ANNA HOWARD SHAW (1847–1919) aptly titled her autobiography The Story of a Pioneer because she was the consummate trailblazer. A poor immigrant, a frontier settler, an ordained female minister, a self-made woman in an age of self-made men, a renowned feminist orator and voting rights activist, she was also a lesbian whose orientation was hidden in plain sight. In books, in classrooms, and in the media, Shaw is often presented as a bumbling or ineffective figure (when she’s considered at all). The truth is, she was one of the most revered progressive women of her time—a friend to presidents who played a pivotal leadership role in the epic struggle for women’s suffrage.
Shaw’s same-sex partnerships nurtured her through most of her adult life, especially during her later years as an activist. Living openly with other women but never declaring the nature of their relationship, Shaw’s status as a lesbian (our word, not hers) could only have strengthened her quest to empower women to have independent voices and to play an active role in politics.
Sted Mays, who lives in Atlanta, is the author of recent pieces on Susan B. Anthony that appeared in this magazine (March-April 2020) and in LgbtqNation.com.