Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

ANNA HOWARD SHAW
(1847-1919), a case study in rhetorical enactment

WILMER A. LINKUGEL

"I was born on a cold, dreary morning in February," wrote the Reverend Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, "and it is said that my protests against existing conditions began immediately and that they have continued without cessation ever since" ( SP, Box 19, Folder 436). For forty years Shaw protested existing social conditions and proclaimed equal rights for women in every American state and in most European countries. She spoke to the English, the Swedes, and the Germans; she addressed leading American colleges and universities; she presided at packed meetings in Carnegie Hall and Cooper Union; and she pleaded with numerous congressional committees and state legislatures. She delivered several hundred speeches a year, and often spoke as many as eight times a day, often for temperance but mostly for woman suffrage.


BACKGROUND

This remarkable woman was born in England on Valentine's Day, 1847, but when she was four, her father, Thomas Shaw, moved the family to the United States, settling first in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but moving within the year to Lawrence where they lived for almost seven years. In 1859, Thomas Shaw's restlessness prompted him to move the family to Michigan, where he left them to build a home in the wilderness while he returned to the East to earn money for their support. Life in the Michigan wilderness left little time for formal education, and so Shaw received much of her elementary education at home. It was not until she was twenty-four years old that she entered Big Rapids High School. While there, she became interested in the school's speech activities and demonstrated considerable skill as a reader, debater, and orator. After two years, because of her age, in 1873, she decided not to finish high school but to enter Albion College, where she once more was drawn to the public speaking platform. The school's literary societies attracted her, and she joined an all-woman society because a representative of the mixed society pompously told her, "Women need to be associated with men, because they don't know how to manage meetings" ( SP:69). Her oratorical reputation grew so quickly on campus that by the end of the year the men nominated her to be the orator for a quinquennial reunion of all the societies.

What attracted Shaw the most, however, was the pulpit. As a young girl, her desire to preach was already so great that often she stood on a stump in the solitude of the Michigan wilderness and delivered youthful eloquence to the mute trees. Liberal-minded Methodist ministers in the area occasionally invited her to deliver the Sunday sermon in their churches. Thus, after two years of college,

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