An Interview with Professor Donald Elder:  Anna Shaw, One of the Leaders of the Women’s Rights Movement

Mar 21, 2019 by


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Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. No discussion of famous women would be complete without acknowledging Anne Howard Shaw. I understand that she was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne in England, and that her family emigrated to America. When did these events take place?

Anna Howard Shaw was born in the afore-mentioned industrial town of Newcastle Upon Tyne on February 14, 1847. Her parents had married in 1835, and initially her father had prospered as a grain merchant. A series of bad harvests, coupled with the Irish Potato Famine, caused Great Britain to revise its so-called “Corn Laws,” and the new economic policy ruined Anna’s father. Seeking work, he moved his family to London in 1845, and then to Newcastle Upon Tyne a year later. Neither relocation helped revive the family’s fortunes, however, so Anna’s father soon decided to emigrate to America in 1851.

Originally, the family settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but soon they moved to nearby Lawrence. There, her father worked for a wall paper company, painting designs by hand. A few years later, he invented a machine that would do the work of decorating wallpaper that he currently did by hand. Unfortunately, this invention made him superfluous, and as a consequence he lost his job as a wall paper decorator. Furthermore, because he had not filed a patent on the invention, he saw no money from his creation. Because of his financial distress, he applied for a land grant, purchasing 360 acres in upstate Michigan. At the age of twelve, Anna would move there with her mother, brothers, and sister.

2. What were her early years in the United States like?

According to her autobiography, Anna had enjoyed her life in Massachusetts. Once she arrived in the United States, her father had given her a small saw and hatchet, and she would go to the nearby shipyards to use her tools to turn odd pieces of wood into kindling. She also became a fervent abolitionist during her years in Massachusetts. One day, while looking for something in her basement, she came across a runaway slave. Running upstairs to discuss this with her mother, she learned that her father had become involved in the Underground Railroad. This incident had a profound effect on her, helping guide her into careers that would allow her to help individuals less fortunate than her. But while she enjoyed many things about her life in Massachusetts, Anna could not speak with that same level of enthusiasm about her time in Michigan.

For one thing, her father did not accompany the family to Michigan, choosing instead to remain in Lawrence and continue his abolitionist activities. For another, the property that her father had purchased had only a ramshackle house on it, and lay 100 miles from the nearest railhead. The stark surroundings seem to have driven Anna’s mother into a deep depression, and Anna had to take over many of the responsibilities of raising her siblings and providing for them. While Michigan proudly claims her today, Anna had very little good to say about life in the Wolverine State in her autobiography.

3. Apparently she was able to earn a very decent education in America. Where did she attend, and what did she study?

In 1861, the American Civil War began, and Anna’s brothers and father all enlisted in the Union Army. To help provide for her family, at the age of fifteen she became a school teacher.

At war’s end, she moved to Big Rapids, Michigan, hoping to further her own education. Instead, lack of financial resources forced her to become a seamstress. Things soon changed for her, however, when a female preacher named Marianna Thompson arranged for her to enter the public school in Big Rapids. After graduating, Anna hoped to attend college to train for the ministry, but no one in her family would help finance such a course of study. She then gave public lectures to raise money, and in 1873 she finally had sufficient funds to enter Albion College. After graduating from that institution, she then entered the Boston University School of Theology. In 1880, she would become an ordained minister in the Methodist Protestant Church.

4. Unusual for a woman during that time period, she was able to become a physician. How did that come about?

After attending the Boston University School of Theology, Anna found employment as the minister of a congregation in East Dennis, Massachusetts. Although she devoted a great deal of time attending to her duties, Anna decided to also pursue a course of study in medicine at Boston University. That institution awarded her an MD in 1885. Interestingly, she never practiced medicine; it seems that she sought a medical degree simply because she loved learning, and found a course of study in medicine a good challenge for her intellect.

5. I understand that she was a very well-known leader in the woman’s suffrage movement. Who did she work with and where, and what did she accomplish?

Since her days in Michigan, Anna had embraced the concept of temperance. After twenty years of delivering lectures on the subject with little to show for her efforts, Anna decided to work more directly for the cause. Accordingly, she became involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1886. Gradually, however, she came to believe that moral persuasion alone would not achieve the goal of the temperance movement. Instead, women would have to receive the right to vote first, and then would have the ability to politically support laws to prohibit the sale of alcohol.

For that reason, she shifted her focus from temperance to suffrage. After meeting Susan B. Anthony in 1887, Anna became involved with the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Soon, that organization merged with the other major women’s suffrage group at the time to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1904 Anna became the president of that organization. She remained in that position until 1915. At that time, she resigned because powerful figures within the suffrage movement wanted to use more forceful tactics to advance the cause. Believing that the idea of women receiving the right to vote did not need such behavior to come to fruition, Anna felt that she in good conscience could not embrace the militancy that many other women demanded. Even after leaving the NAWSA, Anna continued to speak on behalf of women’s suffrage until her death in 1919.

6. In terms of “the big picture,” what would you say were her most outstanding accomplishments?

Clearly, Anna Shaw deserves credit for becoming the first woman ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church, and for helping convince the two rival suffrage organizations to join forces. It is also noteworthy that she served on the Council of National Defense during World War I, and for her efforts she became the first American women to receive the Distinguished Service Medal. In addition, in 1919 she gave a speech denouncing the practice of lynching—at the time, a very unpopular stance with many Americans. Therefore, she deserves praise for many of her accomplishments.

7) A final opinion question, do you have any idea as to why her name is not better known in the realm of female accomplishments?  I would think her name would be etched in many history books of American history. Any thoughts?

Personally, I believe that she suffered from bad timing. Having resigned from the presidency of the NAWSA in 1915, she therefore missed the moment in time when the nation finally embraced the principle of women’s suffrage. Indeed, she died only a few months before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. For that reason, many Americans forgot her very real contributions to the women’s movement. Hopefully, future generations of American women will rediscover the story of this admirable female.



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