On Valentine's Day, a celebration of a pioneer

If, like the Liz Lemon, you look for any possible distraction from Valentine's Day, perhaps a celebration of Anna Howard Shaw Day is in order. The fictional character's equally fictional holiday celebrates a very real preacher and doctor, born 166 years ago today in Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Shaw was a polymath who broke boundaries, becoming both an M.D. and the country's first ordained female methodist minister.

Raised in England, Massachusetts and Michigan, Shaw remembers in her autobiography an early experience around age 9 or 10 that shaped her later drive to challenge defined roles.

Outbursts of war talk thrilled me, and occasionally I had a little adventure of my own, as when one day, in visiting our cellar, I heard a noise in the coal-bin. I investigated and discovered a negro woman concealed there. I had been reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, as well as listening to the conversation of my elders, so I was vastly stirred over the negro question.

I raced up-stairs in a condition of awe-struck and quivering excitement, which my mother promptly suppressed by sending me to bed. No doubt she questioned my youthful discretion, for she almost convinced me that I had seen nothing at all—almost, but not quite; and she wisely kept me close to her for several days, until the escaped slave my father was hiding was safely out of the house and away. Discovery of this serious offense might have borne grave results for him.

After a family move from New England to Michigan, followed by stints at Albion College and Boston University, Shaw lived six years of what she later called "among the most strenuous as well as the most interesting years of my existence," leading two congregations and simultaneously going to medical school.

Shaw's accounts of Boston poverty in the late 1800s give readers a good look at what doctors in Baltimore would have encountered around that time. A description of a birth gives a sample:

In my senior year I fell in love with an infant of three, named Patsy. He was one of nine children when I was called to deliver his mother of her tenth child. She was drunk when I reached her, and so were two men who lay on the floor in the same room. I had them carried out, and after the mother and baby had been attended to I noticed Patsy.
He was the most beautiful child I had ever seen—with eyes like Italian skies and yellow hair in tight curls over his adorable little head; but he was covered with filthy rags. I borrowed him, took him home with me, and fed and bathed him, and the next day fitted him out with new clothes. Every hour I had him tightened his hold on my heart-strings. I went to his mother and begged her to let me keep him, but she refused, and after a great deal of argument and entreaty I had to return him to her. When I went to see him a few days later I found him again in his horrible rags. His mother had pawned his new clothes for drink ...

Always wary of what she called "settling into an agreeable routine," Shaw pivoted again to focus on political activism. She eventually headed the National Woman's Suffrage Association, where she swelled the number of activists from 17,000 to 200,000, according to a New York Times obituary.

Shaw was a complex fit to her time and vocation. A tax protester, she nonetheless led a committee for the Council of National Defense and played a leading role for the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

She barely missed seeing the implementation of a policy she lectured for in that latter role: Shaw died near Media, Penn. halfway through 1919, mere months before passage of the Volstead Act. She did, however, survive long enough to see the 19th amendment sent to the states for ratification. 

Read more of Shaw's autobiography (including details of her time in a cabin near Grand Rapids) here.

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