Anna Howard Shaw: Reverend, Doctor, NAWSA Leader


Anna Howard Shaw: Reverend, Doctor, NAWSA Leader


When Anna Howard Shaw was a young woman, she wore pants and short hair. She gave it up eventually because she got too many comments, but she couldn’t hide her ambition, and her certainty she could do better than a man.

Turn-of-the-century thread.

She came from iconoclasts: her mother’s British family were Unitarians in a world where everyone was an Anglican. “Anna’s grandmother stood by each year while some of her furniture was taken to be sold for the Church of England tithes which she refused to pay.” (Flexner)

If religious nonconformity is inherited, maybe Anna got it from her grandmother. Anna heard Rev. Marianna Thompson preach in rural Michigan, and by 1871 she was licensed to preach in the Methodist church. Her family was angry she left Unitarianism (which didn't ordain women yet).

They offered to pay her way to the University of Michigan if she’d give up the ministry. She declined.

Anna struggled, hungry, through 2 years of divinity school at @BUTheology - she was denied the financial aid men got. She applied for full ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church; when she appealed that rejection they revoked her preacher’s license. She was ordained, grudgingly, in the Methodist Protestant Church.

She quit the ministry after 7 years. It was too hard “to fight the church in addition to the devil.”

Also, she was intellectually restless and wanted a new challenge. In 1883 she went back to Boston University @BU_Tweets this time to @BUMedical.

She got her MD in 1886 and was known as Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw for the rest of her life.

She was a protege of Susan B Anthony’s, who recruited her for her preaching skill. The movement needed orators.

Susan B sent Anna Shaw to California to lead the heartbreaking 1896 referendum fight. With a train pass provided by the widow of the Southern Pacific Railroad she traveled the state, lecturing daily. Her letters to her lover Lucy Anthony, Susan B’s niece, describe the travails of that and so many other state campaigns.

Shaw vied with Carrie Chapman Catt to succeed Susan B as head of NAWSA. Eventually Shaw got the job - and was a disaster.

The movement needed leadership, not just great speeches, to fill the void left by Stanton & Anthony. In Eleanor Flexner’s words: “Dr. Shaw’s devotion was complete and her gifts were many, but administrative ability was not among them.”

Under Shaw’s leadership, NAWSA descended into ever-more explicitly racist policies. In 1903, Black women were barred from attending the annual convention in New Orleans. (Adella Hunt Logan snuck in and reported back.)

NAWSA had sunk to endorsing a states’ rights approach to voting, Jim Crow and all. In New Orleans, Rev. Shaw said, “Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses.”

She kept company with women who shared her views.

Eleanor Flexner was graciously vague about the lesbian sisterhood to which she belonged. “In 1903 Anna Shaw built a home at Moylan, Pa., which she and Lucy Anthony shared until her death. Other friends included many of the leading women reformers of her day. President M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr College was a close associate in later years.”

Carey Thomas was a big ol’ dyke, and also a racist and an anti-Semite. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Ironically, the United Methodist Church announced this year that it is divorcing itself - splitting in half as the only way to resolve longstanding conflict over LGBTQ clergy. Yet we have always been present, since 1880 at least.

After Anna’s death, Lucy Anthony commissioned a stained glass window in her honor for the Methodist Protestant Church in Tarrytown, NY.

The image is of the Annunciation, and the inscription reads: “Commemorating the brave, strong stand of this church in ordaining Anna Howard Shaw, whom other churches persistently refused to ordain.”

The window now resides in the stairwell at BU Theology School where Anna once collapsed from hunger on her way to class. Nearby is the Anna Howard Shaw Center for women in ministry. #Suffrage100


Daily Suffragist






Daily Suffragist, “Anna Howard Shaw: Reverend, Doctor, NAWSA Leader,” Daily Suffragist, accessed December 4, 2023,

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