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‘Beyond The Ballot’ Explores History Of Women’s Suffrage Movement In St. Louis

This August marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted U.S. women the right to vote. But the fight for women’s suffrage was a long one, starting many decades prior to that celebratory day in 1920. And St. Louis women were among some of the earliest suffragists around the country.

State Historical Society of Missouri
An early Women’s League of Voters handbill (at left) and a 19th-century portrait of St. Louis suffragist Virginia Minor (right) are among the artifacts that SLU doctoral student Elizabeth Eikmann has been exploring in her recent research.

One of them was Virginia Minor, who is often a footnote in narratives that focus on more prominent figures such as Susan B. Anthony. In 1872, Minor made her way to the registrar's office in her district, intent on registering to vote.

The registrar refused her request, and like so many other suffragists of her day, Minor did not live to ever cast a vote.

But that’s hardly the substance of Minor’s story, as two contemporary St. Louis women know better than most. St. Louis University doctoral student Elizabeth Eikmann completed an internship at the Old Courthouse last year, focusing much of her research on Minor in the very same place where Minor twice sat before a judge after filing suit against the registrar.

And Katie Moon, exhibits manager at the Missouri History Museum, has been exploring Minor’s life and those of other early St. Louis women who were making big contributions to their city, long before they had any say in its political process. Two years of planning are now culminating in the unveiling of the exhibition “Beyond the Ballot: St. Louis and Suffrage” this weekend.

Missouri Historical Society
“Beyond the Ballot: St. Louis and Suffrage” opened at the Missouri History Museum this past Saturday. The exhibition will remain on show through early 2022.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, both Moon and Eikmann joined host Sarah Fenske to talk about the connections between the Gateway City and the long fight for women’s suffrage.

Eikmann noted that Minor is most remembered for taking her case, which began in the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1872 at the Old Courthouse downtown, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1875.

A couple of weeks after the registrar denied her attempt to register to vote, Minor and her husband, an attorney, filed a joint suit arguing for women’s suffrage based on the 14th Amendment, which was designed to grant citizenship to formerly enslaved people.

“But they argued, ‘Ah, if you’re born in the United States and you’re guaranteed citizenship, as a citizen, you have the right to vote.’ So basically their whole argument was that women already had the right to vote per the 14th Amendment,” Eikmann explained. “And they basically just said, ‘Hey, go out and take advantage of a right that you already have.’

“So they argue this all the way through the lower circuit court, Missouri Supreme Court, U.S. Supreme Court, and it was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court — a unanimous decision that women were citizens but that citizenship did not necessarily guarantee enfranchisement.”

That legal defeat hardly stopped Minor and her fellow suffragists in St. Louis and across the country, though.

Moon noted that the first half of the new exhibit at the Missouri History Museum is dedicated to 32 women who contributed to and influenced the city of St. Louis before 1920.

“There’s this misconception that women’s history doesn’t start until they got the vote, and we really wanted to kind of explode that misconception,” she said.

The curator was quick to emphasize that, as celebratory a moment as the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment was for women in America, it was mostly white women who benefited from that milestone.

“It again goes back to the Virginia Minor case — the court saying, ‘Just because you’re a citizen doesn’t mean you have the right to vote,’" Moon explained. “And that allows for Jim Crow laws and educational requirements and land ownership requirements. And so the 19th Amendment took away the hurdle of gender from voting, but it didn’t take away the hurdles of race and other voting requirements.

“And some of the documentation from the suffrage movement is troubling, and I think as we tell history, the more complex it is, the more interesting it is. And so it wasn’t until the suffragists expanded their audience outside of people who agreed with them or who looked like them that it actually moved forward.”

Both guests noted that big challenges remain today, 100 years later.

“I don’t think we can shy away from that,” Moon said. “And so in a lot of ways it’s a celebration, but it’s also a way to reexamine where we are right now. And we really try to get visitors in the museum to do that.”

Related Exhibit
What: Beyond the Ballot: St. Louis and Suffrage
When: Now through March 1, 2022
Where: Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112)

Related Event
What: Recitation and laying of wreath at Virginia Minor's grave
When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 15
Where: Bellefontaine Cemetery (4947 W. Florissant Ave., St. Louis, MO 63115)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.