Phoebe Wilson Couzins was an early trailblazer for women. She was one of the first female lawyers in the United States, the first female U.S. marshal, and an outspoken supporter of women’s right to vote.
Couzins was born on September 8, 1842, to John E. D. and Adaline Weston Couzins in St. Louis, Missouri. John E. D. Couzins was an architect and builder.
At an early age, Phoebe learned the value and importance of public service from her parents. In 1849, when she was just six years old, a horrific cholera
Cholera is a sickness caused by a water-dwelling type of bacteria. Its symptoms include extreme nausea and diarrhea, often causing dehydration and death. Cholera spread from Asia to Europe in the early 1800s, then to America at the beginning of the 1830s. Since cholera lives in water that has been contaminated with feces, it thrived in highly populated areas around rivers and other bodies of water with poor sewer drainage systems. Cholera outbreaks affected several American cities in the Mississippi River Valley during the mid-1800s. St. Louis was one of the cities hardest hit during this period, enduring cholera epidemics numerous times between 1832 and 1867. The 1849 and 1866 epidemics were especially severe, killing several thousand people. Cholera became less of a problem in American cities later in the 1800s as sewage systems improved and public health awareness increased.
epidemic swept through St. Louis. Thousands of the city’s residents died. John and Adaline Couzins led the local relief organization responsible for helping cholera victims.
During the Civil War, Phoebe’s father served as the city’s chief of police and as a member of the Committee of Public Safety, a group that sought to keep Missouri in the Union
Union is the term used to identify the United States and its government during the Civil War.
. Adaline was a member of the Ladies’ Union Aid Society in St. Louis and volunteered as a battlefield nurse.
After the war, Adaline and Phoebe joined the St. Louis Woman Suffrage Association, an organization that promoted the right of women to vote and to hold political office. In 1869, encouraged by a family friend, Phoebe applied and was admitted to Washington University Law School in St. Louis.
Stanton & Anthony
Stanton & Anthony.
Phoebe Couzins worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, both leading suffragists. Together they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association to advance women’s rights. Anthony’s contributions were later honored when the U.S. Mint produced the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin in 1979.
[Courtesy of the Library of Congress]
The same year, Couzins served as a delegate to the American Equal Rights Association convention in St. Louis. There she met influential suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Unsatisfied with existing women’s Spirituality
Spirituality, is the belief in and/or experience of the spiritual, sacred, divine, or supernatural. It may be tied to a specific set of religious beliefs and practices, or a more general sense of the interaction between the physical world and a spiritual plane. During the 1960s, it became popular in America to experiment with alternative (non-church oriented) forms of spirituality.
organizations, Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association
Founded in New York City in 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was formed as a response to a split in the women's rights movement over whether to support the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed African Americans the right to vote. While its main focus was securing the right for women to vote, the NWSA also worked on other social issues pertaining to women, including advocating for easier divorce and ending discrimination in employment and pay. The organization merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
, which Couzins joined.
Upon graduating from law school in 1871, Couzins became the first female law graduate of Washington University and the one of the earliest female law graduates in the United States. After passing the bar exam, Couzins practiced law for two months before devoting herself to the women’s suffrage movement. She began traveling across the country to give speeches in favor of women’s rights.
1876 Democratic National Convention
1876 Democratic National Convention.
On the opening day of the 1876 Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, Phoebe Couzins delivered an address to male convention delegates on behalf of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Couzins implored the Democratic Party’s delegates to support women’s suffrage and include it as part of the party’s political platform, but to no avail. Although unable to vote and barred from participating in the political process, women did attend the convention, watching the proceedings from their seats in the balconies.
This image is an artist’s depiction of the convention, which was held in the New Merchant’s Exchange building.
[Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy of Cornell University Library via Wikipedia]
In 1884, when Couzins’s father was appointed U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Missouri, he made her one of his deputies. After her father’s death in 1887, Couzins was appointed interim U.S. marshal by President Grover Cleveland, making her the first woman to serve in that position. Two months later she was replaced by John W. Emerson.
Couzins moved to Washington, DC, where she made a modest living as a writer. In 1890 she was elected secretary of the Board of Lady Managers of the Chicago World’s Fair, providing her with much-needed income. Couzins was dismissed, however, due to infighting among board members.
As she grew older, Couzins’s ambitious, outspoken personality alienated friends in the women’s suffrage movement at a time when she could ill afford to do so. Battling poor health and disillusioned with younger, wealthier members of the suffragist movement, she denounced the cause and became a lobbyist for the United Brewers Association.
As a lobbyist, Couzins spoke out against the temperance movement, which sought to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol
The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol in the United States. The amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and took effect on January 17, 1920. It was difficult for the government to enforce Prohibition, especially when criminals began making and selling alcohol in violation of the law. Due to the amendment's unpopularity, a rise in crime, and the difficulty of enforcement, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment.
. Her actions upset acquaintances in the women’s movement as temperance was a favorite cause of many suffragists. In 1902 Couzins experienced a change of heart and again supported the suffrage movement.
Couzins lost her job as a lobbyist in 1908. At the age of sixty-eight, she found herself penniless, in failing health, and unable to work. She returned to St. Louis, where she died on December 6, 1913.
Couzins was buried wearing her U.S. marshal’s badge in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Her grave remained unmarked until 1950, when members of the Women’s Bar Association of St. Louis placed a headstone on her final resting place in memory of her accomplishments.