Anna Howard Shaw and the Fight For Women’s Rights

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. How did women protest at Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration?

2. What were the three strategies mentioned in this article that suffragists used to try to achieve women’s suffrage?

3. Who was Anna Howard Shaw? Why was she a remarkable person, especially for the time in which she lived?


On the day before Woodrow Wilson took office, on March 3, 1913, more than 8,000 women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, carrying banners, demanding the right to vote.  As the women started marching, they were met with jeers and hit by eggs.  As the march progressed, onlookers attempted to break up the march, by throwing rocks, pushing the suffragists, and yanking them off the streets.  Police witnessing the attack refused to intercede, and order was not restored until the Secretary of War, acting under presidential order, called out federal troops from the U.S. Army garrison in Ft. Myers, Virginia.

The violence, which occurred under the eye of the national press, who had gathered for Wilson’s inaugural, made front-page news.  The story remained on the front pages while the government opened a federal investigation into the attacks, which subsequently led to the dismissal of Washington D.C.’s Chief of Police.

The attack and the subsequent investigation not only created sympathy for the women, but also provoked a national debate.

Building on public sympathy, suffragist leaders organized another march one month later, and thousands of women, representing every congressional district in the nation, marched to the Capitol, demanding the establishment of a congressional subcommittee to consider drafting a women’s suffrage amendment.  In the face of public pressure, Congress agreed to form a subcommittee.  The subcommittee, however, quickly decided against the introduction of a women’s suffrage amendment.

The decision came as no surprise.  From 1868 to 1920, suffragist leaders petitioned 19 successive Congresses to introduce a national suffrage amendment, and each time they had failed.  During the same period, they led 527 separate campaigns to get individual states to add a women’s suffrage referendum to the ballot, 277 separate campaigns to get state and national parties to adopt women’s suffrage resolutions to their platforms, and 56 separate campaigns to get voters to approve women’s suffrage in states that the referendum was allowed.

Despite all this activity, women lost nearly every campaign.

By 1914, only 7 states out of 48 allowed women to vote.

Between 1900 and 1910, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association, which informed its members on the results of each campaign, recorded defeats, on average, once every 27 days.

After more than 50 years of public speeches on this one issue, suffragist leaders faced some difficult challenges: How could they create successful arguments when most male voters had already heard, and rejected, nearly everything that could be said on the issue?  What could they say to appeal to voters and politicians of one party that would also appeal to voters and politicians of another?  How could they keep their arguments fresh, and attract the attention of the press?  And perhaps most difficult, what could be said to boost the morale of rank-and-file suffragists who had lost nearly every battle they had ever waged?

Suffrage supporters found a much-needed answer in a woman who had received an M.D. degree but who did not practice medicine, a woman who had become the first ordained female Methodist minister, but did not have a permanent congregation — a woman named Anna Howard Shaw.

In 1885, after hearing Shaw preach, Susan B. Anthony hired her on the spot to be a full-time, salaried public-speaker.  Shaw signed up for a year, traveling across the nation, speaking at local suffrage rallies and challenging opponents to debate.  Shaw was so popular, that she remained on the speaking circuit for 35 more years.

On the speaking trail, Shaw gave more than more than 600 talks a year, sometimes speaking as many as eight times a day.  In 1915, to support ballot initiatives in New York, Shaw made 204 speeches in that state alone.  At the time, the indefatigable Shaw was nearly 70 years old.

Shaw never used notes.  She didn’t need to: she always spoke on the same topic.  To keep her speeches fresh, Shaw would interlace her argument with anecdotes and humor.  One of her favorite tactics was to paraphrase an opponent’s position before he got a chance to speak, and, then by pointing out contrary positions made by other opponents of suffrage, Shaw left her foe with nothing to say.

Suffragists rushed to hear her.  Few men dared to debate her.  Suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt called Shaw, “the greatest orator among women the world has ever known.”

Shaw delivered her most famous address, often referred to as the “The Fundamental Principles of a Republic,” many times during 1915 referendum campaigns in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.  The address that follows was the version she gave before the New York State Assembly just before members prepared to vote on whether or not to add a suffrage referendum to the state ballot.

Anna Howard Shaw calls on male lawmakers to pass women’s suffrage, before the N.Y. State Legislature, June 1915. Within two years, New York became the eighth state to grant women the right to vote.  Two years later, President Wilson agreed to support a national women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution, and, in 1920 the amendment was ratified and became law.

Shaw died a year before ratification.  Newspapers around the country ran large obituaries marking the passing of the suffragist leader.  In Philadelphia, The North American wrote: “Dr. Shaw was without equal as an orator among women…  She is generally conceded as the greatest woman speaker that has ever lived.  Some even believe her to have been without peer in either sex among orators of her day.”


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by M&M on March 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Awesomee Jobb Whoeverr Wrotee Thiss; Gudd JOB;:)

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