The Case for Making a REAL Anna Howard Shaw Day

The following post is written by Megan Dunne, spring intern for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

This is the first post in a series highlighting and celebrating female pioneers throughout history. Some of these women have been largely overlooked, others celebrated, but I feel that all of these inspiring women have made important contributions to the state of women today.

I have to be honest, the first reason Anna Howard Shaw came to my mind when I was developing a list of influential women was because of Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Liz was trying to avoid the pressures of Valentine’s Day by scheduling dental surgery for that day and commenting that, on February 14th, she celebrates the birth of Anna Howard Shaw, not Valentine’s Day. “Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day!” she yelled across the studio. I never learned about Anna Howard Shaw in school, and I had no idea what her contribution to feminism was, but I nonetheless took this opportunity to look into her life.

As Liz correctly noted, Anna Howard Shaw was born on February 14th, 1847. She lived through a series of important historical moments in America’s story: her family emigrated from England to America when she was a child in 1853, and later embarked out to the American frontier. Her family ultimately settled in Michigan. Despite discouragement from her family and friends, she continued her education, graduating from Albion College in 1872. Then she went even further, attending the Theological School of Boston University in 1878, where she was the only woman in her class.

Higher education for women, at the time, was well outside of social norms. Anna was denied ordination from the Methodist Episcopal Church when she applied, despite having the proper qualifications. However, she did go on to become the first female minister ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church in 1880. While preaching in East Dennis, MA, Anna went to Boston University Medical School, getting her MD in 1885. This was an incredibly smart, driven woman.

Her story so far is fascinating on its own, trailblazing so that more women could go to college and any women could get graduate degrees, but its where the story goes that makes Anna Howard Shaw such a pioneer for women in society.

So here is Anna Howard Shaw, a highly educated pastor and doctor. She could easily have stayed in that already unique combination of occupations. But she began to notice something. Shaw writes, “Around me I saw women being overworked and underpaid, doing men’s work at half men’s wages, not because their work was inferior, but because they were women.” Shaw went to join the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association, and joined with like-mined women to start the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This doctor and preacher suddenly became more politically active than many of us will ever be.

Shaw was so effective in Massachusetts that she ultimately became president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association—precursor organization to the League of Women Voters! During Shaw’s term from 1904 to 1915, membership grew tenfold; the budget grew threefold; and the discussion of women’s rights changed from a state-by-state approach to a national campaign for the federal level of government.

Shaw went on to be involved with the war effort during World War I and was a proponent of the League of Nations, and a cause for which she was campaigning when she passed away in 1919. She died one year before women got the right to vote.

As a pastor, Anna Howard Shaw refused to perform marriage ceremonies in which the word “obey” was used; as a citizen, Shaw refused to pay property for income taxes because she could not vote, thereby making her taxes “taxation without representation.” Anna Howard Shaw was a trailblazer and a true pioneer for the women who followed in her footsteps, and I surely believe that she would have joined the League had she been around at it’s inception.

Today we remember and thank Anna Howard Shaw for advancing women’s rights and helping to create a world where women can study whatever they want, however long they want! May every day be, as Liz Lemon says, Anna Howard Shaw Day.


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