Susie Stanley

Anna Howard Shaw


1847 (February 14):  Anna Howard Shaw was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne, England.

1851:  Shaw’s family immigrated to the United States, moving first to Massachusetts and then settling in Michigan in 1859.

1862:  Shaw began teaching school in Michigan.

1873 (August 26):  Shaw received a one-year local preacher’s license from the Methodist Episcopal Church allowing her to preach in the Big Rapids, Michigan District.

1873–1875:  Shaw attended Albion College in Albion, Michigan.

1876 (February)–1878:  Shaw attended and graduated from the seminary at the University of Boston.

1877–1878:  Shaw received a local preacher’s license from the Methodist Episcopal Church and pastored a year at the Methodist Episcopal Church, Hingham, Massachusetts.

1878 (October)–1885:  Shaw pastored at East Dennis Wesleyan Methodist Society, Cape Cod.

1879 (March)–1885:  Shaw preached at the Congregational Church at Dennis on Sunday afternoons.

1880 (May):  Shaw unsuccessfully sought ordination from the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

1880 (October 12):  Shaw was ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church, an offshoot of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

1881 (January):  Shaw gave her first suffrage lecture for the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association.

1882–1885:  Shaw attended Boston Medical School and earned her M.D.

1884:  The national Judiciary Committee of the Methodist Protestant Church declared her ordination “unlawful,” but the New York Conference continued to acknowledge and encourage her work.

1885:  Shaw received a special appointment from the Methodist Protestant Church while maintaining affiliation with the denomination.

1885:  Shaw began lecturing full time on woman suffrage to support herself.

1885–1886:  The Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association employed Anna Howard Shaw as a lecturer.

1886–1888:  Shaw served as National Superintendent of Franchise (the vote) for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

1886:  Shaw became vice-president-at-large of the American Woman Suffrage Association.

1887:  The American Woman Suffrage Association appointed Anna Howard Shaw to be a national lecturer.

1889:  Shaw became an organizer for the National Woman Suffrage Association.

1892–1904:  Shaw served as vice-president-at-large of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

1893–1911:  Shaw received a special appointment from the Methodist Protestant Church while maintaining affiliation with the denomination.

1904–1915:  Shaw was president of National American Woman Suffrage Association.

1917 (April 21)–1919 (March 15):  Shaw chaired the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense.

1919 (May):  Shaw was the first living woman to receive the Distinguished Service Medal from the U.S. government in recognition of her service during World War I.

1919:  Shaw participated in a speaking tour supporting the League of Nations.

1919 (July 2):  Anna Howard Shaw died at her home in Moylan, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.


Anna Howard Shaw’s [Image at right] parents were Thomas and Nicolas (Stott) Shaw. Born on February 14, 1847, her family immigrated from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England when she was four years old. The family lived in Massachusetts before moving to the wilderness of northern Michigan (nine miles north of Big Rapids) in 1859 to stake a claim. Shaw was frequently responsible for outdoor activities, such as clearing the land, planting crops, and providing wood to heat the cabin. By means of her farming and fishing, she also provided food for the family when other family members were in Massachusetts earning money to maintain the claim. As a young adult, she supported the family financially by teaching school. She qualified as a teacher even though she had not attended school since moving to Michigan at age twelve.

As a child, Shaw practiced preaching in the woods, standing on a stump to address her congregation of trees (Shaw 1915:44). Raised a Unitarian, Shaw joined the Methodist Episcopal Church as an adult. At that time, the denomination had yet to recognize the call of women to ordained ministry, but the local presiding elder, Dr. H. C. Peck, wanted to be the first to ordain a woman. He asked her to preach at his quarterly meeting in 1872 and then had her preach thirty-six times throughout his district, the Big Rapids, Michigan District. His strategy worked and she was licensed as a local preacher the following year by a unanimous vote of the District Conference. The local preacher’s license was a first step toward ordination. The District renewed her license annually for eight years.

Even though she had not completed high school, Shaw attended Albion College in Albion, Michigan from 1873 to 1875 but did not graduate. [Image at right] She earned her seminary degree at the University of Boston in 1878. She also studied medicine, receiving her M.D. from Boston Medical School in 1885. She worked in South Boston while a medical student, but she never practiced medicine after graduation.

Shaw’s first pastorate was a one-year appointment during her last year of seminary at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. After graduation, she pastored the First Wesleyan Methodist Society of East Dennis on Cape Cod for seven years until 1885. While serving at East Dennis, she also preached on Sunday afternoons at the Congregational Church in Dennis for six and one-half years.

In May 1880, Shaw along with Anna Oliver (1849–1892) sought ordination from the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The conference not only rejected their applications but also rescinded their local preaching licenses along with the licenses of all other women who had received them since 1869. She then approached a different Methodist group, the Methodist Protestant Church, which had split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1828, primarily over the role of laypeople in church government. The Methodist Protestant Church ordained her on October 12, 1880. Four years later, the Judiciary Committee of the denomination declared her ordination “unauthorized,” but the New York Conference continued to recognize her work (New York Annual Conference 1880:4). While it is not clear what this means, on two later occasions (in 1896 and 1904), Shaw referred to herself as being ordained (Shaw 1915:212, 279).

Shaw had supported herself by preaching and lecturing on temperance while a college student. She continued lecturing part-time while pastoring her Massachusetts congregations and began lecturing full-time to support herself after she left the pastorate. She was a popular lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit. Chautauquas were popular summer gatherings held throughout the country where prominent speakers addressed current events. Church minutes indicate that she remained in good standing with her local church conference, which appointed her to “special work” from 1893 to 1911 (Spencer 1975:43).

Shaw began lecturing for the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Society and received a salary from the group in 1885 and 1886. She continued advocating temperance, combining the two issues as National Superintendent of Franchise (that is, the vote) for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union for several years. She became vice-president-at-large for the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in 1886. AWSA appointed her a national lecturer the following year.

In 1888, Shaw met Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) who was active in the rival suffrage group, the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA). Anthony convinced her to devote all her efforts to the suffrage cause. For eighteen years, until Anthony’s death on March 13, 1906, the two worked closely together. [Image at right] Shaw spoke of Anthony as “the most wonderful woman I have ever known” and “the torch that illumined my life” (Shaw 1915:159, 191). Shaw’s involvement at Anthony’s funeral reflects the extent of their relationship. She gave the closing comments, pronounced the benediction, and spoke at her graveside.

Between 1892 and 1904, Shaw served as vice-president-at-large of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the result of the merger in 1890 of the two national suffrage organizations (AWSA and NWSA). She was president of NAWSA from 1904 to 1915, the longest serving person in this position.

Annual national NAWSA conventions offered Shaw numerous opportunities to speak. [Image at right] Beginning in 1887, she attended every convention. Besides lecturing, she regularly furnished the invocation, presided over the sessions and offered the benediction. Locations in host cities provided auditoriums for public lectures while churches extended their pulpits on Sundays, inviting Shaw and other suffragists to preach.

Volumes four through six of the History of Woman Suffrage documented Shaw’s involvement in suffrage lecture tours, which occupied most of her time (Anthony and Harper 1902). For instance, volume four records visits to twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. between 1883 and 1900. Volume six, which covers 1900 to 1920 records lecture tours by Shaw in twenty-eight states, with extended visits to nineteen of them. After the formation of NAWSA, the organization sponsored state campaigns to win approval of women’s suffrage at the state level. The strategy was to secure a significant number of pro-suffrage states in order to improve the chances of passing a federal suffrage amendment. Shaw crisscrossed the country, sometimes delivering several lectures during a whirlwind trip of a week or so. On other occasions, she spent months in a single state, such as South Dakota (1890) and California (1896). She often testified at hearings on suffrage held by state legislatures and both houses of Congress. Her speaking schedule was rigorous. For instance, she spoke in California thirty-four times within thirty-seven days in 1895.

Shaw’s suffrage advocacy and popularity extended to Europe. Besides speaking on behalf of NAWSA at meetings sponsored by the International Council of Women (founded in 1888), she was a frequent presence on the platform performing other duties. She regularly spoke at auxiliary lectures and religious services in the host city. In 1904, she preached the Council sermon in Berlin, which was significant since she was the first ordained woman to preach from a German pulpit. Likewise, during a lecture tour throughout Europe in 1912, she was the first woman to deliver a sermon in a State Church in Sweden (Shaw 1915:175, 179). She also chaired several committees of the International Council of Women. When the organization established the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance in 1904, she participated in their meetings as well.

During World War I, Shaw subordinated her suffrage efforts and served her country as chair of the Woman’s Committee of the Council for National Defense. She coordinated chairs in each state who oversaw county and local groups, numbering 18,000 altogether. Their task was to sell Liberty Bonds and address issues relating to gardening, health, recreation, child welfare, education and industry (Linkugel and Griffin 1961:375–76). She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919 in recognition of her work in the war. Other than one woman who had received the medal posthumously, Shaw was the first woman to earn the medal.

Former United States President William Howard Taft (1857–1930) recruited Shaw to join him and A. Lawrence Lowell (1856–1943), president of Harvard University, on a speaking tour to promote the League of Nations in 1919. Arrangements had been made to ensure that she did not overwork. Disregarding the planned schedule, she accepted additional requests, including eight appearances in one day. She became sick during the tour and Lucy E. Anthony (1859–1944), niece of Susan B. Anthony and Shaw’s secretary and companion of thirty years, accompanied her to their home in Moylan, Pennsylvania. It was there that Shaw died of pneumonia on July 2, 1919. She had lived to see the U.S. Congress submit the suffrage amendment to the states, but it was another year before the requisite thirty-six states ratified the federal amendment giving women the right to vote.


Anna Howard Shaw continuously reiterated her single-minded commitment to women’s equality. An early challenge was defending her right to preach. She recounted a discussion of Pentecost that occurred in her Greek class in seminary. The Old Testament prophecy “your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2 :28; Acts 2:17) was fulfilled at Pentecost when Jesus’ followers, both men and women, publicly shared the news of his resurrection. Shaw initiated the debate by asking the professor, who opposed women preachers, to define “prophecy.” When he said that it meant “preaching,” she asked how he could claim that women merely talked to each other while men preached at Pentecost. She argued that the words “men and women” were connected by a conjunction in the text indicating that both groups were preaching. At that point, the professor ended the dispute having clearly lost the argument (“Dr. Shaw” 1915:87–88).

Shaw peppered her sermons and lectures with numerous biblical references. She quoted the prophecy of Psalm 68:11 (“the women that publish the tidings are a great host”) in “The Heavenly Vision,” a sermon she preached frequently (Anthony and Harper 1902, v. 4:128). Turning to Jesus to support her position, she asked concerning Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus at the tomb (John 20:11–18): “If it is unnatural [for women to talk to men] why did Jesus send a woman out as the first preacher?” (Shaw 1915:102). Shaw recounted a litany of biblical women in another often-repeated sermon, “God’s Women” (Kraditor 1965:86). She highlighted biblical women such as Miriam, Deborah, and especially Vashti as models of strong women to be emulated. Vashti’s husband, King Ahasuerus, dismissed Vashti as queen when she refused his command to display her beauty before his guests (Esther 1:4–22).

The seminary-trained pastor used passages from the Bible that would have been familiar to her audiences. The Bible was clearly the source for her understanding of gender equality. She believed equality was God’s intention from the beginning, drawing on the creation story recorded in Genesis 1. “‘Eye hath not seen, nor hath ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive’ [1 Corinthians 2:9] the kind of men and women God had in view when He created man in His own likeness and gave to the male and female dominion over the world, to subdue it and to bring out of it the best things [Genesis 1:26]” (Anthony and Harper 1902, v. 4:200). In case there was any doubt about God’s plan, she elaborated: “It was not the purpose of the Divine that she should crouch beneath the bonds of custom and ignorance. . . . The world had suffered because she had not kept her divinely-appointed place” (Anthony and Harper 1902, v. 4:128–29). For Shaw, women’s place clearly was not “women’s sphere,” a popular notion advocated by many opponents of women’s equality, which sought to impose restrictions on all women.

Shaw’s understanding of God’s nature reflected her conviction that both women and men were created in God’s image. For Shaw, God’s nature extended beyond male analogies or male language. She addressed God in prayer as “our father, our mother, and our friend” (Spencer 1975:47). She admonished her audience in a hearing before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 1892:

You who talk of a great Government in which the voice of God is heard must remember that, if “the voice of the people is the voice of God” you never will know what that is until you get the voice of the people, and you will find it has a soprano as well as a bass. You must join the soprano voice of God to the bass voice in order to get the harmony of the Divine voice (Anthony and Harper 1902, v. 4:199, 200).

Shaw’s argument for women’s suffrage incorporated her expanded view of God’s nature.

Shaw’s theology of equality formed the basis for her support of women’s suffrage. While she never accepted another pastorate after 1885, her ministry soon concentrated on suffrage. She admitted “my life had become merged in the suffrage cause” (Shaw 1915:242). While her focus remained on suffrage, Shaw’s theology of equality had other practical applications. For instance, she refused to officiate at weddings if the participants insisted that the language of obedience (the wife promising to obey her husband) be included in the ceremony (“Dr. Anna H. Shaw” 1919:13). She also rejected chivalry, arguing that it was simply “a man’s protection of his own woman against other men” (Harper 1922, v. 5:8).


Lecturing was Shaw’s practice. The usual length was one hour. Her speeches were extemporaneous but she did determine the general content and organize her thoughts ahead of time. She assigned points of her speech to her fingers and named her fingers for points. She used a manuscript twice, much to the dismay of her audience who “missed the spontaneity, the sparkle of wit, the flashes of eloquence that distinguished her oratory above that of all others, and there was a general demand that hereafter she should give them the spoken instead of the written word” (Harper 1922, v. 5:156).

Humor was an effective ingredient of Shaw’s lectures. “Newspapers, in reporting Shaw’s speeches, as a rule noted the crispness of her logic, but then called special attention to her sense of humor” (Linkugel 1962:176). Shaw recounted an encounter with an anti-suffragist:

A gentleman opposed to woman’s enfranchisement once said to me, “Women have never produced anything of any value in the world.” I told him the chief product of the women had been the men and left it to him to decide whether the product was of any value (Harper 1922, v. 4:337).

One press account reported that she “tips the arrows of her persuasion with a jest” (Harper 1922, v. 5:216). A colleague observed: “Among her most popular characteristics as a speaker are her keen sense of humor and ready wit, often enabling her to carry her point where logic alone would fail” (Willard and Livermore 1893:649). Another listener provided a broader description of her rhetoric: “As an orator she played upon the whole gamut of human emotions, lifting her audiences to intellectual heights, touching their sentiment with her exquisite pathos, convincing them with her keen logic and winning their hearts with her irresistible humor” (Harper 1922, v. 5:612). A Question Box was a standard feature at NAWSA national conventions. The audience anticipated Shaw’s selection of a question from the box followed by a humorous answer.


Anna Howard Shaw’s impact as a religious leader in the suffrage movement began when she first worked with the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. She recalled that this initial involvement resulted in “a vital interest in the suffrage cause, which grew steadily from that time until it became the dominating influence in my life. I preached it in the pulpit, talked it to those I met outside of the church, lectured on it whenever I had an opportunity” (Shaw 1915:141). Shaw understood her work for suffrage as a fulfillment of her ministerial calling. She maintained conference affiliation with the New York Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church and was listed as “on special appointment” when she left pulpit ministry and began full-time lecturing in 1885.

Shaw’s tenure from 1904 to 1915 as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) resulted in significant growth and accomplishments of the organization. Her obituary in the New York Times summarized its achievements. “The number of suffrage workers increased from 17,000 to 200,000, and one campaign in ten years was replaced by ten in one year, the expenditures of the association increased from $15,000 to $50,000 annually, while the number of States with full suffrage grew from four to twelve” (“Dr. Anna H. Shaw” 1919:13).

She was the most popular orator of the suffrage movement. Every state suffrage campaign insisted that Shaw’s presence was necessary to win the votes needed for success. While it was impossible for her to speak in every campaign, Shaw lectured in all 48 states over the course of her career.

Shaw’s selection to promote the League of Nations for the League to Enforce Peace confirmed her effectiveness and reputation as a national and international speaker. Former President Taft wrote in his tribute to her: “It was my great pleasure to speak with her from many a platform in favor of the League and to enjoy the very great privilege of listening to her persuasive eloquence and her genial wit and humor, which she always used to enforce her arguments” (Harper 1922, v. 5: 761).

Acknowledgment of Shaw’s speaking ability illustrated the role of rhetoric in recognizing her leadership in the suffrage movement. Evaluations of her lectures from colleagues and the press always were superlative. An associate praised her as “one of the most eloquent, witty and popular speakers in the lecture field” (Willard and Livermore 1893:649). A Portland, Oregon newspaper anticipated her lecture there in 1905: “The event of the evening will be the address of the president, the Rev. Anna Howard Shaw. She is easily the best and foremost woman speaker in the world and in her appearance Portland will enjoy a rare treat” (Harper 1922, v. 5:123).

Religious beliefs fueled Shaw’s activism. Woman suffrage was the means of achieving and acknowledging women’s equality. Her theology of equality was not an abstract belief system but was a blueprint for her advocacy of equal rights for women and men. She exemplified applied Christianity. Wherever inequality was present, the solution for Shaw was “removal of the stigma of disenfranchisement” (Shaw 1915:151). She believed the results of suffrage would have practical implications. For example, women who worked outside the home would be able to pass legislation that would provide protection on their jobs (Harper 1922, v. 5:157).


No one in Anna Howard Shaw’s family initially supported her intention to become a preacher. Her sister Mary, with whom she was close, refused to even speak to her. A brother-in-law went so far as to place a notice in the paper denouncing her. Family members eventually ended the estrangement and became reconciled to Shaw’s vocation.

Shaw faced opposition and other challenges as a seminarian. The male students had free lodging and special arrangements for their board that were not available to her. Shaw experienced physical hardship until an anonymous donor contributed an allowance for her expenses. The only woman among forty-three students, she reported that she never felt welcome in the classroom.

The next challenge to Shaw’s ministry was the rejection of her application for ordination by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880. Bishop Edward Gayer Andrews (1825–1907), presider at the General Conference, indicated his disapproval, not only by refusing to consider her and Anna Oliver, another woman candidate for ordination, but also by rescinding their preaching licenses on appeal. He recommended that they leave the church (Shaw 1915:123).

Shaw followed the bishop’s advice and turned to the Methodist Protestant Church, a denomination within Methodism that emphasized lay leadership. A three-day debate preceded the vote to ordain her. During that time, she responded to many questions. One of the questioners began with Paul’s statement, “Wives, obey your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22), and continued “suppose your husband should refuse to allow you to preach? What then?” Shaw responded that the injunction was not Paul’s and that even if it represented Paul’s view, she was a spinster so it did not apply to her. When the antagonist suggested that she might marry someday, she replied: “But it is equally possible that I might marry a man who would command me to preach; and in that case I want to be all ready to obey him” (Shaw 1915:126–27). Despite the fact that “many unpleasant things were said,” the General Conference ultimately voted by a large majority to ordain her on October 12, 1880.

Likewise, Shaw was adept at handling opposition to her message of suffrage. Sarcasm or humor were often her method of response. For instance, she noted the opposition by women who “still shatter the ear-drum with their incongruous war-cry, ‘Woman’s place is in the home!’” (Shaw 1915:248). She welcomed the opportunity to debate prominent anti-suffragists in towns where she lectured. Diatribes against Shaw emanated even from the pulpit. For example, shortly before a NAWSA convention in Atlanta in 1895, Shaw reported that an eminent clergyman “declared that the suffragists were trying to break up the homes of America and degrade the morals of women, and that we were all infidels and blasphemers.” The criticism became personal when he claimed that Shaw had preached a sermon the week before that was so blasphemous the only way to purify the church afterward was to burn it down (Shaw 1915:307–08). Shaw was unfazed by such virulent attacks and seemed to appreciate opportunities to counteract opposition.

NAWSA leaders acquiesced to the demand by their southern hosts to bar black women from the 1903 convention in New Orleans. The leaders, including Shaw who was vice-president at the time, did not counter the racist actions and arguments voiced at the convention. Shaw had always championed  universal suffrage based on universal equality (Anthony and Harper 1902, v. 4:130). In this instance, however, she was pragmatic rather than adhering to her principles in order to avoid a split in NAWSA. Two years later in “Our Ideal,” her first presidential address, Shaw reiterated her conviction: “men and women together shall in perfect equality solve the problems of a nation that knows no caste, no race, no sex in opportunity, in responsibility, or in justice” (Harper 1922, v. 5:124).

In 1906, white southern NAWSA leaders proposed an all-white southern suffrage organization to work to protect states’ rights from infringement by the federal government. States’ rights had been an argument used to defend the legality of slavery, and was still used to deny African American men and women the vote. Shaw rejected the idea unequivocally: “[I]t would be impossible for us to be allied with any movement which advocated the exclusions of any race or class from the right of suffrage” (Franzen 2014:109).

Shaw invited Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), the prominent African American scholar and civil rights activist, to deliver the keynote address at the NAWSA convention the following year. He faulted the organization for its “lack of acceptance” of blacks and its refusal to consider a resolution “linking woman suffrage with the cause of those disenfranchised on the basis of color.” Du Bois facilitated cooperation between black and white suffrage leaders. NAWSA published his speech as a booklet for mass distribution (Franzen 2014:139).

In her last address as president, Shaw summarized the rationale underlying white women’s resentment against black male voters, who gained the vote in 1870 with the Fifteneth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

But let us never for a moment forget the specious promises and assurances that were given to the pioneers, who, when the Civil War took place, gave up their associated work and turned their efforts to its demand in the belief that when the war was over the country would recognize their patriotic services and the dependence of the nation upon women in war as in peace and reward them with the ballot, the crowning symbol of citizenship. But instead of recognizing their service and rewarding the loyal women, the cry went forth: “This is the negroes’ hour. Let the women wait”—and they are still waiting. As they wait they are not blind to the fact that this nation did what no other nation has ever done, when it voluntarily made its former slaves the sovereign rulers of its loyal and patriotic women (Harper 1922, v. 5:751).

One of Shaw’s last public appearances was at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention that promoted a national anti-lynching law. She had addressed this issue previously and was one of the speakers at this gathering as well as a member of the planning committee.

Susan B. Anthony had warned Shaw that she should expect “jealousies, misunderstandings, criticism and misrepresentations” as president of NAWSA. Shaw acknowledged that Anthony’s admonition was accurate. “I have learned that anyone who assumes leadership, or who, like myself, has had leadership forced upon her, must expect to bear many things of which the world knows nothing” (Shaw 1915:232–33). Despite serious opposition from NAWSA’s leadership, this was one of the few times Shaw addressed hostility in her autobiography.

Between 1909 and 1914, the NAWSA board sought to oust Shaw from office. Infighting was rampant. Discontented employees fanned the flames of discord. Gossip contributed to the disputes. At each annual convention, however, Shaw received enough votes from the membership to retain her leadership.

One of the charges made against Shaw was financial mismanagement, although this was never documented. The board was troubled that Shaw requested a salary since the office of president of NAWSA had always been an unpaid position. Board members of NAWSA resisted this move, even though Susan B. Anthony had been a major supporter of a salary. Unlike most suffragists, Shaw was not independently wealthy and received no financial support from a husband or family. The board was unaccustomed to women earning a living and criticized Shaw’s financial reliance on the group. Funds for her salary ultimately came from outside sources in 1907. To support herself before 1907, Shaw spent one-third of the year earning fees on the lecture circuit and worked the rest of the year as a volunteer for NAWSA.

Another conflict during Shaw’s presidency of NAWSA was her failed attempt to control younger members who had been influenced by England’s suffragettes. Alice Paul (1885–1977) became chair of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee in 1912 and established the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage within NAWSA in 1913. Shaw joined other NAWSA leaders in vociferously opposing the group and its militant tactics. The Congressional Union split from NAWSA in 1914. Ideologically, the Congressional Union also differed from NAWSA. It held the political party in power accountable for not passing suffrage while NAWSA was nonpartisan and worked with all political parties to secure women’s suffrage. The Congressional Union’s leaders also contended that the Congressional Union was the only group working for federal suffrage. Some scholars perpetuate this misinformation. However, Shaw reiterated NAWSA’s position succinctly in her final speech as president of NAWSA: “State and Federal action must go together” (Harper 1922, vol. 5:752).

Eleanor Flexner’s negative evaluation in Century of Struggle became the basis for judging Shaw’s leadership of NAWSA. Subsequent scholars, for the most part, accepted her assessment. Flexner wrote that “[Shaw’s] gifts were many, but administrative ability was not among them.” [Image at right] She further maintained that Shaw had the “tendency to greet any and all signs of awakening initiative in the ranks as potential insurgency” (Flexner 1975:256, 257). Shaw’s biographer, Tricia Franzen, refuted Flexner’s analysis, which was based on the writings of one disgruntled employee who played a major role in fostering discontent (Franzen 2014:128). Franzen did not find evidence to support Flexner’s viewpoint. Rather, her biography documents “other developments that Shaw spearheaded, including the rededication to the federal amendment, the establishing of a centrally located national headquarters, the recruitment of new benefactors, a diversification of the movement’s constituency, the development of novel fund-raising strategies, and the embracing of innovative publicity efforts” (Franzen 2014:10–11).

Shaw announced shortly before the national NAWSA convention in 1915 that she would voluntarily step down as president and devote her time to lecturing on suffrage.


Anna Howard Shaw was a pioneer in women’s ordination and woman suffrage in the United States.    She rejected gender roles for women and men in her sermons and lectures. She told one lecture audience:

When I was a young girl, I had no faith in the usual allotment to women of certain virtuous characteristics and the reservation to men alone of certain other honorable qualities. I believed that the most perfect human being in the world is the one who possesses those characteristics which we call the most desirable in women, blended with the characteristics which we call the most desirable in men” (quoted in Linkugel and Soloman 1991:167).

She observed that she had shared this view in the pulpit as a young preacher, identifying Jesus as the ideal human. The content of her message did not change with the context. She spread that message by delivering approximately 15,000 speeches altogether (Linkugel 1962:171).

Shaw’s commitment to woman suffrage was grounded in her understanding of Christianity.  She frequently quoted words of encouragement from Christian scripture. A favorite sermon text was Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest” (Harper 1922, v. 5:179). Clearly, Anna Howard Shaw took these words to heart, and inspired the women in her audiences to do the same in their struggle for the right to vote.

Anna Howard Shaw was clearly an influential, but little-known, proponent of the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like others in her era, she advocated for an institutional approach to social reform rather than an individualized response. She believed that it was possible for the kingdom of God to be realized on earth with the cooperation of humans and God’s active role. She believed Jesus’ teachings were still applicable both individually and socially. Many male social gospelers maintained that humans were made in God’s image in order to advance their promotion of social justice in the economic realm. They rarely applied this conviction to support woman suffrage. Shaw, however, extended the Social Gospel message to all people, particularly when it came to the right to vote, the hallmark of democracy.


Image #1: Anna Howard Shaw. National Portrait Gallery.
Image #2: Anna Howard Shaw. 1875. Albion College.
Image #3: Susan B. Anthony (center) on the front porch of the family home in Adams, Massachusetts. 1896. Around her are Laura Clay, Anna Howard Shaw (seated on Anthony’s immediate left), Alice Stone Blackwell (front row, far right), Annie Kennedy Bidwell, Carrie Chapman Catt, Ida A. Husted (back row far right), Rachel Foster Avery.
Image #4: Anna Howard Shaw. n.d.
Image #5: Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President, NAWSA, 1914. Harris & Ewing, photographer.


Anthony, Susan B., and Ida Husted Harper, eds. 1902. History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 4. Indianapolis: Hollenbeck Press.

“Dr. Anna H. Shaw, Suffragist, Dies.” 1919. New York Times. July 3. Accessed from on 1 August 2019.

“Dr. Shaw Predicts Presidential Issue.” 1915. New York Evening Post, February 25.

Flexner, Eleanor. 1975. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Franzen, Trisha. 2014. Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Harper, Ida Husted, ed. History of Woman Suffrage. 1922. Volumes 5–6. New York: J. J. Little & Ives.

Kraditor, Aileen S. 1965. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920. New York: Columbia University Press.

Linkugel, Wilmer A. 1962. “The Speech Style of Anna Howard Shaw.” Central States Speech Journal 13:171–78.

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Linkugel, Wilmer, and Martha Soloman, eds. 1991. Anna Howard Shaw: Orator and Social Reformer. New York: Greenwood Press.

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Publication Date:
15 December 2019