03/12/2014 03:51 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

Lessons Learned From a Female Pioneer

As we celebrate Women's History Month in March, events are planned on campuses across the nation to reflect on the achievements of women. Most importantly, the speakers, panels and films offered during this month will provide lessons to students -- our future leaders -- which will hopefully influence their aspirations and careers.

One piece of landmark legislation is sure to be mentioned this month: the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, commonly known as the Women's Right to Vote Act. The passage of this amendment, in 1920, did not come about easily or quickly. Starting in the mid-19th century, scores of women in the United States protested, lobbied and demonstrated to secure a constitutional right to vote. History books recognize and celebrate many courageous leaders associated with the struggle, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Let me offer a brief introduction to a Michigan woman whose efforts are not as well-remembered. Anna Howard Shaw devoted over 30 years of her life to the struggle to secure the vote for women, and she was instrumental in shifting the political balance in the nation to secure passage of the 19th Amendment. The important role that Shaw played is now more fully understood due to the scholarly research of a Shaw biographer, Dr. Tricia Franzen.

Here is Anna Howard Shaw's story. She was born in 1847 in England to an impoverished family. The family immigrated to the United States, and Shaw was raised in poverty on a Michigan farm. At age 12 she was responsible for the family's outdoor farm labor. To provide much needed financial assistance to her family, she secured a teaching certificate at the age of 15. She then worked her way through college, the seminary and medical school. Although she was a pastor of two congregations, Shaw had to fight for ordination. She became a full-time lecturer and organizer for the temperance and woman suffrage movements. Despite her humble upbringing, she quickly gained a reputation as a great orator for the suffrage movement, a cause more often supported by women from elite backgrounds. For over a decade, Shaw served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, transforming the organization and expanding its reach. During her tenure, the campaign for suffrage gained significant momentum. On a tragic note, she died in 1919, one year before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

What can we learn from Anna Howard Shaw's life?

Poverty does not dictate one's future. Shaw came from a family of seven children that struggled with poverty on a daily basis. From a childhood on a poor Michigan farm, she rose to lead a major national organization and to be recognized by President Woodrow Wilson for coordinating the women's domestic support during World War I. She later was invited to tour with President Taft and Harvard President Howell in support of the League of Nations.

Education opens doors. Shaw understood the power of education. She appreciated, valued and benefitted from what she learned. While she did not start her undergraduate education until she was 26 years old that did not deter her from seeking further training at a seminary and later a medical college. The breadth of education she secured served her well in gaining the respect and support of others.

Women can be successful in male-dominated professions. Shaw did not let her gender get in the way of hard physical labor on the farm, attending seminary at a time when women were decidedly unwelcome and getting a medical degree. She led two parishes and was the first woman invited to preach in the central cathedrals in both Sweden and Hungary.

Beyond these lessons, perhaps there is something even more profound to learn from the story of Anna Howard Shaw's life. Any significant life achievement most often will be accompanied by a myriad of obstacles, require years of hard work, and demand both self-sacrifice and courageous action. Although we may need to be flexible about the path we take in achieving our goals, our commitment to achieving those goals should never waver. This is the real legacy of leaders like Anna Howard Shaw.