Now, I’m assuming that many of your first heard of Anna Howard Shaw the same way I did – from Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. And I love the fact that Tina Fey used her platform to shed light on this woman’s accomplishments to an audience of millions.
But I can’t believe that I didn’t know much about her until that episode. This woman’s life is truly extraordinary, and there’s so much that we need to cover! So let’s get started.
Anna Howard Shaw was born on February 14th in the United Kingdom in 1847.
She and her family emigrated to the United States when she was only four years old, first settling in Lawrence, Massachusetts and then moving again to Northern Michigan when she was twelve.
Apparently, her family’s expectations of Michigan were much higher than the reality they had to face. They were very much living life on the wild frontier in just a log cabin 40 miles from a post office and 100 miles from a railroad. Because of this, Anna had to work hard to help her family survive and took part in chopping the wood, digging the water well, and even serving as emotional support to her mother who struggled coming to terms with their new life there.
Life continued being difficult for their family. Her sister Eleanor died giving birth, her brother Tom was wounded in the Civil War, and at only age 15 Anna became a school teacher to use her earnings to help support her family.
But I think that, having such a strong work ethic combined with her desire to help her family in her younger years really paved the way for the woman that Anna would soon become.
After the Civil War, Anna moved in with her sister Mary in Big Rapids, Michigan. And this is where the Anna Howard Shaw we know today began to transform. She was inspired by Reverend Marianna Thompson, who also helped her pursue an education at Big Rapids High School. She found a passion for ministry there and then at age 24, Anna gave her first sermon.
And I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that her classmates, friends, and even her family disapproved of her desire to preach. Her family even offered to help pay for a college education, but only if she quit preaching.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Anna decided to attend a Methodist school, Albion College, despite her family’s refusal to help her pay. After Albion College, she attended the Boston University School of Theology as the only woman in a class of 42 men. She struggled to feed herself. She could barely afford the rent. And she began to question whether or not to continue.
Despite these hardships, she was ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church in 1880.
In 1887, Anna met Susan B. Anthony, who encouraged her to join the National Woman Suffrage Association. She did, and then in 1904 became the President of the NAWSA and lobbied for the rights of women to vote for the next eleven years.
And although she did resign as the NAWSA president because she disagreed with the militant tactics being used, she wasn’t done yet. During World War I she was the leader of the Women’s Committee of the United States Council of National Defense and she became the first woman to earn the Distinguished Service Medal as well.
Anna Howard Shaw’s life was one long and well lived, especially for the times. She passed away from pneumonia at the age of 72, only a few months before the 19th amendment, the one giving women the right to vote, was ratified.