minor's husband sued the registrar, Happersett, in circuit court. The suit had to be in her husband’s name, because of coverture, meaning a married woman had no legal standing on her own to file a lawsuit. They lost, then appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, and finally the case went to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it is known as the case of Minor v. Happersett, one of the landmark Supreme Court decisions.  The Supreme Court found against the Minor’s assertion that women already had the right to vote, and that ended the efforts of the suffrage movement to claim that they already had that right.

After Minor v. Happersett

Losing that effort did not stop Virginia Minor, and other women, from working for suffrage. She continued to work in her state and nationally. She was the president of the local chapter of NWSA after 1879.  That organization won some state reforms on women’s rights. 

In 1890, when the NWSA and AWSA merged nationally into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the Missouri branch was also formed, and Minor became president for two years, resigning for health reasons.

Virginia Minor identified the clergy as one of the forces hostile to women's rights; when she died in 1894, her burial service, respecting her wishes, did not include any clergy.