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Minor v. Happersett

All Or Nothing

Plaintiffs' argument and briefs presented to the Supreme Court repeated points made before the lower courts and also contained a new claim: "There can be no half-way citizenship. 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." They cited several previous Supreme Court decisions, including Scott v. Sandford, the infamous judicial reply to the question of whether "the class of persons who had been imported as slaves [or] their descendants . . . free or not," were or ever could be citizens. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney had written in the majority opinion that they could not (a decision later invalidated by the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment), but he stressed that a finding of citizenship would have conferred rights no state could abridge:

If persons of the African race are citizens of a State, and of the United States, they would be entitled to all of these privileges and immunities in every State, and the State could not restrict them; for they would hold these privileges and immunities under the paramount authority of the Federal Government, and its courts would be bound to maintain and enforce them, the Constitution [of an individual state] and the laws of the State to the contrary notwithstanding . . .

Pointing out that section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to women as well as to the black males, plaintiffs' attorneys argued that both groups, by the standards set in Dred Scott, were now guaranteed a citizen's "privileges and immunities." They next cited the Supreme Court's 1873 Slaughterhouse decision as evidence that suffrage was one of the rights of citizenship: "The Negro having by the Fourteenth Amendment been declared a citizen of the United States is thus made a voter in every state of the Union." Therefore, they reasoned, a state's abridgment of its female citizen's right of suffrage was a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Unanimously, however, the Supreme Court found otherwise. Chief Justice Waite wrote in the majority opinion that women born or naturalized in the United States were in fact--and had been even prior to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment--citizens of the United States. He found, however, that the right of suffrage was not one of the privileges and immunities of citizenship, and that the states were entitled to exclude women from the polls. It would take nearly a century before the Supreme Court would apply Fourteenth Amendment protection to women's rights.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Minor v. Happersett - Significance, The "new Departure", A Constitutional Approach, All Or Nothing, The Fourteenth Amendment