The years 1896-1910 of the American woman’s suffrage movement are sometimes referred to as the doldrums because of an apparent lack of progress during the years. However, revised scholarship has shown that these were in fact the years where a lot of uncelebrated work was done for the cause. Today we will focus on the life of Anna Howard Shaw, who was the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1904-1915. Shaw oversaw the transition of NAWSA from a volunteer-based organization to a professional entity with headquarters in New York City and a paid staff.
Transcript for Anna Howard Shaw: Doctor, Revered, Suffragist Leader
Written and researched by Elizabeth G Masarik, PhD
Produced and recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Elizabeth G. Masarik, PhD
Elizabeth: Anna Howard Shaw was warned that the liquor supporters in town threatened to “burn the roof over [her] head” if she dared speak on behalf of temperance that night. Yet Shaw was used to similar threats and she took the stage as she did most every night. Ten minutes into her speech, Shaw noticed a man drop through a trap-door in the ceiling of the hall onto the balcony, and then climb down to the main floor. Once his feet touched the ground he yelled “Fire!” Instantly panic struck the room and people began to rush towards the doors. Believing that there was in fact no fire, that it was just an empty threat as many others had been before, Shaw recognized that people could get killed in the rush to escape. She leapt onto a chair in the audience and shouted “There is no fire! It’s only a trick” Sit down! Sit down!” This slowed the stampede as people stopped and looked around, seeing there was no fire in the hall. However, a man from the organizing committee rushed up to Shaw and hissed in a terrified whisper, “There is a fire, Miss Shaw. For God’s sake, get the people out – quickly!”
Quick on her toes, although her knees were trembling she bellowed to the crowd, “As we are already standing…and are all nervous, a little exercise will do us good. So march out, singing. Keep time to the music! Later you can come back and take your seats!”
The committee leader leaped into the asle and began singing “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” as he and Shaw led the spooked lecture-goers out of the hall. By the time the last person was out of the building, the flames were breaking through the wooden walls and dancing in the night air.
After her initial rage that the liquor supporters would risk hundreds of their fellow townspeople’s lives, Shaw led the mass to a nearby church where they continued their meeting. The episode turned the tide in the town, which overwhelmingly voted for prohibition at the next election.
Averill: This is just one of many harrowing episodes in the life of reformer, activist, suffragist, and power-house Anna Howard Shaw. It shows how dangerous supporting reform movements like temperance and women’s suffrage could be in the later-half of the nineteenth century. Yet it also highlights Shaw’s indomitable spirit in a life that was lived devoted to reform. However, Shaw is most famous, or infamous as some would have it, as the fourth president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and for the unceasing work she did on behalf of women’s suffrage. Today we will look at that history and how the historiography has been– to put it bluntly — unkind to Shaw. Let’s dig in.
And I’m Averill
And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
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Elizabeth: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. Today’s episode is largely based on Tricia Franzen’s absolutely amazing reassessment of Shaw’s life in her book, Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Women Suffrage. Franzen’s book came out in 2014 and it’s been on my shelf for a while but it wasn’t until this year that I finally got around to reading it and since reading it I have told everyone I know that they should read it too. It’s such a great reassessment of the American suffrage movement during Shaw’s presidency, which Franzen shows were actually some of the most important years of the movement. I refer to other sources in this episode as well, such as Shaw’s autobiography The Story of a Pioneer. You can find a full bibliography, plus footnotes and links, for every episode in our show notes on our website, digpodcast.org. And don’t forget, if you’re interested in something you heard today, please check out these excellent books and articles!
Averill: Anna Howard Shaw played a critical and effective role in winning women the right to vote. Just as important she modeled what it looked like to break through the confines of traditional gender roles. Shaw is estimated to have delivered over 15,000 speeches in her career. Yet she is often overlooked for brighter shining stars in the suffrage movement.
Elizabeth: Anna Howard Shaw was born in northern England in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1847. At the age of 4, her father decided to move the family to the United States. And in 1851 the family settled in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In 1857 Shaw’s father purchased cheap land in the Michigan wilderness. Her father went first, taking two of his sons on the thousand mile journey to their new homestead. Later Shaw, her mother, and three siblings followed their father and brothers and made the arduous journey to Michigan.
Averill: When Shaw’s mother arrived in Michigan she was devastated by what she found. Their homestead of sixty acres had only a small clearing where her husband and two sons had built a shell of a log cabin. There were holes where the windows and door should be. Her husband had dug no well, had begun no crops to sustain them for the winter, and no land was cleared for spring planting. Shaw’s mother walked into the dirt floor cabin and curled into a ball, her head in her hands, unmoving, and totally unresponsive. She spent hours in this position, overwhelmed by her husband’s ineptitude and the situation in general.
Elizabeth: This horrible experience stayed with Shaw for the rest of her life. It threw Shaw into an unwelcome adulthood as she learned quickly that she could not rely on a patriarch to protect her. Throughout her childhood Shaw faced the unique stresses of a difficult home life as her mother experienced debilitating illnesses and her father lacked any aptitude for farming whatsoever. Shaw was forced to take on homemaking and breadwinning roles beyond the realm of most young women of her day. She later wrote about this period in her autobiography, “It remained for us to strengthen our bodies, to meet the conditions in which he had placed us, and to survive if we could.”
Averill: Shaw did lots of non-traditional work at a young age, learning to use tools, chop and carry wood, and farm. She also qualified to be a schoolteacher at the age of 16, which earned her a small amount of money. When the Civil War began, her brothers and father enlisted in the Union army and her two older sisters got married and left home. Shaw had no choice but to shoulder the burdens of running the homestead while taking care of her delicate mother. She continued to teach and her mother took in sewing while Shaw and her younger brother continued to farm. Yet the family barely got by. Shaw wasn’t able to attend high school until she was nearly 20 years old.
Elizabeth: Over the next several years she began to perfect her oratory skills and aspired to the ministry. She traveled as an itinerant preacher for the Methodist church, until she was licensed as a local preacher by the Big Rapids District Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. As a licensed Methodist preacher, she was able to attend Albion College for free. Later she decided to leave Albion in 1876 to attend Boston University Seminary, where she was the only woman on campus and faced what Franzen describes as a “hostile tolerance.” After seminary school she became one of the first female ministers in Methodism when the Methodist Protestant Church ordained her at the age of 33 in 1880.
Averill: After years of hardship and loneliness, she was finally the trusted spiritual leader of both men and women in two congregations. However, as we’ll see, Shaw was kind of a workaholic. She decided to return to Boston University to earn her medical degree, not to practice medicine, just to gain medical knowledge. Apparently Shaw had an almost inexhaustible supply of energy because she continued pastoring, volunteered to aid “fallen women” in the Boston slums during her free time, all while earning her medical degree.
Elizabeth: The Reverend Doctor Anna Howard Shaw became the first woman to hold both the titles of Reverend and M.D. at the same time. Shaw understood that she was in a unique position. She wrote, “My theological and medical courses in Boston, with the experiences that accompanied them, had greatly widened my horizon.” And so, in 1885 she tendered her resignation at the two churches that she pastored for, and set out to join the lecture circuit where she believed she could do more good for the world.
Averill: Shaw had already been lecturing for suffrage around Boston as early as 1881 as a representative of the Massachusetts Women Suffrage Association (MWSA), a position she secured through her connections with the prominent suffragist Lucy Stone. Here she developed relationships with people like Francis Willard, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and many other luminaries of the time.
Elizabeth: By all accounts, Shaw was an amazing speaker. She rarely wrote out her speeches. She learned how to read her audiences and to speak to them, not above them. In 1883 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) adopted an equal suffrage plank as part of its “do everything” campaign and Francis Willard recruited Shaw to be its spokeswoman. Then, in 1886 Shaw accepted a paid position with the MWSA, earning $100 a month for her lectures.
Averill: Shaw’s skills as an orator on behalf of suffrage, temperance, and the social purity movement led her to move outside the bounds of any one organization and she increasingly lectured on a freelance basis. In 1887 she joined the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, which managed and promoted her speaking engagements. Soon she was making close to $500 a month. This was a good amount of money at the time, especially for a woman, but it’s important to remember that Shaw was unmarried and came from poverty. She was acutely aware of how precarious her financial situation was, especially when compared to many other female reformers who were independently wealthy and did not rely on a salary to get by.
Elizabeth: The late 1880s were a whirlwind of activity for Shaw. She continued working for the MWSA and was also named as one of two National Lecturers for the American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA). She was also the “Associate Superintendent and Lecturer of the Franchise Department of the National WCTU.” This put her into contact with Susan B. Anthony when they spoke on the same platform in Newton, Kansas in October of 1887.
Averill: Soon Anthony began to carefully recruit Shaw to the National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA). Shaw wrote, “I was very happy in my connection with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union…But Miss Anthony’s arguments were always irrefutable…’You can’t win two causes at once,’ she reminded me. ‘You’re merely scattering your energies. Begin at the beginning. Win suffrage for women, and the rest will follow.’…From then until her death, eighteen years later, Miss Anthony and I worked shoulder to shoulder.”
Elizabeth: By aligning with Anthony’s NWSA this placed Shaw at the center of the rivalry between the AWSA and the NWSA. And here we’ll give a brief bit of backstory regarding these two organizations. You can hear more about it in our episode 100 Years of Woman Suffrage but here’s the condensed version. After the Civil War, women suffrage supporters organized the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) in 1866 whose purpose was “to secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.” The debates over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments caused a major split in the coalition of white feminists aligned with advocates of voting rights for black men. The feminist and abolitionist movements had been closely tied, almost one in the same since the early 19th century.
Averill: But, the debates over these two amendments pitted votes for women against votes for black men. The Fourteenth Amendment proposed to only protect the voting rights of “male inhabitants.” In fact, the amendment was the first time that “male” was inserted into the Constitution at all. Then, the Fifteenth Amendment declared that states could not deny the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” – the amendment did not mention sex. These were deliberate omissions and led to fierce debates between advocates for women’s suffrage.
Elizabeth: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were privately approached by Wendell Phillips and Theodore Tilton to suspend work for universal suffrage and to concentrate on getting the vote for Black men only. Apparently Anthony responded that “she would sooner cut off her right arm before she would ever work for or demand the ballot for the black man and not the woman.” She saw it as a betrayal to be asked to compromise on the issue of universal suffrage. This caused a rift between Anthony and Frederick Douglass and they divided over the issue. Douglass believed that it was a matter of life and death to grant emancipated Black men the right to vote.
Averill: Anthony’s other statements cast this debate in a different light. Anthony stated, “It is not a question of precedence between women & black men. Neither has a claim to precedence upon an Equal Rights platform. But the business of this association is to demand for every man black or white, and for every woman, black or white, that they shall be this instant enfranchised and admitted into the body politic with equal rights and privileges.”
Elizabeth. However, though many suffragists were part of the abolitionist movement to end slavery, they were not immune to racial prejudice. Elizabeth Cady Stanton claimed: “it’s better to be the slave of an educated white man than of a degraded black one,” arguing that Black men would be “despotic” if granted the vote ahead of white women. Stanton and Anthony split with others in the women’s rights movement over this issue and formed the NWSA whose sole focus was the immediate voting rights for women.
Averill: Other suffragists led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe formed the AWSA which continued to support suffrage for Black men with the understanding that the vote for women would come next.
Elizabeth: And so in 1889 when the NWSA hired Shaw, she was really a pin between the two organizations and she was one of the leaders who successfully negotiated a joining of the two organizations in 1890 into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Averill: Elizabeth Cady Stanton was elected NAWSA’s first president from 1890-1892. Anthony became president in 1892 with Shaw as vice president and the NAWSA national lecturer.
Shaw incessantly traveled the 48 states and Europe in the following years. Women like Shaw tirelessly campaigned across the country for suffrage and by 1897 three more western states passed suffrage laws, bringing the total to four.
Elizabeth: In 1904 Susan B Anthony convinced Shaw to accept the presidency of NAWSA. And according to Tricia Franzen, was the person who really brought the U.S. suffrage movement into the mainstream of political life. But her becoming president of NAWSA would require an economic revolution in the organization. Shaw came from a poor background but the majority of national and international suffrage leaders were independently wealthy due to inheritance or marriage and therefore able to volunteer their time. Shaw was neither wealthy nor married, she needed to earn her own living. And for the first time the association raised money to pay the president a salary, transforming it from a voluntary association to a truly modern organization where you had salaries for the officers.
Averill: During Shaw’s tenure the NAWSA moved their national headquarters from Warren, Ohio to New York City with salaried executive workers and a modern publicity department. Also, during her almost-twelve year tenure as president, Shaw helped increase the number of full suffrage states from only four, to twelve. It was under her presidency that all of these other states gained suffrage for women: 1910 Washington; 1911 California; 1912 Arizona; 1912 Kansas; 1912 Oregon; 1913 Illinois; 1914 Nevada; 1914 Montana
Elizabeth: Additionally, membership in NAWSA grew from 5,000 to 183,000 while Shaw was president. Yet her Progressive politics with regards to suffrage must be understood within a larger context. As Shaw traveled the country, she also espoused nativist, or anti-immigrant ideas and NAWSA was often seen as a hostile organization to African American women and other minorities.
Averill: From the Civil War era through ratification, the mainstream suffrage movement was split over the issue of race. And this continued up through the 1890s.In 1899 NAWSA held its annual meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This was a key meeting because African American women raised the issue that was very important to them, which was segregation on public transportation. Taking the train for African American women was a very stressful situation because even if you could afford a first class ticket, they often did not allow you to sit in first class but instead forced you into the smoker car. At the 1899 convention this issue was raised but white leadership denied including it on the NAWSA platform because they didn’t see it as a “women’s issue.” In 1903 NAWSA held their national conference in New Orleans in order to gain support in the South. Unfortunately they also caved to local demands and the conference was officially segregated.
Elizabeth: We’ve talked about this in other episodes so we won’t go too in depth here but it’s important to note that because of this consistent struggle by African American women for their rights, they had to found their own institutions. While suffrage organizations might allow some African American women to be members, for the most part, they generally made it difficult for African American women to be part of the suffrage mainstream. This was true of many other women’s organizations like the WCTU.
Averill: After the segregated convention in New Orleans, W.E.B. DuBois, the NAACP and their magazine The Crisis, really pushed NAWSA on this issue of excluding African American women. Not ten years after the segregated convention in NOLA, NAWSA had their convention in Philadelphia and by this time things had changed enough that DuBois was the keynote speaker. DuBois’ speech was called “Disenfranchisement” and the key point was that you cannot have a true representative government unless you have everybody represented, because you cannot address everybodies issue unless everybody has a seat at the table. That’s a paraphrase of course, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind and NAWSA thought enough about this speech that they paid to publish it as a separate pamphlet.
Elizabeth: As America drew closer to involvement in the first World War, and international developments dominated the news cycle, Shaw succeeded in keeping suffrage prominent in the nation’s newspapers. Three years after her NAWSA retirement, President Woodrow Wilson drafted her to serve as the chair of the Women’s Committee as part of the Council of National Defense. This happened within weeks after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917.
Averill: The following January the U.S. House of Representatives finally passed the 19th Amendment and nearly 71-year old Shaw sat in the speaker’s box on that historic day. However, this did not guarantee that the Senate would follow suit and approve the amendment. In the meantime, Shaw got pneumonia in June of 1919, forcing her to return to Philadelphia to recuperate. Shaw seemed to be recovering when the senate passed the 19th amendment in June. However, Shaw died July 2, 1919, before the Amendment was ratified by the states.
Elizabeth: In 1897, Shaw had said, “The millennium may not come when women vote, but it will never come, until they do.” Although Shaw did not see the final passage of the 19th Amendment, her tireless efforts helped allow it to happen. The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920.
Averill: At Shaw’s bedside when she died was Lucy Elmina Anthony, Shaw’s partner of 30 years and niece of Susan B. Anthony. Shaw and Lucy Anthony had a thirty year, same sex partnership. Now of course, we will not call them lesbians or any other LGBTQIA+ identitfying terms because they did not exist in the time period. However, Shaw and Lucy Anthony’s 30 year relationship was obviously a very devoted and loving relationship. It’s important to bring these relationships in the suffrage movement to light, to show how important women who would today probably define themselves as lesbians or gender non-conforming, were to the suffrage movement.
Elizabeth: As we mentioned earlier, Shaw was fairly gender nonconforming during her early life. Not only did she do the work of men on the family farm but she also kept her hair cut very short. Many of her classmates called her “Annie Boy” because of her boyish appearance. Historian Wendy Rouse argues that when Shaw began a career as a preacher, and she realized that her appearance was causing a lot of comment, she began to cultivate a more feminine appearance in her public persona. She adopted a professional, plain look. The older she got, the more concerned she became with the appearance of the suffrage movement, saying “No woman in public life can afford to make herself conspicuous by any manner of dress or appearance.”
Averill: So by saying this she was essentially encouraging other suffragists to conform, to appear a certain way, in order to gain respect in the press and of the audience that they needed to win suffrage. Leaders like Shaw may have had very queer private lives but not necessarily in public. This of course sacrificed some of the more radical goals of the women’s rights movement and silenced the voices of queer individuals in the movement that historians are now trying to uncover.
Elizabeth: Let’s talk about historiography. A lot of the suffrage scholarship says that Shaw was not an effective administrator. In my opinion, the discussion about historiography is where Franzen’s book really shines. She argues that Shaw became Susan B. Anthony’s protege, and that Shaw was instrumental in uniting the NWSA and the AWSA. Franzen also argues that NAWSA was dying when Shaw took over the presidency. Shaw then reached out to younger women, to working women, college women, and to men. She brought the suffrage movement up to the tipping point where a national amendment was able to happen. The Amendment passed after she retired from the presidency, but she was the one who got the movement up to the point where a national amendment was possible.
Averill: Here is what Franzen says about the historiography: (long quote because it’s good!)
“Most writers simply repeat the phrases concerning Shaw that originated with the early suffrage scholars and base their subsequent analyses on the early assessments… Rereading [Eleanor Flexner’s 1959] A Century of Struggle after researching Shaw’s life, it is easy to see that there is something amiss in how Flexner views Shaw. In less than a page, using only one manuscript collection and one convention proceeding as her sources, Flexner dismisses as insignificant the over thirty years of Shaw’s rhetoric and leadership, her decade as NAWSA vice president, and her eleven-plus years in the NAWSA presidency…Flexner…argues that [Shaw] was a difficult person and an inadequate leader, notes a few interactions with Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, and then announces her resignation. The tack that Flexner takes is that, when noting problems within the movement, especially with the NAWSA, she attributes them all to Shaw’s leadership, but when covering positive results, she never mentions Shaw.”
Elizabeth: Subsequent historians picked up on this assessment. Aileen Kraditer described Shaw in 1965 as possessing “truly great oratorical skills…” but that during her presidency “Shaw’s administrative deficiencies made the organization’s problems worse.”
Ave: In 1959 historian William O’Neil took it a misogynistic step further by stating, “Anna Howard Shaw was short and fat with a broad seamed face and a disposition to match. No one else in the woman movement fitted so perfectly the stereotype promoted by anti-suffragists of the sharp-tongued, man-hating feminist… Men admired her least of all.”
Elizabeth: One of the things that struck me when reading Shaw’s autobiography, that she wrote and published in 1915 is what a sense of humor Shaw had. I mean, it’s a bit sarcastic, or maybe mid-westerny as some might say, but I found her voice on the page extremely endearing. Let me give you an example, in The Story of a Pioneer, page 182 Shaw is relating a story from her days on the lecture circuit. She says:
“Mrs. Avery and I had just been entertained for several days at the home of a vegetarian friend who did not know how to cook vegetables, and we were both half starved.” However, Shaw’s desire to eat was thwarted as she spent the entire dinner convincing Senator John J. Ingalls of the merits of women suffrage. Shaw wrote that, “The result was that I had time for only an occasional mouthful, while down at the end of the table Mrs. Avery ate and ate, pausing only to send me glances of heartfelt sympathy. Also, whenever she had an especially toothsome morsel on the end of her fork she wickedly succeeded in catching my eye and thus adding the last sybaritic touch to her enjoyment.”
Averill: Accounts say how brilliant Shaw was as an orator, as a speaker but just hearing that, I don’t think we really get a good idea of what that meant. Her autobiography gives us a little glimpse at her energy.
Elizabeth: So Franzen is really trying to challenge what she sees as a bad rap for Shaw, and to challenge many of the misconceptions she sees around Shaw’s life. And she has a lot of room to do so.
Averill: Until Franzen’s book, there was no stand-alone biography of Shaw, which if you think about it is really weird.
So, we’ve given an overview of Shaw’s life and discussed some of the issues surrounding her legacy within the historiography. But finally, before we leave you today, we just have to remind our listeners that all women did not get the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Averill: A lot of Native American women were not considered citizens in 1920. Zitkala-Sa, a citizen from the Yankton Sioux Tribe, reminded rejoicing white women after the passage of the 19th Amendment that the fight was not over. It wasn’t until 1924 that we had the Indian Citizenship Act that declared all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial United States would now be declared citizens, and thus able to vote.
Elizabeth: Asian American women did not have U.S. citizenship when the 19th Amendment was passed. It was not until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act that Chinese origin people were allowed naturalized citizenship. And it wasn’t until 1952 with the McCarren-Walter Act that Japanese and Korean Americans were allowed to naturalize.
Averill: The racism and intimidation that prevented the majority of Black men from voting, particularly in southern states but in the North too, were the same barriers that prevented African American women from voting after the passage of the 19th Amendment. It wasn’t until the voting rights act of 1965 that all women had more voting protections. Of course, as we’ve seen in many red states and districts, there are still strong forces at work trying to curtail the African American vote.
Elizabeth: So we of course need an honest and critical reevaluation of the celebration of women gaining the right to vote. And it needs to happen within the larger framework of the political arena where we are still underrepresented as women, as people of color, of people of different abilities, backgrounds, and sexualities. And so the struggle to pass the 19th Amendment was not the end of the story, but one point on a longer struggle that is still ongoing.
Averill: As a final thought (and trivia question), Anna Howard Shaw was born on February 14th. So next Valentine’s Day, feel free to celebrate Anna Howard Shaw day instead of Valentines.
Trisha Franzen, Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage (Uni. of Illinois Press, 2014).
Ellen Carol DuBois, Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote (Simon & Schuster, 2021).
Sara Hunter Graham, “The Suffrage Renaissance: A New Image for a New Century, 1896-1910” in the edited volume, One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, ed. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (Troutdale, Oregon: Newsage Press, 1995).
Wendy L. Rouse, Public Faces, Secret Lives: A Queer History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (NYU Press, 2022).
Anna Howard Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer (New York: Kraus Reprint Co, 1970).
 Anna Howard Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer, (New York: Kraus Reprint Co, 1970) 169-171.
 Shaw, 28.
 Susan B. Anthony—Still Controversial after all these Years, https://susanbanthonyhouse.org/blog/interpreting-susan-b-anthony-for-our-times/
 Franzen, 9.
 Both quotes from Franzen, 9.