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Law Day

The Law Day 2020 theme is “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100.” The amendment guarantees that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of sex.

Law Day May 1 is an annual celebration of the rule of law in a free society. This year, the centennial celebration of women’s suffrage got underway on Law Day and continues through the summer, marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment on August 18.

Activities in May set the stage for the anniversary of women’s right to vote in all elections, an achievement marked by students and teachers, judges, lawyers, historians, and women’s organizations.

While Law Day has been a visible part of the legal establishment since 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower established it, the ratification of women’s suffrage has been observed in quieter ways. Not this year. Many organizations have been preparing for the anniversary with educational programs, exhibits, resources, and videos.

A pair of videos explores the Women’s Suffrage Movement and make it accessible and relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s voters. A 25-minute video by Annenberg Classroom offers an overview of the movement and includes an interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The companion piece is a five-minute video by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts that features little-known suffragist Virginia Minor who is an example of how ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.

Designed for Distance Learning

For teachers, homeschoolers, parents, and other adults who work with high school students, the federal courts’ Law Day resources are designed for the distance learning space to engage students in thoughtful discussion on the fundamentals of a society based on the rule of law.

Virginia Minor: Suffragist, Strategist, and Leader

In the pantheon of suffragist heroines Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida B. Wells may take center stage, but their supporting cast of activist allies include firebrands like Virginia Minor, of St. Louis, Missouri. When Minor’s attempt to register to vote was rebuffed, she took her case through the judicial system all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States creating a watershed moment in the women’s suffrage movement.

Minor was an effective organizer and strategist whose impact was felt at the local, regional, and national levels. As early as 1865, when formerly enslaved persons were asserting their rights, her voice reportedly was the first in St. Louis to call for women’s right to vote. To advance her aims, she organized and was the president of the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, said to be the first organization of its kind in the nation. Over the course of an impressive career of grassroots organizing, Minor ultimately brought together contentious factions of the movement under the banner of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), of which she also was a leader.

Minor and her husband and lawyer Francis were a St. Louis power couple, of sorts. Together, they challenged the status quo with the radical claim that women already had the right to vote. They just needed to assert it under the Fourteenth Amendment ratified in 1868, acknowledging birthright citizenship to all, including formerly enslaved persons, and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws.

Virginia and Francis were determined to work through the courts to get women to the ballot box. Their test case started on October 15, 1872 in St. Louis when Virginia attempted to register to vote in the upcoming presidential election. She was turned away by registrar Reese Happersett on grounds that she was a woman and Missouri law only allowed men to vote. Virginia decided to take legal action. 

During the same election season, Virginia’s friend and ally Susan B. Anthony was arrested – at her Rochester, N.Y. home on Thanksgiving Day, 1872 – for voting in the presidential election a few weeks earlier.

Represented by her husband, Virginia sued Happersett and lost, but appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. Francis, who worked for the state Supreme Court at the time, left his job and argued the case. When they lost there, the Minors took their cause to the Supreme Court of the United States. Francis, again, invoked the Fourteenth Amendment and added that, since women pay taxes and have all the responsibilities and duties of citizenship, they should have the right to vote. 

In his brief, Francis referred to women’s right to vote as “just a simple act of justice.” The arguments did not succeed with the nine justices, who unanimously decided that, while women are citizens, the right to vote was not guaranteed to them. In its 1875 decision, the highest court in the land said that the Constitution did not implicitly grant women’s suffrage, stating that "the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone." The thinking was that, of course, women are persons and citizens, but children also are citizens, and no one would suggest that children should have the right to vote.

The Minors were disappointed, but not defeated. The Supreme Court’s decision was a turning point in the women’s suffrage movement and the Minors shifted their attention to the state-by-state strategies gaining momentum, especially in the West. They became active in the national effort to amend the Constitution.

Virginia’s public appearances, national convention speeches, and the newspaper coverage of her efforts, broadened her grassroots organizing successes from St. Louis, to the region, and to the nation. She captured public attention by declaring that she would not pay taxes until she had the right to vote, claiming that if taxation without representation was wrong in 1776, it was wrong in 1876.

Courageous acts like these are widely credited for reshaping the public image of women and opening doors for their full participation in society. The movement also created alliances among women across geography and social class. Virginia Minor and Anthony were peers and colleagues in the fight that forged their friendship – sharing philosophies, strategies, and convention stages. Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution covered Minor’s court battle, public statements, and her death in 1894. In her will, Minor bequeathed $1,000 to Anthony in recognition of the personal and financial sacrifices Anthony made for the cause. Both women died before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. They never got to vote but, because of their struggle, generations of women who follow them can exercise that fundamental right.