The 100 year legacy of Anna Howard Shaw

Spotlight on Women’s History Month: Trisha Franzen, author of Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage writes about this feminist pioneer:

It takes a lot of chutzpah for an unmarried woman to ask married women to donate their wedding rings to fund the cause of women’s rights. But that is what suffrage leader Dr. Anna Howard Shaw did one hundred years ago. Such was the intensity of the suffrage cause in 1914, and such was the fearlessness that characterized Shaw’s leadership.

In 1914, suffrage leaders knew they were at a turning point. Women had won the franchise in most western states. Throughout the country, media leaders and local politicians felt the pressure from the increasingly organized suffrage. Yet the U.S. Congress continued to drag its feet on the federal, now called the Susan B. Anthony, amendment. The NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association) needed a victory in one of the big eastern states to push Congress out of its complacency, and they needed big money to fund the organizing effort to make that happen. Shaw knew her plea would generate publicity for the cause, but would women really give up their wedding rings?

It is fascinating that they did. In large numbers, women contributed not only their rings, but also their thimbles, other jewelry and even gold nuggets. Thousands of dollars worth of items went into the melting pot, and the New York Times covered the event.

Yes, Shaw herself made substantial donations – a gold watch and a gold pin.

So who was this bold leader?  Why do we know so little about her? When most people in the U.S. think about the struggle for women’s right to vote, they think first about Anthony, followed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Alice Paul.  Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffragepresents the case that Anna Howard Shaw deserves to be on this list. This volume questions why even women historians know little about Shaw and why much of what they believe about Shaw, especially about her years as the NAWSA president, hasn’t stood up to scholarly scrutiny.

Anna Howard Shaw traces the rise of the only NAWSA officer who didn’t come from an elite or even a middle-class family. From her birth to a bankrupt family in northern England through her years isolated on the struggling family farm in western Michigan, Shaw found herself questioning traditions that limited women both intellectually and physically. A gregarious, non-conforming but charismatic leader from childhood on, Shaw knew that it was poverty as well as patriarchal ideas that kept her from benefitting from the opportunities women were building for themselves after the Civil War. Her first break came when she became a licensed Methodist preacher. With this new career, she entered the larger world of reforms and never looked back.

College, seminary, ordination, medical school, professional success and economic autonomy followed. None were accomplished without a struggle, but through all the work, Shaw built networks of friends and supporters, including Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Frances Willard, while honing her greatest gift, her voice. This volume is the first to go beyond recognizing Shaw as an early woman minister and the movement’s outstanding orator, to fully document Shaw’s contributions to and leadership within the women’s movement. The books reveals Shaw’s role as a change agent within the revitalization of the NAWSA as it faced internal conflicts over universal suffrage, class differences, imperialism and race in the early 20th century. With perspectives gained by her own experiences as a working woman who headed what we would now call an alternative family, Shaw lead the diversification of the movement, increasing membership and visibility by reaching out to younger college and wage-earning women and men.

Why should we care, one hundred years later, what any one woman did?  Anna Howard Shaw learned early in her life that you won’t get far if you are poor, a girl, and follow the rules. Exploring who Shaw was, how she lived her life, and what arguments she made for women’s rights, challenge much what we think we know about women in this era and the suffrage movement.

Trisha Franzen is a professor of women’s and gender studies at Albion College and the author of Spinsters and Lesbians: Independent Womanhood in the United States and the forthcoming Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage.


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