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Shaw, Anna Howardlocked

(14 February 1847–02 July 1919)
  • Ann D. Gordon

Anna Howard Shaw.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-20177).

Shaw, Anna Howard (14 February 1847–02 July 1919), minister and woman suffragist, was born at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, the daughter of Thomas Shaw, a wallpaper maker, and Nicolas Stott. The family moved to Massachusetts in 1851. In 1859 Thomas Shaw settled his wife and younger children in an unfinished cabin on Michigan’s frontier while he returned east. Anna’s bitter recollections of the responsibilities that fell to her in the next decade make up the most powerful section of the memoirs she published as Story of a Pioneer (1915).

Vowing to avoid dependency, Anna prepared herself for the ministry. With the energy that marked her entire adult life, she entered high school in Big Rapids, Michigan, at age twenty-three, went on to Albion College and Boston University Theological School, where she earned a diploma in 1878, and was licensed the same year by the Methodist Episcopal church. From her pastorate at East Dennis, Massachusetts, she sought ordination but was denied on account of her sex. The Methodist Protestant church ordained her in 1880. While ministering at East Dennis, she earned an M.D. from Boston University Medical School in 1886.

By the time Shaw acquired her credentials, she had lost interest in the professions they opened to her but discovered her gift for oratory. Lecturing for temperance and woman suffrage became her trade. Lucy Stone welcomed her to the movement in Massachusetts, Frances Willard tapped her for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, but ultimately Susan B. Anthony won her undying loyalty. Shaw cemented their intimacy when she chose Anthony’s niece, Lucy E. Anthony, as her companion for life, and “Aunt Susan” sponsored Shaw’s ascendancy in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), as national lecturer in 1890 and vice president at large in 1892. Despite her feelings for Shaw, Anthony chose Carrie Chapman Catt, a more astute and experienced politician, to succeed her as president of the NAWSA in 1900. Shaw, however, replaced Catt in 1904. Eleanor Flexner first drew attention in 1959 to Shaw’s ineptitude as a leader, observing that her “devotion was complete and her gifts were many, but administrative ability was not among them” (Flexner, p. 256). Shaw rewarded personal loyalty at the expense of experience and presided over bitter upheavals in the leadership each year after 1909. She failed to grasp the need for a national strategy, whether it be to coordinate campaigns initiated by local leaders to amend state constitutions or to launch a new campaign for the federal amendment. Her most enduring administrative failure was the emergence of the Congressional Union as a serious and hostile rival to the NAWSA after 1913. Shaw would not accommodate Alice Paul’s efforts to design a federal strategy, forcing Paul out of the association, where she became a magnet for people fed up with Shaw.

Story of a Pioneer documented Shaw’s intransigence at the end of her presidency. Written by Elizabeth Garver Jordan from interviews with Shaw, the book pictures Shaw as Susan B. Anthony’s true heir, a portrait that sanctified Shaw’s leadership of the NAWSA and challenged Alice Paul’s references to Anthony as the model for her militance and federal strategy. Hostile to militance (it was “un-American”) and defiant of all critics, Shaw declared her intention to stay in office until voted out. A month after the book appeared in the fall of 1915, she chose not to force a vote when Catt, pressed by dissidents, agreed to return as president.

Even opponents conceded the greatness of Shaw’s talent on the podium, and she continued to speak for the cause after her resignation. “Her voice was rich and musical,” according to her friend Ida H. Harper, and it projected through any hall in the country. To the leader’s obligation to encourage believers and define the enemy, she brought the zeal of the Methodist minister. Her sermons and lectures reiterated arguments and definitions used by her mentors since the Civil War, but she crafted a distinctive platform persona that won popular approval despite its sarcasm and irreverence.

A sense of her directness can be gleaned from stenographic reports of lectures. Countering advice that women model themselves after the biblical Rachel, Shaw offered her own exegesis.

[Rachel] had a high sense of the subserviency of woman to man that, while the lazy shepherds lay about gazing at each other, and at the skies, and perhaps at her, she left them gazing while she went to the well and drew the water to water the flocks. That may be the Bishop’s idea of God’s woman, but it is hardly my idea of the proper division of labor between the sexes. I should prefer to let the Bishop draw the water while I gazed. (“God’s Women,” 1891)

To meet antisuffragists’ objection that voting would oblige women to serve on juries, she declaimed, “I have seen some juries that ought to be sat on and I have seen some women that would be glad to sit on anything. When a woman stands up all day behind a counter, . . . and when she stands for seventy-five cents she would like to sit for two dollars a day” (“The Fundamental Principle,” 1915).

When the United States entered World War I, Shaw interrupted her tours for suffrage to lead the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. Although the committee’s charge seemed simple enough—coordinate women’s relief work and channel the council’s directives to women—Shaw found herself contesting archaic ideals of women as well as rival relief agencies. In a faint reflection of her administration at the NAWSA, she could not unravel the conflicts but did serve well as a lecturer who infused patriotic appeals with the message that on the home front no distinction between men’s and women’s work should survive. Congress awarded her the Distinguished Service Medal in May 1919.

Shaw gave her final service to Woodrow Wilson’s peace treaty, joining William Howard Taft and Abbott Lawrence Lowell on a national tour for the League to Enforce Peace in the late spring of 1919. At Springfield, Illinois, she collapsed with severe pneumonia and died weeks later at her home in Moylan, Pennsylvania.


Shaw’s chief collection of papers lies within the Dillon collection at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Containing papers of both Shaw and Lucy E. Anthony, the series includes Shaw’s speeches, diaries and appointment books, newspaper clippings, and personal correspondence, most notably letters written home to Anthony from meetings and tours. Though Anthony censored and selectively destroyed letters from Shaw, an intimate record of Shaw’s work remains. To reconstruct Shaw’s presidency of the NAWSA, historians have relied on collections in which her political correspondence was retained, especially the Laura Clay Papers (University of Kentucky), the Catherine Waugh McCulloch Papers (Schlesinger Library), and the National American Woman Suffrage Association Papers (Library of Congress). Elizabeth Garver Jordan’s papers (New York Public Library) also include correspondence with Shaw pertinent to understanding Story of a Pioneer. The National Archives holds the Council of National Defense Papers with records of its Woman’s Committee.

Later volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage prepared by I. H. Harper provide valuable reference to Shaw’s leadership but obscure deep schisms in the suffrage movement, while burnishing Shaw’s reputation. Eleanor Flexner’s narrative and analysis of Shaw, Century of Struggle (1959), set the tone for most studies done after 1959. Paul Fuller, Laura Clay and the Woman’s Rights Movement (1975), incidentally documents Shaw’s machinations as president of the NAWSA. Wil A. Linkugel has edited Shaw’s speeches in “The Speeches of Anna Howard Shaw” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Wisconsin, 1960), a two-volume compilation, and, with coauthor Martha Solomon, selected speeches in Anna Howard Shaw: Suffrage Orator and Social Reformer (1991). Unfortunately this volume is also the only modern biography of Shaw, and it is uninformed by history of the suffrage movement. Shaw’s wartime service receives attention in Barbara J. Steinson, American Women’s Activism in World War I (1982).