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Trailblazer for Women's Rights

Phoebe Wilson Couzins was born on September 8th, 1842 in St. Louis, Missouri, to Adeline and John E.D. Cousins. During the Civil War her father, John, chief of police in St. Louis but in 1884 he was appointed U.S. Marshal of the entire Eastern District of Missouri by President Arthur. Her mother, Adaline, was active in charity work, a nurse during the war, and active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. When she was just six years old a cholera epidemic swept through St. Louis and thousands of victims perished. John and Adeline were community leaders in the relief efforts for the victims. Later in her life, Phoebe and her mother were both members of the St. Louis Woman Suffrage Association and it was here that Phoebe’s talent for public speaking was initially noticed.

In 1869, she enrolled in Washington University in St. Louis, earning her L.L.B. degree in 1871. It is reported that she was the first woman in the United States to graduate from a law school. She was also the first woman to graduate from Washington was the second licensed attorney in Missouri and the third or fourth licensed attorney in the United States, and was admitted to the Missouri, Kansas, and the Dakota Territory bars. Upon graduation she was licensed to practice law in federal courts in Missouri, Arkansas, Utah and Kansas.

She set up a law practice in St. Louis, and from her office she wrote numerous articles for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s publication, “The Revolution.” Then, instead of actually practicing law, she began to rise in prominence as a suffragist. Even before her studies at Washington University she had been the Missouri delegate tot he American Equal Rights Associating meeting in New York where she had yet another taste of public speaking. She was known as a riveting orator and lectured across the United States. In 1884 she testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on the legal status of women. She was combining her knowledge of the law with her passion for women’s rights.

In 1887, upon the death of her father, President Grover Cleveland appointed Phoebe the interim Marshall, making her the first female U.S. Marshall in the country. She had served under her father in the Eastern District of Missouri as a deputy. Two months after her swearing in as interim marshal though, she was replaced by a man, John W. Emerson.

Couzins was always ambitious, energetic and very outspoken and these traits led to the alienation of friends in the women’s suffrage movement. She was battling poor health and very disillusioned with the younger, more privileged members of the movement. She up and denounced the cause becoming a lobbyist for the United Brewers Association. In 1902 though, she had another change of heart and once again supported the suffrage movement.


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