We live at the mercy of petty officials. Legislatures, presidents and courts do their things. But the real power to make our lives hell lies in the anonymous ranks of cops, zoning officers, tax officials, clerks and other paper pushers.
Suffragist Anna Howard Shaw, for instance, led the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1904 to 1915. She was on a first-name basis with the national leaders of her day. But it was a lowly Upper Providence Township tax assessor who, in 1915, confiscated and sold Shaw’s yellow roadster.
Shaw claimed to be resisting an unjust tax. She owned a house in Moylan that, in the view of Delaware County, made her a local resident and liable for a tax on personal property. But Shaw refused to complete a form listing her assets. It was “heaping injury upon tyranny” that someone forbidden to vote was required to list property to be taxed without representation, she told the New York Times.
“In the spirit of 1776,” said Shaw, “I decline to be a party to an act which violates the national Constitution.”
Born in England, Shaw was the daughter of a Scottish grain merchant. In earlier generations, the Shaws had been Highland landowners with their own castle, and Anna grew up hearing how her ancestors had resisted the Romans, the British and other clans. “It gives me no pleasure to read the grisly details of their struggles,” she wrote in her 1915 autobiography, “but I confess to a certain satisfaction that my ancestors made a good showing in the defense of what was theirs.”
In 1851, after her father’s bankruptcy, the Shaws sailed for America—“the great dream of those days”—and settled in Massachusetts, where her father worked in a shipyard. The Shaws were Unitarian and progressive. Attracted to abolition, they rubbed shoulders with leaders of that movement, including Robert Gould Shaw (no relation), who would die leading an African-American Civil War regiment.
In 1859, Thomas Shaw sent his family west to farm 360 acres he had purchased in northern Michigan. (He remained in Massachusetts for another year.) The property included a dirt-floor cabin, into which both animals and the local Ottawa Indians ventured at will. Shaw’s mother, who expected a tidy English farm, was horrified. Years later, Shaw believed her father irresponsible for putting them in that situation.
“Like most men, my dear father should never have married,” she wrote. “He gave no thought to the manner in which we were to make the struggle and survive the hardships before us.” Shaw’s father, she wrote, was the sort to spend planting season calculating the average number of corn kernels per ear rather than getting it planted.
In 1862, Thomas Shaw and his two sons responded to the news of Fort Sumter by enlisting in a Michigan cavalry regiment. They didn’t return until 1865. “Between those years, I was the principal support of our family,” wrote Shaw, who had begun teaching school for $2 per week at the age of 15. Her mother took on sewing, the women made and sold quilts, and they took in boarders.
After the war, Shaw moved in with a married sister in Big Rapids, Mich., and attended high school. She became active in the Methodist church, preaching her first sermon when she was 23 and being licensed to preach a year later. In 1873, she entered Albion College, paying for her two years of education there by preaching and lecturing on temperance. In 1876, she left Albion to attend Boston Theological Seminary, where she was the only woman in her class. Upon graduation in 1878, she took charge of a church in East Dennis, Mass.
In East Dennis, Shaw personally faced down a group of unbelievers who had invaded her church’s Christmas celebration and threatened to dance—something forbidden among Methodists. Though not personally opposed to dancing, Shaw was determined to uphold Methodist order.
“Every man and woman who interrupts our exercises by attempting to dance, or by creating a disturbance of any kind, will be arrested tomorrow morning,” she announced from the center of the floor. Meanwhile, rather than back her up, the Methodist men disappeared out the doors. And, she said, “I will have the women arrested first!”
That settled it. None of the women dared dance, and none of the men cared to dance alone. Shaw waited out the invaders until midnight, the legal closing time, when they finally dispersed.
But Shaw was only a probationary minister. And, in 1880, when her ordination came before the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, it was refused because she was a woman. The church also sought to revoke her preaching license. Shaw turned to the Methodist Protestant Church, a separate denomination, for ordination so she could continue her ministry.
In 1882, “after I had been in East Dennis four years, I began to feel I was getting into a rut,” Shaw later wrote. “[And] because I realized the splendid work women could do as physicians, I began to study medicine.” While continuing to serve her churches, she commuted to Boston Medical School, obtaining a diploma in 1885.
Shaw never practiced medicine. During her studies, she met suffragist Lucy Stone and Stone’s husband, Harry Blackwell, brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first U.S. woman physician. “Together,” wrote Shaw, “they developed in me a vital interest in the suffrage cause, which grew steadily from that time until it became the dominating influence in my life.”
Shaw resigned her pastorates and became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Woman’s Suffrage Association. From 1886 to 1892, she headed the suffrage efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which believed that women’s votes would lead to the banning of alcohol.
Shaw became close to Susan B. Anthony, who had served as president of NAWSA since 1890, when she led the merger of two earlier organizations. Shaw succeeded “Aunt Susan” in 1904 and was at the latter woman’s bedside when she died two years later. According to Shaw, Anthony died with these words: “Promise me that you will keep the presidency of the association as long as you are well enough to do the work.” And Shaw agreed.
Suffrage historians credit Shaw as a stirring, witty speaker. On the stump, she liked to tell stories about encounters with opponents, like the man who insisted women had never produced anything of value to the world.
“I told him,” responded Shaw, “that the chief product of the women had been the men, and left it to him to decide whether the product was of any value.” After she spoke at Bryn Mawr College in 1914, sophomore Helen Robertson described Shaw in a letter as “sharp as a needle.”
On the other hand, Shaw has not been remembered as an effective leader. There were few suffrage victories on her watch and the movement splintered over tactics. Shaw condemned as disrespectful the picketing of the Wilson White House by Alice Paul and other suffragists. And her needle-like tongue did make enemies. Most significantly, suffrage passed after she was replaced by Carrie Chapman Catt, who introduced a more aggressive strategy.
Anna Shaw came to Moylan in 1908. For most of her career, she had lived in rented quarters or as someone’s guest. But she had longed, wrote Shaw, “to build on a tract which had a stream, a grove of trees, great boulders and rocks, and a hill site for the house with a broad outlook.” A lot on Rose Valley Road, a block from the train station, sufficed.
Moylan borders Rose Valley, founded by freethinkers as a single-tax, arts-and-crafts paradise. The community was popular with artists and intellectuals who would have been sympathetic to suffrage. Shaw had chosen a friendly community.
Well, except for the tax man.
In 1914, Shaw had fallen and broken her ankle getting off a train in Jersey City. Her supporters’ gift—reported in all the papers—of a yellow roadster in June 1915 was probably an effort to help her get around more easily. Yellow was the color of the suffrage movement and, in an era in which all cars were black, the vehicle attracted attention wherever it went. Shaw named it “Eastern Victory” and took a brief vacation to learn how to drive.
Shaw’s dispute with assessor Louis Little began in 1914, when he first requested that she list her property so that he could calculate her tax. Assessments ranged from $1.20 to $6 per person. Shaw told Little she considered herself a resident of New York, where NAWSA was headquartered. Little took no notice of this, and Shaw later claimed that he had boasted before witnesses that he “would make the assessment so large she would be compelled to make out the statement.”
Little’s assessment was $30,000—at a time when $3,000 would buy a large house. The tax due: $126.
On July 12, two weeks after Shaw received the car, Little and Constable A.C.W. Matthues found her garage unlocked. Matthues backed out “Eastern Victory” and drove it into Media, where he locked it in Pierson’s Garage. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The course taken by the constable ran him by the headquarters of the suffrage party of the county, and a number of women there gazed on what they considered almost a sacrilege.”
Appeals to Little, the county commissioners and a local court were ignored. Shaw—whose lifelong disappointment with men began with her father—undoubtedly considered this episode just more male bullying. She told reporters she would never pay. But Shaw’s friends intervened. When the car went to auction July 24, suffrage supporters bought and returned it, though anti-suffrage bidders pushed the price from $126 to $230.
Would she have been so treated, Shaw asked a Norristown audience later that month, “if I had been a voter in Delaware County, an influential member of the community, one of the electorate to whom judges must appeal for votes?”
Well, would she? As anyone—male or female—knows who has faced an indifferent clerk: Yes, probably.
Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.