Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day!


For those of you non-30 Rock fans, Anna Howard Shaw Day was a holiday created by that show’s main character Liz Lemon in an attempt to give February 14th new meaning. Rather than celebrate romantic love, she chooses to celebrate the life of famed suffragist and minister Anna Howard Shaw, born on February 14th. While I don’t hate Valentine’s Day, I do love Anna Howard Shaw, so I’m all for celebrating this holiday! Even better, Shaw spent many of her formative years in Michigan and her experiences here helped shape her life of activism. So for this week’s Famous Michigander Friday Thursday, it’s all about Anna Howard Shaw.

From the Library of Congress

From the Library of Congress

Shaw was born on February 14th, 1847 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. At age 4, her family moved to Massachusettes and in 1859 her father purchased a large track of land north of Big Rapids, Michigan and sent her mother and the children to live there and work the land while he made a living out east. The move was hard. In her autobiography about this period, The Story of a Pioneer, Shaw states that her mother had envisioned a cultivated English farm and was distressed to find a forlorn log cabin in the middle of the wilderness of Northern Michigan. The family did not have the necessary tools for the work, which made the backbreaking labor that much harder. Shaw certainly did her share, as she wrote that she helped plant corn and potatoes, dug a well, chopped wood for the big fireplace, felled trees, and assisted with improvements to the cabin. She resented that which her mother worked on the farm, her father was able to dedicate his free time to abolition and other movements of the time. Her time on the farm both taught her how to cope with adversity and gave in her the goal of avoiding becoming dependent on a husband.

At 15 she began working as a schoolteacher, earning $4 a week. Later she moved in with a married sister in Big Rapids and attended the local high school. While in Big Rapids she met many people who encouraged her to pursue her education and her new found passion for preaching, including Rev. Marianna Thompson, Dr. Peck and Mary A. Livermore. She began preaching at this time and became determined to go to college, despite her family’s disapproval. in 1872 she enrolled in Albion College, a Methodist school in Albion, Michigan and remained there until 1875. With no financial support from her family, she paid her way through preaching and lecturing, mainly on the subject of temperance. Next she moved to Boston to attend the Boston University School of Theology, where she was the only woman in a class of 42 men. She had a rough time in Boston, as she was unable to take part in subsidized housing available to men and had heavy competition from those same men in searching for opportunities to preach. Nonetheless, she persevered and in 1880 became the first ordained woman in the Methodist Protestant Church (of course, this was after she was refused ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church due to her gender).

Shaw still wasn’t done with her education, however. While working as a minister at multiple churches, she also enrolled in Boston University for a medical degree, earning her MD in 1886. It does not appear that Shaw ever actually used this final degree, as soon after she received it she was drawn into the temperance and suffrage movements that were rapidly gaining steam. She left the ministry to devote her life to these issues and joined several organizations, including the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). After meeting Susan B. Anthony in 1888, she also became involved with the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and played a key role in the merging of the AWSA and NWSA to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Shaw served as a lecturer for this organization until 1904, when she assumed to presidency (serving until 1915).

Shaw’s tenure as president of NAWSA was difficult. Despite her lecturing skills and boundless passion for the movement, she did not do well at administrative tasks, failed to create a focused national strategy and ultimately clashed with the leaders of a rising militant faction of suffragists, causing a schism in the movement. Nonetheless, there was also marked progress during her reign, as the number of suffrage workers increased from 17,000 to 200,000 and the debate over the women’s vote moved from an academic discussion to an active political issue. After her resignation from NAWSA, Shaw served as the chair of the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense during WWI, a position that helped her become the first woman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

Anna Howard Shaw died in 1919, just months before Congress ratified the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, which she had fought for for so long. She passed away due to pneumonia in her home in Moylan, Pennsylvania at the side of her life-long companion, Lucy Anthony (niece of Susan B. Anthony). She was remembered as a courageous crusader for the rights of women through her activist work as well as through the example of her barrier-breaking life and career. She has been honored by many organizations, including the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame (inducted in 1983) and the National Women’s Hall of Fame (inducted in 2000).

Random Fun Facts:

  • As a minister, Shaw refused to perform marriage ceremonies that used the tradition vow for the wife to obey her husband
  • Near the end of her life, Shaw was sworn in as a honorary member of the Washington Police Force, after previously stating that she had always desired to be a police officer. She was even given a badge.
From the Library of Congress

From the Library of Congress

Anna Howard Shaw,” Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame
Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, Suffragist, Dies,” The New York Times, July 3, 1919
Shaw, Anna Howard,” American National Bibliography Online
Anna Howard Shaw and Elizabeth Garver Jordan, The Story of a Pioneer, Harper & Brother: 1915.


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