February 27, 2014 | By Jake Weber
A pioneer girl who put herself through college, seminary and medical school, eventually rising to the national stage as a suffragist, is the focus of a groundbreaking new book by Trisha Franzen, professor of women’s and gender studies. Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage (University of Illinois Press) examines the life and work of one of Albion College’s most distinguished alumnae.
The protégé and longtime friend of Susan B. Anthony, Shaw served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1904-1915, and her efforts were instrumental in the passage of the 19th Amendment. The amendment was finally ratified a year after her death in 1919.
Shaw met Anthony in 1887 and soon became a key voice for the cause. Yet, despite more than three decades of work, Franzen says it’s somewhat ironic that Shaw’s influence was disregarded by later historians, possibly because Shaw didn’t fit the mold of a “proper” Victorian-era suffrage leader.
“Anna Howard Shaw brought a new and more representative voice to the woman suffrage movement,” Franzen says, “inspired by her own mother’s struggles, her knowledge of the realities of most women’s lives, and her own experiences as a self-made, working woman. It only makes sense, given her non-elite background, that Shaw could develop and communicate common-sense arguments and political strategies for extending the franchise to women that were convincing to a broad swath of the population—men, as well as women.”
Unlike her mostly middle- and upper-class Eastern colleagues, Shaw spent much of her childhood on a rural farm in Big Rapids, Michigan, where she took on many traditionally male activities running the homestead. In her twenties, she supported herself while attending Albion College and later while earning degrees from Boston University’s School of Theology and School of Medicine, and she remained an independent woman throughout her life, successfully earning a living on the lecture circuit.
Shaw eventually devoted her life to suffrage, winning a national reputation for her oratory. Suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt said that “Shaw herself converted more people to suffrage than any other individual,” Franzen says. Susan B. Anthony was likewise taken by Shaw and her ability to reach out to audiences. “Anthony had been searching for someone to take leadership of NAWSA after her, and she recognized that Shaw was capable of that absolute commitment,” says Franzen.
As leader of NAWSA, Shaw made controversial and important changes to the movement, according to Franzen. During the 1890s, members from Southern states pressured NAWSA not to support suffrage for African-Americans. Through their influence, NAWSA held a segregated convention in 1903; by 1912, under Shaw’s leadership, influential civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was invited as the convention keynote. “Shaw was always for universal suffrage,” Franzen notes. “Being from a poor background and from the Midwest, she had a different consciousness that informed the movement in a profound way.”
Another of Shaw’s positions challenged the perceived roles of women. The mid- and late 1800s were “a time when many people argued that motherhood was a woman’s highest calling. Shaw said that women have a lot of different callings and it was wrong to say that any was the pinnacle of womanhood,” Franzen contends. “She also questioned ‘womanhood,’ saying that women were better judged for their ‘personhood.’”
An Albion alumna and a Methodist bishop in Big Rapids were responsible for Shaw’s connection to Albion College, which Franzen says was integral to her development. Raised as a Unitarian, Shaw became a Methodist because it was the most active and open denomination in the Big Rapids area.
After the presiding elder, H.C. Peck, who supported women’s entry into the ministry, had her preach in all 36 of the district’s locations, the Big Rapids District Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church enthusiastically licensed 26-year-old “Annie Howard Shaw” as a local preacher, a power allowed the local district at the time.
She also benefited from the free tuition Albion provided for Methodist ministers. While at Albion, from 1873 to 1876, Shaw led the women’s debate society and earned money preaching at local churches.
Albion “was a really important time for Shaw to find that she could do what she hoped to do,” Franzen explains. “She really found her positive footing here and made good friends. Albion gave her the confidence to go to seminary [in Boston], and it’s good she had that, because seminary proved to a be a 19th-century version of what we now call a ‘chilly climate.’
“Women were officially allowed to attend, but Shaw wrote that she knew she was unwelcome every time she entered a classroom,” Franzen continues. “She was given room and board that were separate from and inadequate compared to those provided for the men.” Shaw became ill from hunger and cold, nearly quitting, according to Franzen, when the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society saw her plight and arranged a loan for her.
While the book surely will raise academic and popular awareness of Shaw’s importance to American history, Franzen also sees it providing a much needed opportunity to rethink assumptions about women’s roles at the turn of the 20th century. To that end, she hopes it offers inspiration for more scholarly research.
“In Shaw’s time, women like Jane Addams and Clara Barton weren’t married and were accepted,” she says. “How Anna Howard Shaw went from being an isolated farm girl to a woman who entered male-dominated professions speaks to our social history and what we know about women. There are a lot of questions to answer.”
For now, though, Franzen is glad to be able to cast a new, long overdue light on Shaw and her achievements.
“Anna Howard Shaw was far ahead of her times,” Franzen says. “She led her life as if she already had all the rights that she was fighting to extend to all women. Only by reintegrating the lessons from Shaw’s life into women’s history, and U.S. history, can we understand the barriers women faced then and since, and the resourcefulness women have employed to create their own opportunities.”