Shaw, Anna Howard (1847–1919)

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Shaw, Anna Howard (1847–1919)

American social reformer, physician, and Methodist cleric whose lecture tours did much to promote women's suffrage throughout the U.S. Born Anna Howard Shaw on February 14, 1847, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England; died on July 2, 1919, of pneumonia at her home in Moylan, Pennsylvania; daughter of Thomas Shaw and Nicolas (Stott) Shaw; attended high school in Big Rapids, Michigan; attended Albion College, Michigan, from fall of 1873 until 1876; graduated with a degree in divinity from the School of Theology, Boston University, 1878; Boston University, M.D., 1886.

Licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church (1871); became minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in East Dennis, Massachusetts (1878); ordained a clergywoman in the Methodist Protestant Church (1880); resigned pastorate (1885) to become, first, a freelance lecturer for suffrage and then a national lecturer for the Women's Christian Temperance Union; became vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1892) and served as president (1904–15); began tenure as chair of the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense (1917); embarked on final lecture tour for the League to Enforce Peace (1919).

She was only 5′ tall and rather stout. Her hair, worn in a pompadour, was prematurely white, but "her black eyes sparkled and her smile won an audience immediately," wrote an admirer in an early edition of the Dictionary of American Biography. Anna Howard Shaw was a physician, social reformer, and Methodist cleric who spread the message of suffrage across the United States and won credibility for the movement at a crucial time through her extraordinary public-speaking skills. Shaw gave over 10,000 speeches during her career and was praised by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt as "the greatest orator among women the world has ever known." Part of Shaw's success lay in her ability to combine new ideas with old values. She affirmed Christianity, patriotism and motherhood, yet she passionately supported the right of women to vote and to speak from the pulpit and lecture platform. Her entire career was a demonstration that women could be dynamic, forceful speakers and clear thinkers.

Shaw was born on St. Valentine's Day in 1847 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. She was the sixth child of Thomas Shaw and Nicolas Stott Shaw . Thomas proudly identified himself as a descendant of the "fighting Shaws of Scotland," but turned his own hand to the less rambunctious occupation of painting wallpaper. He has been described by subsequent historians as everything from "irresponsible" to "restless, visionary and idealistic." Never satisfied with life as it was, he was always moving on to another place, hoping it would be better. Thomas moved his family across the Atlantic to Massachusetts and eventually to a log cabin in the Michigan wilderness, 100 miles from the nearest railroad station, while he pursued a variety of impractical business schemes. For Shaw's mother, the move was one last defeating blow, and she suffered a nervous breakdown.

Despite the outrage which Shaw felt at her father's treatment of his family, she inherited a trait of his that would prove invaluable: her lifelong conviction that humans could make the world a better place. She recalled that her father had not only given refuge to a runaway slave but enlisted in the army during the Civil War, even though he was too old to be drafted. She also inherited her father's love of reading and an interest in issues that challenged the human mind. "Our modest library … contained several histories of Greece and Rome," she writes, "which must have been good ones, for years later, when I entered college, I passed my examination in ancient history with no other preparation than this reading. There were also a few arithmetics and algebras … and the inevitable copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose pages I had freely moistened with my tears…. It soon became known among our neighbors … that we had books and that father liked to read aloud, and men walked ten miles or more to spend the night with us and listen to his reading."

Thomas Shaw's long absences from home provided his daughter with confidence to survive extreme physical and psychological hardships. Anna assumed responsibility for the family's well-being by taking over many of the chores normally reserved for the men of the household. She dug the well, collected and carried home the sap, cleared the land, plowed the fields, and assisted in the gathering of the family's food supply. She often helped her younger brother Harry to catch fish: "We had no hooks or lines but Harry took wires from our hoop-skirts and made snares at the ends of poles. My part of this work was to stand on a log and frighten the fish out of their holes by making horrible sounds which I did with impassioned earnestness."

By the time she was 13, Shaw had resolved to follow a path which deviated from the role of wife and mother expected of most women. "For some reason," she writes, "I wanted to preach, to talk to people, to tell them things. Just why, just what I did not yet know—but I had begun to preach in the silent woods, to stand up on stumps and address the unresponsive trees, to feel the stir of aspiration within me." She rejected a proposal of marriage from an awkward young man dressed in a flannel shirt and trousers made of flour-bags, and, after a short time teaching school, moved to Big Rapids, Michigan, to begin high school. She was 23 years old.

Opponents of woman suffrage are not merely opponents of woman suffrage; they are opponents of democracy.

—Anna Howard Shaw

Her teachers encouraged Shaw to develop her speaking and debating skills; equally important, life in Big Rapids exposed her to two visiting ministers in the Universalist Church, Mary Livermore and Marianna Thompson . The Universalists, followers of a liberal Protestant tradition similar to Unitarianism, had been ordaining women as ministers for some time. Shaw's motivations in deciding to become a cleric are not entirely clear, but she was impressed by Livermore and Thompson. Hearing of Shaw's interest, a local Methodist leader, Dr. Peck, invited her to preach at a Methodist gathering. It was a compliment to Shaw but also a way to ease the chronic shortage of preachers in a rapidly growing frontier area. She worked for hours preparing the sermon which she delivered before a large audience gathered, in part, to hear a woman preacher. As she started to preach, she trembled so badly that the kerosene in a lamp at her elbow shook in its globe. Though her family strongly denounced her unconventional behavior, Peck was sufficiently impressed to use Shaw to fill local pulpits. In 1871, she was officially licensed as a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Encouraged by a high-school counselor, Lucy Foot , Shaw entered Albion College in the fall of 1873. While there, she was able to support herself by preaching in neighboring towns and by lecturing on behalf of the temperance campaign, a movement which advocated restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol. These engagements taught her a great deal about the difficult and unexpected situations which crop up on the lecture circuit, particularly for a woman. She describes in vivid detail one occasion on which she was scheduled to preach at a lumber camp. After vainly trying to find some means of regular transportation, she reluctantly accepted a ride in a two-seated wagon with a rather suspicious looking driver. On an impulse, she had packed a revolver in her bag, and it was this impulse which saved her life. During the long overnight journey through a dense forest, Shaw's worst fears were confirmed. Her driver had no intention of delivering her to her destination but instead planned to keep her captive in the wilderness.

I felt my hair rise on my scalp with the horror of the moment, which seemed worse than any nightmare a woman could experience. But the man was conquered by the knowledge of the willing, waiting weapon just behind him. He laid his whip savagely on the backs of the horses and they responded with a leap which almost knocked me out of the wagon…. That morning I preached in my friend's pulpit as I had promised to do, and the rough building was packed to its doors with lumbermen…. My driver of the night before, who was one of their number, had told his pals of his experience, and the whole camp had poured into town to see the woman minister who carried a revolver.

In February 1876, Shaw pressed on with her plans to become a minister by entering the School of Theology at Boston University. She later described the decision as "stepping off a solid plank and into space." Not only was she one of the first women to attend the university, but her selection of the divinity program made her even more of a curiosity. Shaw was subjected to discriminatory remarks by faculty members who opposed the opening of the school to women. Though she also experienced some hostility from fellow students, she does not dwell on these incidents in her autobiography. Readers get the impression that she was more sorely afflicted by institutional policies which either ignored or excluded women. Men were able to take advantage of group food plans and low-cost housing not available to women. Also, the area was glutted with theological students willing to preach in local pulpits. Congregations were reluctant to hire a woman when so many men were competing for available positions. When she did receive an invitation to preach, Shaw was never sure whether she was to be paid for her services in compliments or cash. In the wilderness of Michigan, there had been wolves at the door at night; in Boston, they could be heard even at high noon.

One result of her precarious existence was her inability to climb the three flights of stairs to her classrooms without stopping for rest once or twice. On one of these occasions, she was discovered by a Mrs. Barrett, superintendent of the Women's Foreign Missionary Society which had offices in the same building. Sympathetic to her plight, Barrett arranged for Shaw to receive $3.50 a week from an anonymous benefactor, on condition that she devote herself full-time to completing her theological degree.

Upon graduation from the School of Theology in 1878, Shaw secured a job as the pastor of a Wesleyan Methodist Church in East Dennis, Massachusetts. A year later, in an address entitled "Women in the Ministry," she outlined the basis for her position that God intended women to preach. She pointed out that women such as Miriam the Prophet and Deborah the judge had public ministries in ancient Israel. Also, Jesus did not relegate women to inferior positions. In other speeches, she displayed impressive skills as a Biblical scholar, arguing from her knowledge of the Greek language and ancient history that Paul's command that "women keep silent in church" was addressed only to the women of his day who were creating disturbances by interrupting the preacher.

At East Dennis, Shaw carried out a full line of pastoral duties. She visited the sick, conducted funerals and weddings, counseled, preached and took on all the necessary administrative tasks. Yet as she was only licensed and not ordained, she could not administer the Protestant sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper to her congregation. Along with Anna Oliver , another Boston University graduate, Shaw applied for ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880.

As a preliminary step, Shaw and Oliver were examined by a candidate's board and pronounced fit for ordination. When the matter was raised at the New England Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, however, the presiding bishop summarily declared that there was no place for women in ministry. Oliver decided to fight the decision but Shaw felt differently, claiming, "I am no better and stronger than a man, and it is all a man can do to fight the world, the flesh and the Devil, without fighting the church as well."

An acquaintance suggested that Shaw take her request to the Methodist Protestant Church, a branch of the Methodist family formed in 1830 by people who wanted a greater role for lay members in the governance of the church. Shaw agreed to this plan and her name was put before the Annual Conference in Tarrytown, New York. The debate which ensued was furious, intense, and at times comical. The leader of the opposition raced up and down the aisle of

the church quoting the Bible to prove his case against women ministers. How could a woman obey her husband and at the same time preach to him? How could a woman minister obey the Bible which says that "an elder shall be the husband of one wife"? Would not a woman become a financial burden on the church if she could not find a congregation to employ her? Despite the heated feelings on both sides, the conference voted by a large majority to ordain Shaw.

The service was set for the evening of October 12, 1880, in this same Tarrytown church. Those who opposed Shaw's ordination took consolation in the fact that a substantial collection would be reaped from the large crowd that would gather that evening. They were not disappointed. The occasion, detailed in Shaw's autobiography as one of great beauty and dignity, was punctuated by a moment of humor when Shaw was asked to promise, as part of her vows, that she would not chew tobacco.

On return to her congregation, Shaw settled once again into the routine of parish life. She found her work challenging and to her liking, but she kept one eye on wider horizons by keeping in touch with friends in Boston. Encouraged by her brother James, who was a physician, she eventually decided to alleviate some of her restless energy by enrolling in a course leading to a medical degree from Boston University. She also worked as a paramedic and social worker in the slums of South Boston. In 1886, Shaw would become one of the first women in the United States to hold both a medical and a theological degree.

Shaw's exposure to the desperate plight of the prostitutes of South Boston, as well as to the interests of her friends, rekindled her desire to become more actively involved in social reform. She made a radical decision in 1885 to resign her pastorate and began a career of lecturing on temperance and suffrage, first in a freelance capacity and then for the Redpath Lecture Bureau. At a revival meeting conducted by evangelist Dwight Moody, Shaw met Frances Willard who persuaded her to lecture for the Women's Christian Temperance Union and to head their suffrage division. Shaw's career took another turn in 1888 when Susan B. Anthony heard her preach at the International Council of Women. Two years later, Shaw began lecturing for Anthony's National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1892, she became vice-president of the organization and served as president from 1904 until 1915.

Shaw became nationally known as a superb speaker, and it was in this role that she made her greatest contribution to the suffrage movement. Since her speeches were almost always extemporaneous, historians have been forced to reconstruct most of them from newspaper accounts and notes taken by those in her audiences. Her speaking style was dynamic, animated, and enthusiastic. She conveyed her points in a plain, direct manner complemented by an array of humorous and stimulating anecdotes. She had unusual physical stamina which she attributed to her battle to survive in the Michigan wilderness. Her autobiography describes all-night journeys through blizzards to get to lectures and one attempt to silence her by burning down the hall in which she was speaking. Above all, as a speaker Shaw never lost sight of the cherished beliefs and values of her audiences as she crisscrossed the country.

The empathy which Shaw established with her listeners was based on her sensitivity to their religious and patriotic sentiments. Unlike many other suffrage leaders who were outspoken in their opposition to Christianity, Shaw based her entire argument for suffrage on Christian principles, albeit liberal ones. She claimed that God was an active force in human civilization, leading nations through a process of evolution which would, one day, result in the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. America had reached a high level in this process with its democratic form of government, but a troublesome inconsistency persisted. America was not a true republic because women could not vote. It was instead an oligarchy based on sex which was a violation of God's will for the nation.

In keeping with 19th-century stereotypes about the nature of women, Shaw also argued that women should vote because the voice of God could be heard particularly in their abundant moral visions. America would be improved by women's political participation because women were more peace-loving and were more willing to devote themselves to lives of service in order to create a moral and just society. And Shaw made it plain to her listeners that the Bible affirmed such activities.

Shaw's leadership as president of NAWSA was a matter of some controversy and several attempts were made to oust her from the office. To her credit, she presided over a period of growth in the organization's budget and membership, and she did much to build up local groups. She had little aptitude, however, for administrative work and inherited a poorly coordinated organization which even lacked a national headquarters until 1909. Also, Shaw found it difficult to deal with the militant tactics of the next generation of suffragists. In 1915, she resigned her position, though she continued to lecture for NAWSA until she was persuaded to chair the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense in 1917. This was a body established to coordinate the war efforts of American women during World War I. Shaw supported the war only reluctantly, and she used her position to underscore her belief that the ballot for women would mean fewer violent conflicts. Women, in her view, were especially sensitive to the costs of war. Her management of the Woman's Committee was effective, and in May 1919 she received the nation's Distinguished Service Medal.

Shaw's pacifist tendencies led her in 1918 to join the League to Enforce Peace, and, the following year, she agreed to accompany ex-president William Howard Taft on a lecture tour in May and June to advocate the League of Nations. She lectured as many as five times a day and the grueling schedule finally took its toll. Anna Howard Shaw collapsed in Springfield, Illinois, and died of pneumonia several weeks later at her home in Pennsylvania.

sources and suggested reading:

Brown, Earl Kent. "Archetypes and Stereotypes: Church Women in the Nineteenth Century," in Religion in Life. Vol. 43. Autumn 1974, pp. 325–336.

Linkugel, Wil A., and Martha Solomon. Anna Howard Shaw: Suffrage Orator and Social Reformer. Great American Orators, no. 10. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

McGovern, James R. "Anna Howard Shaw: New Approaches to Feminism," in Journal of Social History. Vol. 3. Winter 1969–70, pp. 135–153.

Pellauer, Mary D. Toward a Tradition of Feminist Theology: The Religious and Social Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton , Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw. NY: Carlson, 1991.

Shaw, Anna Howard. The Story of a Pioneer. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1915.

Spencer, Ralph W. "Anna Howard Shaw," in Methodist History. Vol. 13, 1974–75, pp. 33–51.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage , and Ida Husted Harper , eds. History of Woman Suffrage. 6 vols. NY: Fowler and Wells, 1881–1922.


Correspondence in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Barbara J. MacHaffie , Associate Professor of History and Religion, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio