Politics & Women’s Voices – Anna Howard Shaw

Anna Howard Shaw 1875

 Dr Anna Howard Shaw

On April 20, 1917, Dr Anna Howard Shaw, honorary president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), received what was essentially her draft notice. President Woodrow Wilson had appointed her to head the Women’s Committee of the Council for National Defense (CND), the governmental entity created to coordinate the domestic war effort. The Women’s Committee would become the first governmental organization composed solely of women and focused on women.

President Wilson made a definite pro-suffrage statement with this appointment, but perhaps even more, the entire government was recognizing the remarkable depth and breadth of women’s activism of all stripes that existed in the United States at that point in our history. Yet how many people know of either this committee or its leader?

Fast-forward nearly a century later. Perhaps Hillary Clinton will run for president again. While such an election would mark a significant milestone for United States’ women, many question whether it would really be a measure of women’s political power. How might we compare where women are today to where they were in 1917?  In her famous 1914 speech, “The Fundamental Principle of a Republic,” Shaw argued that for the United States to live up to its foundational ideals, to be a representative government, all voices must be heard.  Have we reached that representative government? Are women even allowed an equal voice on the issues that disproportionately affect their lives? Unfortunately, those ideals have yet to be realized.

Wilson’s choice of Anna Howard Shaw recognized her years of activism and her standing among the general public. In many ways, this one remarkable and unusual woman was representative of women then. Shaw embodied women’s expanding opportunities in the 19th and early 20th centuries for education, work and politics, as well as the challenges they faced. An immigrant raised in poverty on a Michigan farm, from an early age Shaw worked to financially support her family, teaching school in addition to her unpaid hard physical farm labor. When she was called to the ministry, her family didn’t approve. She went it alone. She worked her way through college and seminary in the 1870s, fought for ordination, headed two parishes, and earned a medical degree, before giving all of it up to become a freelance lecturer, activist and organizer. Shaw devoted more than 30 years working full time for the women’s movement and over 12 important and transformative years as president of NAWSA. She was the movement’s greatest orator and truly a self-made woman.


 Dr Anna Howard Shaw

Shaw led the way for the many impressive women in leadership today. We see individual women in positions of power in the government, in the professions, in business. We might think we have accomplished a great deal in terms of gender equality. Nevertheless, when we look at the numbers of women in Congress (18.5%), as governors (27.6%), in state legislatures (24.2%), and as mayors (18.4%), somehow it doesn’t seem like we have made a century of progress after women’s century of struggle. Looking beyond these statistics, almost every week we see politicians stumbling because they can’t coherently articulate or analyze gender-related issues.

And while some women have made great strides, it is also clear that other women, generally poorer women, haven’t. From raising the minimum wage to health-care coverage, from clean water to safe foods, from sexual assaults in the military to real sex education – aren’t these all women’s issues? Are women’s voices equally heard and women’s views equally represented?

It is up for debate whether women had more power 100 years ago, but it is pretty clear that they were seriously involved in social issues. They weren’t unified, but they were speaking out. And if they did need to come together, as they did during the war, they found a way to work in coalition across their differences. As we begin to assess what we have accomplished over the last century and what we haven’t, perhaps we need to go back and study our history, women’s history.

Trisha Franzen (c) March 2014


 Professor Trisha Franzen

Trisha Franzen is professor of women’s and gender studies at Albion College and the author of Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage (University of Illinois Press, 2014).