Virginia Minor was born March 27, 1824, in Caroline County, Virginia. Her father, Warner Washington Minor, a hotel-keeper at the University of Virginia, died when she was only six years old, plunging her family into years of economic instability. By 1839, her mother, Maria Timberlake Minor, was able to get access to the monies collected from sale of land and houses due to her, which gave them stability and status.
Tradition says Virginia was educated at home and “spent a short period at a Charlottesville female academy,” but the name of the school is never mentioned and no definitive records as to where Virginia attended school are extant. However, it is highly likely she was a student at Edgehill School for Young Ladies in Charlottesville, a small building within sight of Thomas Jefferson’s mountain home at Monticello. Virginia’s elder cousin by ten years, Mary Waters Minor, attended Edgehill, and Mary’s daughter, Margaret Randolph Minor Bryan, also was an alumna of the school. Students were taught decorum and social graces, but also received a strong academic education, including in English, geography, mathematics, philosophy, history, music, art, and foreign languages.
Virginia married her second cousin, Francis Minor, on Thursday, August 31, 1843. After spending three years in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with family, they moved to St. Louis Missouri, where they would live for the rest of their lives. Until the beginning of the Civil War, Virginia lived as a wealthy homemaker and then as mother to their only child, Francis Gilmer Minor, who was born on February 5, 1852, and died on May 15, 1866, at the age of only 14 in a tragic shooting accident.
Civil War Work
Only two months later, in response to the growing local unrest and nearing Civil War violence, General Samuel Curtis and a group of seven concerned St. Louis women, Virginia among them, met to form the Ladies Union Aid Society of St. Louis (LUAS) on July 26, 1861. The mission of the LUAS was to provide what aid they could to the Union wounded, starting with what they could scavenge from their own homes. The LUAS soon became the main auxiliary of the Western Sanitary Commission and made St. Louis the center of military medicine for the state as well as the entire Mississippi River Valley.
Unlike many of the other LUAS members whose residences were in downtown St. Louis, Virginia lived in the rural suburbs on ten acres of farmland, roughly six miles from downtown. It would have taken her more than an hour to travel to City Hospital by horse with or without a buggy, which limited her to daytime activities. However, Virginia was still one of the most consistently participative and enthusiastic members of the LUAS, which had about forty-five active members and countless others who volunteered as time and circumstances allowed. Virginia organized society meetings aimed at soliciting help from the public and, being well-known and liked in the community, used her natural charm and Francis’ social and political connections to help raise money.
Even though it kept her from some activities, Virginia’s country estate proved to be a unique and valuable asset for the LUAS. Though they had access to a commissary, most of the food and drink the soldiers were served came from donations. Virginia provided the hospitals and refugee camps with daily supplies of milk and cheese from her dairy, chickens from her farm, vegetables and canned goods from her gardens, and encouraged her neighbors to do the same. It is said that when she heard of an outbreak of scurvy among the soldiers, Virginia combed the countryside in her buggy for fruit and personally delivered cherry preserves she made with her own hands with fruit from her orchards.
Though her location made trips to the downtown hospitals an infrequent occurrence, Benton Barracks, which doubled as a convalescent hospital and central location for assembling more than nineteen thousand troops from nearby states, was only three miles north of her estate. Virginia made regular visits to the soldiers, whose injuries and illnesses often took weeks or months to heal, offering conversation and comfort to those recuperating from their wounds and reading to those with nothing but time to kill.
During and after the war, both Virginia and Francis were commended for their services. In 1862, the Fifth Street Hospital publicly acknowledged Virginia’s generosity with the goods from her estate in the Daily Missouri Democrat. After the war was over, James Yeatman, president of the Western Sanitary Commission, thanked the Minors for their efforts by letter, enclosing a generous check for Virginia’s work. She promptly returned the check, saying she served out of love for her fellow man, not for money.
Virginia’s involvement in the suffrage movement began in the uncertain years after the Civil War ended, when women like herself, who had tasted the power of political action and influence in supporting the war effort, faced a return to their traditional domestic lives.
On May 8, 1867, she and four other women founded the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, the world’s first organization dedicated solely to women’s suffrage. (It pre-dates the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the American Women’s Suffrage Association, founded by Lucy Stone (AWSA), by two years.) Virginia served as the organization’s first president and spent the next two years petitioning the state legislature in favor of woman suffrage.
In October 1869, at the NWSA convention in St. Louis, Virginia first made the argument that would forever change the suffrage movement and later be dubbed the “New Departure” because it was so different from anything the suffrage movement had seen to date. Citing the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, ratified only months before, she argued that women already had the right to vote, saying, “I believe the Constitution of the United States gives me every right and privilege to which every other citizen is entitled; for while the Constitution gives the States the right to regulate suffrage, it nowhere gives them power to prevent it.”
Virginia’s argument, which would later be taken up by Victoria Woodhull during her presidential campaign, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony when they addressed Congress, stated that the use of the word “persons,” rather than “males” is what allowed female suffrage. She and her husband printed pamphlets to this effect which were circulated throughout the United States. Susan B. Anthony even reprinted her argument in her newspaper, The Revolution.
Seeking to practice what she preached, Virginia put her theory to the test on October 15, 1872, when she tried to register to vote. But the election registrar, Reese Happersett, would not allow it because she was female. In response, Virginia, with her husband as her representative (married women could not yet sue in Missouri courts; that right would come in 1889 with the Married Woman’s Act), sued.
On February 3, 1873, arguments were heard in writing at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis without a trial or jury. The trial court ruled against the Minors, so the case was brought before the Missouri Supreme Court, who heard the case and ruled against the Minors.
Not ready to give up, Virginia and Francis appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which gave the case the legal name, Minor v. Happersett. On March 29, 1875, the Supreme Court refuted the argument, upholding the right of individual states to define who could vote within them, stating in a unanimous decision “that the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one” rather that right belongs to the states. It ignored the fact that although women were citizens under the law, they didn’t have the same rights, and effectively ended the hope of a national judicial decision in women’s favor.
Life After Minor v. Happersett
Though the court case failed, it gave great publicity to the cause of women’s suffrage, and Virginia kept fighting for what she believed in. From 1868 to at least 1886, she led tax revolts that garnered national media attention for the fact that women were taxed on their personal property without being able to have a say in who represented them, effectively the same “taxation without representation” that was a contributing factor to the American Revolution. She spoke across the country in favor of women’s rights, Speaking at NWSA conventions from New York to Oregon. She even spent several months at Susan B. Anthony’s side in the wilds of Nebraska, stumping for women’s enfranchisement in that state. She also spoke out in favor of Mormon women’s suffrage in Utah and opposed the Edmonds Bill.
In 1888, Virginia was a delegate to the International Council of Women in Washington D.C. The following year, she testified before the United States Senate committee on woman’s suffrage.
A pivotal moment in suffrage history occurred in 1890 when the NWSA and the AWSA finally put aside their differences and ended their twenty-one year rift by becoming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). When the two organizations merged, Virginia was elected president of the Missouri branch, a role she held until age, poor health, and Francis’ death forced her to step down two years later. As such, she was the leader of hundreds, if not thousands, of midwestern suffragists; the St. Louis chapter alone consisted of two to three hundred women.
Deaths of Francis and Virginia
Francis died February 19, 1892, an event that required Virginia to step down as honorary vice president of the Interstate Woman Suffrage Convention. After a year of mourning, Virginia continued to travel across the country to NAWSA conventions, Washington DC and various states like Florida and Kansas, speaking in favor of women’s suffrage.
When Virginia died in St. Louis two years later, she was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Because she believed the clergy were against equal rights for women, her funeral was held without any clergy members, a final thumb of her nose at the patriarchy.
In a break with tradition that said a person’s final will and testament should be kept private, Virginia’s will was published in the St. Louis newspapers because it contained two unusual bequests. Virginia left $500 a piece to her two single nieces, with the condition that if they should ever marry, the married niece should surrender her half of the inheritance to the niece who remained single. Another $1,000 was bequeathed to Susan B. Anthony “in gratitude for the many thousands she has expended for woman,” to help ensure the fight for women’s suffrage could continue on beyond Virginia’s lifetime.