Yesterday was Flag Day, an annual remembrance that fell this year at a time when Old Glory is sorely stressed. Or, rather, our feelings about the American flag are being tested, which happens periodically.
Thanks to a Flag Day posting from a friend, I'm thinking this morning of a patriotic suffragist who employed the flag, and her love of it, to make a basic point about human rights. Her name was Anna Howard Shaw and although she took some grief, she won her point. More importantly, she won her fight.
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Anna Howard Shaw was born in England on Valentine's Day in 1847, but her family immigrated to the United States when she was 4 years old, settling first in Lawrence, Mass. The fiery politics of the time made for a trying childhood. Her father threw himself into the abolitionist movement and, in time, the Civil War, but not before sending his wife and children to a remote Michigan homestead when they essentially had to fend for themselves. The effects of this ordeal on Anna were profound: She became a devout Christian pastor, a committed feminist, and an outspoken advocate for public health, temperance, and world peace.
She felt "the call," as they say in the church, at an early age and was inspired to pursue this mission after hearing Universalist minister Mariana Thompson Folsom preach one day in Grand Rapids. Female pastors were nearly unheard-of at the time, and female physicians were rare, but Anna Shaw felt drawn to the pulpit and the medical classroom. She put herself through Albion College, a Methodist school in Michigan, and earned two degrees at Boston University, one from the medical school and the other from BU's theological seminary.
Although Shaw never practiced medicine, she was ordained as a Methodist minister. Mainly, however, she channeled her professional passions into the suffrage movement, forming an alliance with Susan B. Anthony and heading the National Woman Suffrage Association for a decade. When the United States entered World War I, she demurred from the confrontational approach favored by Alice Paul, which included protesting in front of the White House, fearing it would backfire. Instead, she accepted the unpaid post heading the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense, which was responsible for organizing and encouraging women's contributions to the war effort.
Neither the Rev. Dr. Shaw's political moderation, nor her love of country, was enough to protect her from the slanders of anti-suffragists, who dragged out and selectively edited old quotes of hers in an effort to claim that she had disparaged the American flag by calling it just "a piece of bunting."
Such cynical tactics are still used in U.S. politics a century later, although this one was so stupid that it backfired. Here is what Ms. Shaw actually said in her speeches:
This is the American flag. It is a piece of bunting, and why is it that, when it is surrounded by the flags of all other nations, your eyes and mine turn first toward it and there is a warmth at our hearts such as we do not feel when we gaze on any other flag? It is not because of its artistic beauty, for other flags are as artistic. It is because you and I see in that piece of bunting what we see in no other. It is not visible to the human eye, but it is to the human soul.
She would go on to make the point, as did other proponents of civil rights, including Frederick Douglass, that Americans who heaped praise on the flag and on this nation's founding documents while denying women and people of color the rights they are due were dishonoring the very symbols they purported to revere.
In the end, this argument carried the day. Anna Howard Shaw was not around to see the passage of the 19th Amendment. She had gone to her reward the previous summer, but not before being tasked by President Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat) and former President William Howard Taft (a Republican) to speak in favor of the League of Nations and the cause of global peace.
She did not die unfulfilled. "Nothing bigger can come to a human being," she said, "than to love a great cause more than life itself."