Anna Howard Shaw

Anna Howard Shaw Biography

Minister, Activist, Women's Rights Activist, Writer, Medical Professional (1847–1919)
Dr. Anna Howard Shaw was the first female minister in the Methodist Protestant Church. She spent most of her life working for the cause of women's suffrage.


Anna Howard Shaw was born on February 14, 1847, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England. After moving to the United States with her family as a girl, she grew up to become a preacher, a doctor and a women's rights activist. At the age of 72, Shaw died in Moylan, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1919—one year before the 19th Amendment would make her dream of a national right to vote for women a reality.

Early Life

Born on February 14, 1847, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England, Anna Howard Shaw immigrated to the United States with her family in 1851. Shaw soon began what would be a lifetime filled with hard work. When she was 12 years old, Shaw's father left most of his family alone on an isolated farm in Michigan. After her elder brother became ill, Shaw stepped in to maintain their land. She planted crops, chopped wood and even dug a well.

Preaching and Education

Determined to go to college, Shaw attended high school while living with a sister in Big Rapids, Michigan. At this time she also started preaching—a vocation that her family disapproved of. They offered to pay for Shaw to attend college if she would stop preaching. Shaw chose her own path, however, becoming a licensed preacher in 1871.

Shaw's preaching and lectures on temperance provided her with the funds to spend two years at Albion College. She went on to study at Boston University's School of Theology. Shaw, the only woman in her class, struggled to get by there, but persevered until her graduation in 1878. She then took over a congregation in East Dennis, Massachusetts. Although the New England Conference and the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to ordain her because she was a woman, Shaw became the first female minister ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church.

While working as a pastor, Shaw indulged her lifelong love of learning and returned to Boston University to attend medical school. She earned her M.D. in 1885, but never practiced medicine, instead moving on to a different career.

Women's Suffrage and Political Work

Shaw gave up her work as a pastor in order to lecture in support of the temperance and women's vote movements. In 1888, with the encouragement of Susan B. Anthony, she decided to focus solely on the cause of women's suffrage. Although her administrative abilities did not equal her speechmaking, Shaw served as vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1892 to 1904, and as president from 1904 to 1915.

During World War I, Shaw headed the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense. She received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919 for her wartime service.

Death and Legacy

After the war, Shaw joined a speaking tour in support of world peace and the new League of Nations. It was during this tour that she contracted pneumonia. Shaw passed away in Moylan, Pennsylvania on July 2, 1919, at the age of 72.

Shaw’s death came a year before the 19th Amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote, was ratified. However, she died knowing that the goal she had spent most of her life working toward had almost been reached. It is thanks to the work of people like Shaw that American women finally received full suffrage.

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