Adventures in Feministory: Dr. Rev. Anna Howard Shaw


Yes, Liz Lemon’s evoking of the name Anna Howard Shaw made for some big laughs on the most recent episode of 30 Rock. But did you know that in addition to being funny (at least by association, and probably in real life as well), Shaw was also the first woman ordained by the Methodist church, a medical doctor, a published author, a decorated member of the National Council of Defense, a social justice activist, and a pioneer for women’s suffrage? It’s true!

Anna Howard Shaw was born on February 14, 1847 (more on that in a minute, but if you’re interested in her early life, which involved living in a cabin with a dirt floor and working as a schoolteacher at age 15, check out this article). Growing up in a Methodist household, she was inspired by the sermons she heard at her local church in Big Rapids, Michigan, and decided that instead of just listening she was going to start giving them herself. Cut to a few years later, and in 1880 (after earning a degree from the Boston School of Theology – the only woman in her graduating class) Shaw became the first woman to be ordained by the Methodist Church.

Shaw’s remarkable achievements didn’t stop there. While for most of us, being the first woman ordained by a major church and shouldering the responsibilities that come with being a Methodist minister might feel like more than enough, Shaw also earned an M.D. from Boston University in 1886 (you know, because her advanced degree in Theology was getting lonely up there on the wall). In the later 1880s, Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw took a break from her pastorate in order to concentrate on yet another worthy cause, the women’s suffrage movement.

Apparently (according to my googling) Shaw was BFFs with Susan B. Anthony, which is awesome. Can’t you just imagine hanging out with those two, kicking ass in the name of women’s rights? Both women served as leaders of The National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Shaw resigning in 1915. Their work is what gave women the right to vote, though in a sad twist of fate Shaw passed away only a few months before Congress approved the 19th Amendment.

Shaw was more of a go-getter than can be covered here, also serving on the Council of National Defense (becoming the first woman to earn a Distinguished Service Medal, no less!) and she was quite active in the temperance movement as well. From her 1919 obituary in The New York Times:

Dr. Shaw never married. She was a member of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, the League to Enforce Peace, National Society for Broader Education, the Women’s Civic Club of New York, and editor of the Woman’s Committee War Department of The Ladies’ Home Journal. Besides writing “The Story of a Pioneer,” [her autobiography] she had contributed many short stories and articles to various magazines.

Nice to see that The Times was quick to point out that Shaw never married (the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?) but it’s clear that she worked for social justice in just about every way possible. With those achievements under her belt, it’s no wonder that some feminists choose to celebrate Dr. Shaw’s birthday as an alternative to Valentine’s Day. Which brings us back to 30 Rock (you didn’t think I’d leave out the video clip, did you?):

Laugh if you must (I did, a lot) but there’s no doubt that a renaissance woman like Tina Fey is inspired by a renaissance woman like Dr. Rev. Anna Howard Shaw. She can serve as an inspiration to us all (and a reason to eat delicious cookies). Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day, everyone!

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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