Lives That Changed Lives
Anna Howard Shaw
Anna Howard Shaw was one of the first women given a license to preach in the Methodist Episcopal church. Her lifetime accomplishments include not only her work in religion, but in the fields of women’s rights, medicine, and public speaking, which resulted in her fame worldwide.
Anna Howard Shaw was born in England on February 14, 1847. When she was four years old the Shaw family moved from England to America, where they lived in Massachusetts. In 1859 they settled in the wilderness of Green Township, Mecosta County, near Big Rapids, Michigan. They lived on an isolated, rundown farm that required much work before it would become productive. After living there only a short time, her father left her mother and the children alone on the farm and returned to Massachusetts to work. He left them in a really sorry state. The farmhouse was a cabin with only holes for doors and windows and the fields were full of tree stumps. Her father’s absence caused the mother to have a nervous breakdown and her oldest brother was in poor health, forcing 12-year-old Anna to care for the farm by clearing the land, planting crops, and finishing off the cabin along with caring for the family.
Anna only received two years of formal schooling as a youth, which she supplemented with her own reading. When she was fourteen years old she felt the call to preach and at the age of fifteen she began to teach school in a frontier schoolhouse. Eventually she went on to attend high school in Big Rapids, Michigan and then on to study at Albion College. Having an adventurous spirit and thirst for knowledge, Anna later studied at Boston University where she earned a theology degree in 1878. She has the distinction of being the second woman to graduate from Boston University School of Theology, but the New England Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church refused her ordination. She did, however, receive ordination by the New York Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church in 1880, becoming the first woman to be ordained in any branch of Methodism (Adelman, Famous Women, p.258).
While serving in East Dennis, Massachusetts in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Anna continued her education and earned a medical degree from Boston University. When she was thirty-nine years old she branched out from the field of pastoral and healing ministries to speak out for social justice concerns, organizing and lecturing throughout the world for the causes such as temperance, peace, and women’s rights. During her lifetime she gave more than 10,000 lectures worldwide.
In 1892, when Susan B. Anthony became president of the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Anna became vice president. In 1904, Anna became the president of the NAWSA. Throughout this time frame she was a well-known figure in demonstrations, conferences, congressional hearings, and lecture circuits. She spoke in every state of the United States and she also performed home-front war work during World War I, receiving a Distinguished Service Medal by the U.S. Congress.
In the midst of a successful speaking career, Anna Howard Shaw fell ill and died in her home in Moylan, Pennsylvania on July 2, 1919. She will forever be remembered for her enduring legacy resulting from her leadership in the women’s suffrage movement.