For Racial and Women’s Equality: the Politics of Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893)


2_clip_imageMary Ann Shadd Cary, Black abolitionist, publisher, teacher, and suffragist, embodied feminism’s early potential for challenging ignorance and creating partnerships among justice seekers.[i]  Her columns in the Ontario newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, and contributions to the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in the U.S. carved out space for diverse voices in the construction of a broader democracy. Contemporaries were urged to embrace multiple campaigns, to fight slavery, segregation, and the oppression of women, and to widen the franchise.

The Delaware-born radical drew on early American abolitionism and radical feminism. The eldest in an prominent Black anti-slavery family, who espoused the pervasive contemporary gospel of hard work as proof of competency (Jones, 90), she followed the route of many progressive people of her day with Quaker schooling.  As a young adult, she moved readily into teaching as the best prospect for tackling prejudice, not to mention one of few professions open to women. In 1849, she came to public notice with the pamphlet, Hints to the Colored People of the North, which made individual and collective initiative the touchstone for freedom. Even as many mid-19th century Black abolitionists began to marginalize women’s rights and the mainstream feminist movement to ignore racism, as with the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments in 1848, Shadd Cary joined a generation of young Black women inspired by “women at the podium, speaking before promiscuous audiences, editing newspapers, penning tracts and letters to the editor, organizing for church conferences, operating social and benevolent societies, and honing their skills in literary societies” (Jones, 88).

In 1850 the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which made all escaped slaves, even those who had reached free American states, subject to return to their masters. Opposition to slavery rapidly stiffened. In 1851 Mary Ann Shadd, as she was before her marriage in 1856, entered Canadian history when she moved north to Windsor and later Toronto, Ontario, to support the ‘underground railway’ and fully integrated schools, churches, and politics.  A year later, the feminist author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which almost immediately became a key abolitionist text. In Canada, Shadd Cary focused on schooling as a key to integration and justice.  She exhorted Blacks to emigrate to Canada, which, as part of the British Empire, had seen slavery officially abolished in 1833.  Racism nevertheless remained commonplace and a ready target of Shadd Cary’s condemnation.

In 1853 the outspoken immigrant began publishing the Provincial Freeman (1853-1859) with the telling motto  “Self-Reliance is the True Road to Independence” (Silverman). Only Blacks and women could ultimately guarantee their own liberty.  Her 1854 reprinting of a speech by Beecher Stowe urging white women to become abolitionists, like the newspaper’s endorsement of feminist demands for equality in education, property holding, the law, and politics, confirmed Shadd Cary’s ready linkage of emancipatory causes (Rhodes, 91. Her enthusiasm for radical abolitionist, John Brown, who toured Ontario in 1858 and 1859 before his famous attack on Harper’s Ferry (Harper, 63) reflected increasing sympathy for militancy.  In the 1850s, the charismatic and, equally importantly, ladylike (Grasso, 170) activist burned up Canadian and American lecture circuits, in the process contributing to abolitionism’s increasing constituency.

When the American Civil War (1861-1865) brought the conflict over slavery to a head, Shadd Cary found Canada too far from the action. In 1863, now a widow with a child and stepchildren, she headed south to recruit Black men to northern armies. With the war’s close, she returned to teaching as the key to community uplift. After the 14th Amendment ended slavery but deliberately excluded women from the vote by inserting ‘male’ for the first time in the American Constitution, she maintained her commitment to women’s rights.   For the next four decades, she remained an active feminist and fierce opponent of the racist Jim Crow legislation that scarred post-Civil War U.S.A..  In 1869, as a representative of the city of Detroit, she chaired the Committee on Female Suffrage of the Colored National Labor Convention (Jones, 147).  In 1874 she joined other women in an unsuccessful attempt to vote and in 1880 helped create the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association.  She also looked to the courts for assistance in securing equal rights: in the 1880s she studied law at Howard University, the historic Black institution founded in 1867.

When Mary Anne Shadd Cary died in 1893, her commitment to justice remained. Her legacy, however, would not be fully appreciated until feminist and anti-racist scholars began her overdue recovery at the close of the 20th century. Then, as in her lifetime, the campaigner’s insistence that “We should do more, and talk less” (Cimbala, 19) rang true, as did her hopes for progressive alliances.



Canaway, Carol. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: Racial Uplift and Black Newspapers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

Cimbala, Paul. “Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Black Abolitionism” in Randall M. Miller, ed., Against the Tide: Women Reformers in American Society (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997):  19-40.

Grasso, Linda M. The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women’s Literature in America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Hancock Harold. “Mary Ann Shadd Cary: Negro Editor, Educator, and Lawyer,” Delaware History 15 (1973): 187-194.

Harper, Judith E. Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia (N.Y.: Routledge, 2003).

Jones, Martha S.  All Bound Up Together:  The Woman Question in African American Public Life, 1830-1900 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Caroline Press, 2007).

Rhodes, Jane. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

Silverman, Jason H. “Shadd, Mary Ann Camberton (Cary),” Dictionary of Canadian Biography XII (1891-1900), accessed 24 January 2014.

Zackodnik, Teresa. “7. Reaching Toward a Red-Black Coalitional Feminism: Anna Julia Cooper’s ‘Women versus the Indian’” in Cheryl Suzack, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman, eds., Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010): 109-125.

Yee, Shirley J. Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992).

[i] At least one prominent Black feminist activist in the period also endorsed Black-Indigenous alliances but Shadd Cary’s views on this possibility remain unknown. See Teresa Zackodnik.

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."