Shaw, Anna H(oward)

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SHAW, Anna H(oward)

Born 2 February 1847, Newcastle-on-Tyne, England; died 2 July 1919, Moylan, Pennsylvania

Daughter of Thomas and Nicola Stott Shaw

The daughter of Scotch-English Unitarians, Anna H. Shaw was brought to the U.S. in 1851 and spent her early childhood in New Bedford and Lawrence, Massachusetts. In 1859 Shaw's father established his family in a half-completed log cabin near Big Rapids on the Michigan frontier. An erratic and impractical man, he was seldom at home, and Shaw and her brothers ran the farm with little assistance. Although her formal schooling was fragmentary and frequently interrupted, Shaw was an eager scholar and an avid reader; at fifteen she became the teacher in the local school.

At age twenty, Shaw moved to Big Rapids to live with her sister, and there heard a woman preach for the first time. This encounter reawakened Shaw's childhood desire to make preaching her profession. At about this time Shaw was converted to Methodism; in 1871 she was licensed to preach by the Methodist church. To prepare for a ministerial career, Shaw attended the local high school, Albion College, and the theological school of Boston University, supporting herself by preaching in vacant pulpits. Shaw was the first woman to be ordained by the Methodist Protestant denomination. While serving as pastor of two East Dennis churches, Shaw attended the medical school of Boston University and received her degree in 1886.

Shaw decided, however, that her true vocation lay in furthering the public causes of women. In 1885 she became organizer and lecturer for the Massachusetts Woman's Suffrage Association, and in 1888, she became superintendent of the franchise department of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Although Shaw remained active in the temperance cause, she shifted her major commitment to the suffrage movement in the 1890s. In 1892 Shaw was elected vice-president of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association, and she served as its president from 1904 to 1915. Shaw was a splendid proselytizer but an unsuccessful administrator, and she resigned in the face of rising disaffection and conflict.

In 1917 Shaw was appointed chairman of the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense. She was highly effective in uniting women's organizations, coordinating their war efforts, and exhorting them to inspirational patriotism; she was later awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. After the war, Shaw joined William Howard Taft and President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard on a speaking tour to support the League of Nations.

Shaw was primarily a sermonizer, lecturer, and propagandist. She did not conceive her only book as a literary work, but rather as a personal chronicle of the woman's movement. The Story of a Pioneer (1915) is a lively, graphic reminiscence with a strong feminist refrain. Shaw was a witty advocate and told a story well, but she was also a poor concealer of her prejudices; and her memoirs, frank and revealing, bear testimony to her obvious disdain for men and matrimony.

Much of Shaw's literary output consisted of sermons, lectures, and testimony before legislative committees. Several of her sermons have survived. "The Heavenly Vision," delivered before the International Council on Women in 1888, was responsible for convincing Susan B. Anthony that she must convert Shaw to full-time devotion to the suffrage cause. Anthony described Shaw as "beyond question the leading woman orator of this generation," and her sermon, "The Heavenly Vision," as a "matchless discourse."

Shaw made frequent use of analogy in her sermons, and she liked rhetorical questions and figurative language. Shaw used humor less in her sermons than in her lectures; her wit was at its best when refuting male arguments against equal suffrage. After she became a highly visible leader of the suffrage movement, Shaw occasionally wrote articles on women and women's rights for popular magazines, but it was as a speaker that Shaw made her major contribution.


Cott, Nancy F., The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987). Harper, I. H., ed., The History of Woman Suffrage (1922). Kraditor, A. S., The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (1965). Muncy, R., Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform (1991). O'Neill, W. L., Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America (1969). Riegel, R. E., American Feminists (1963).

Reference works:

HWS, IV-VI. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Journal of Social History (Winter 1969). Pacific History (Oct. 1961).


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Shaw, Anna H(oward)

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