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A Look Back • The path to women's suffrage became a rocky road in St. Louis

A Look Back • The path to women's suffrage became a rocky road in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS • "We almost despair of hearing anything new on the subject of female suffrage, even from the very intelligent advocates now assembled."

So sniffed the Missouri Democrat, a major St. Louis newspaper, on Nov. 21, 1872, as a national women's convention opened downtown. The Democrat patronizingly predicted that the drive to grant voting rights to women would fizzle. It was a common reaction for the times, abetted in part by a schism within suffragist ranks.

The third annual convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association gathered here at the Temple, an office building at the northwest corner of Broadway and Walnut Street. Among the 150 in attendance was Phoebe Couzins of St. Louis, the first woman graduate of Washington University's law school. Couzins had entered public life through the local Ladies Union Aid Society, which helped wounded soldiers during the Civil War. It was a common start for future feminists.

So had Virginia Minor of St. Louis, who organized the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri in 1867. But two years later, the national movement split over the wording of the Constitution's 15th Amendment guaranteeing votes for blacks. Some advocates feared that including women's suffrage to the amendment would doom it.

Forgotten revolutionaries

Susan B. Anthony at the age of 29, in 1848.

Minor stayed with Susan B. Anthony of New York, who opposed a blacks-only amendment and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. Couzins sided with Julia Ward Howe of Massachusetts, who backed the amendment as written and helped organize the American Woman Suffrage Association. Howe attended its convention here.

Both groups wanted the same thing. Hannah Cutler of Ohio, who spoke during the convention, noted that the nation's centennial was four years away. By then, she asked, "Will it have extended its principles not merely to all men, but to all mankind?"

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist, suffragist and author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Howe helped to create the American Woman Suffrage Association during the split over the 15th Amendment in 1869. The American association generally was considered more moderate, and lobbied the states to extend the vote the women within their boundaries. Howe attended the American association's third annual convention in St. Louis on Nov. 20-21, 1872, as chair of its executive committee. The St. Louis Republican newspaper, in its account of the convention, summarized Howe's report by saying, "The prospect for final success was encouraging." The U.S. Constitution wouldn't guarantee the vote for women for another 28 years. Howe died Oct. 17, 1910, at her home in Portsmouth, R.I., at age 91. (Library of Congress)

Minor stayed away from the Temple but was busy making national news. Five weeks earlier, she had walked into the St. Louis County Courthouse (now the Old Courthouse) to register to vote. County Registrar Reese Happersett refused her request. Minor and her husband, Francis Minor, filed suit Nov. 9, saying she had been denied her rights as a citizen.

The St. Louis court denied her claim, as did the Missouri Supreme Court. On March 29, 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against her, stating that "citizenship did not necessarily confer the right of suffrage."

Anthony's association met in St. Louis in 1879, with Phoebe Couzins back in its fold and Minor as local chapter president. The rival national groups merged in 1890.

Minor died in 1894 and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. The Constitution's 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, was ratified 26 years later in 1920.

Virginia Minor

Virginia Minor, early leader of the women's suffrage movement in St. Louis. A native of Virginia, she and her husband, Francis, moved to St. Louis in 1845 from Mississippi. They supported the Union during the Civil War, and she was active in the Ladies Union Aid Society, which assisted wounded and sick soldiers. In 1867, she helped to found the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri and was its first president. On Oct. 15, 1872, she went to the St. Louis County Courthouse (Old Courthouse) and tried to register to vote, but was refused. She and her husband filed suit on Nov. 9, arguing that her rights had been violated. The county court and then the Missouri Supreme Court rejected her claim. In 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled against her. She died Aug. 14, 1894, at age 70 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery. (State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center St. Louis)

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.

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