Phoebe Couzins: Blazing the Way for Women

9, March 2017
Black-and-white portrait of Phoebe CouzinsPhoebe Couzins, ca. 1870s. Missouri History Museum.

A leading figure in the suffragist movement, Phoebe Couzins has a legacy that shouldn’t be forgotten. The question is, what are we more likely to remember her for?

Couzins was born in St. Louis on September 8, 1842, to John E. D. and Adeline Couzins, both of her whom were tireless public servants. Witnessing their work as chief of police and battlefield nurse, respectively, likely inspired Couzins’s interest in social causes. Her cause of choice? The empowerment of women.

On May 8, 1871, Couzins made history as the first female graduate of Washington University School of Law. After graduating, she was admitted to the bar associations of Missouri, Arkansas, Utah, Kansas, the Dakota territories, and the federal courts. Having proven women deserved a place in the legal field, Couzins set her sights on women’s suffrage next.

Scan of Phoebe Couzins's diploma from Washington University School of LawCouzins was the first woman to graduate from Washington University School of Law. This is her diploma. Missouri History Museum.

She traveled across the country speaking alongside nationally renowned suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, captivating audiences 3,000 strong. In fact, Anthony was right beside Couzins as she presented her famous speech, “Declaration of Women’s Rights,” at the country’s centennial celebration. Couzins also addressed the House Judiciary Committee three times on behalf of women’s right to vote.

In 1884, Couzins began working for her father, the newly appointed U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Missouri, as one of his deputies, proudly helping enforce the nation’s laws. Upon his death three years later, President Grover Cleveland named Couzins interim marshal, making her the country’s first female U.S. marshal. The job didn’t last, however—she was replaced by a man after just two months.

By the early 1890s, Couzins was working as the secretary of the Board of Lady Managers for the Chicago World’s Fair, which was set to take place in 1893. The group’s executive committee, disapproving of her outspoken and determined nature, didn’t particularly like Couzins—the feeling was mutual. She tried to claim the Board of Lady Managers was a sub-branch of the National Exposition Commission, an all-white, elitist gentlemen’s club. A Chicago Tribune article reported of her tenacity toward the men as follows:

If Col. Couzins could almost scare them to death by her apparition on their threshold, what will become of them if she once gets her clutches on a seat in their midst and proceeds to run things in her wild St. Louis way?

With help from the men, the Lady Managers literally locked Couzins out of the building. She sued but lost.

Scan of letter noting Couzins's admission to the Washington University School of LawLetter from Washington University chancellor W. S. Chaplin to Phoebe Couzins, November 17, 1902. Missouri History Museum.

After years of fighting, Couzins became bitter and turned on the movement she had so ardently supported throughout much of her life. She spent the next 20 years turning her gift for oratory toward renouncing her suffrage beliefs, much to the delight of the nation’s newspapers and those who believed women didn’t deserve the right to vote.

Hard up for money by the late 1890s, Couzins joined the United Brewers’ Association as a lobbyist, lecturing against prohibition in exchange for funds. She greatly furthered the group’s cause but was never compensated for her efforts. By 1908, Couzins was living in poverty with few friends, little support, and chronic arthritis pain. She died in the company of her brother and a few close companions in an unoccupied house at 2722 Pine Street on December 6, 1913.

A friend paid for her burial in Bellefontaine Cemetery, where she was laid to rest with her U.S. marshal badge pinned to her chest at her request. Couzins’s grave remained unmarked until 1950, when the Women’s Bar Association of St. Louis paid to erect a headstone in honor of her achievements on behalf of the many female lawyers who followed her.

—Anna Edwards, Communications Intern

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