Speech to Judiciary Committee re: The Rights of Women, (January 1872) Washington, D.C.


Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born a free African American on October 9th, 1823 in Wilmington, Delaware.1 At the age of ten, her family moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania so Shadd Cary and her siblings could receive an education, a right denied to them in Delaware on account of their race.2 Throughout her childhood, Shadd Cary’s father, Abraham Shadd, was a “favorably known” abolitionist who rendered “valuable service to the ‘underground railroad’” by using their home as a station on enslaved people’s journey for freedom.3 This experience, along with her father’s willingness to take Shadd Cary to antislavery meetings, contributed to her adoption of powerful abolitionist views, including the need for “black education, thrift, and hard work” to achieve racial parity.4

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 threatened Shadd Cary’s freedom, along with the freedom of all African Americans living in the free states. As a result, Shadd Cary and her brother, Isaac D. Shadd, emigrated to Canada West (modern day Ontario), where she challenged gender conventions and confronted “boundaries of race, [and] gender” time and again.5 One of these first challenges to gender conventions was her authorship and publication of A Plea for Emigration; Or, Notes on Canada West. Shadd Cary’s pamphlet circulated widely in the United States with the goal of enticing Black emigrants to Canada by detailing its agricultural promises, educational opportunities, and political freedoms.6 Henry Bibb, a fellow Black emigrant to Canada, denounced this pamphlet as “an irrelevant publication” that “‘added nothing to her credit as a lady.’”7 Bibb’s statement was one of many retaliatory remarks made against Shadd Cary on account of her gender.

While in Canada, Shadd Cary became the first Black female newspaper editor in North America with the publication of The Provincial Freeman in 1853.8 At first, Shadd Cary kept her gender a secret, fearing it would undermine her activism as it had when she published A Plea for Emigration. When her gender was ultimately revealed, she faced “public opposition to a newspaper run exclusively by women.”9 Shadd Cary put a few men in leadership roles to appease critics, but new subscriptions never materialized and the newspaper shutdown in the late 1850s. Despite the ultimate failure of The Provincial Freeman, the newspaper allowed Shadd Cary to express her early support for women’s rights by touting the accomplishments of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an African American lecturer on women’s suffrage.10

With the newspaper’s failure and the beginning of the American Civil War, Shadd Cary became a Union Army recruiter in the Fall of 1863 and later moved to Washington D.C.11 There, she taught and served as the principal for three schools and eventually earned a law degree from Howard University.12 Residing in the nation’s capital in the aftermath of the abolition struggle, Shadd Cary fully embraced the fight for women’s suffrage, believing the woman’s sphere included anything “a woman wanted to pursue.”13

Shadd Cary soon became a member of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Shadd Cary adamantly promoted the NWSA, and the women involved, claiming no organization or city (referring to D.C.) possessed “workers in the cause of suffrage . . . of more executive ability.”14 Scholars have expressed confusion at Shadd Cary’s decision to join this organization due to its racist tendencies and general disinterest in Black women’s voting rights. Yet, Shadd Cary’s support of the NWSA reflects her commitments to women’s suffrage and racial integration.15

Shadd Cary expanded her suffrage activism into the arena of labor rights as a delegate to the “Colored Men’s Labor Convention” in 1869.16 As a delegate, Shadd Cary addressed the convention on the issue of women’s rights and suffrage that ultimately led to the adoption of a platform “much stronger regarding women’s rights than was that of the White labor unions.”17 Later in 1871, Shadd Cary attempted, and failed, to register to vote and signed an 1874 petition alongside 600 other women advocating for D.C. women to receive suffrage rights.18 Despite the myriad of obstacles that affronted her, Shadd Cary continued to advocate in favor of women’s rights. Indeed, in 1880 she founded the “Colored Women’s Progressive Association” that sought to advance women’s equal rights by expanding Black women’s access to paid work, business ownership, as well as suffrage rights.19 Throughout her fight for equality, Shadd Cary “began to apply the ‘rights arguments’ formulated by white women suffragists to the needs of black women.”20 The “rights arguments” stated that suffrage was a citizenship right and since women were citizens, they consequently had the right to vote.

In January 1874, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee agreed to hear arguments on behalf of women’s suffrage after Representative Benjamin Butler (R-MA) proposed that Congress remove the word “male” from the qualifications for a D.C. voter. This omission would make citizenship the only requirement for suffrage. Notable women flooded the hearing including Susan B. Anthony, Sara J. Spencer, Belva Lockwood, and Frances Ellen Burr to advocate in favor of Representative Butler’s proposal.21 Shadd Cary prepared remarks to explain Black women’s desire for the vote and to ensure their inclusion in any legislative change. She made references to the “rights arguments” by explaining how the 14th and 15th amendments, although “otherwise grand in conception and consequence,” failed mightily by not enfranchising women [2]. She also echoed Representative Butler’s proposal in calling for the removal of “male” from voter qualifications [4]. Shadd Cary evidently wielded the great suffrage arguments of the era to fight for the enfranchisement of Black women alongside white women.

Although widespread evidence suggests Shadd Cary wrote this speech, no hard evidence exists verifying she actually delivered it.22 Despite this uncertainty, Shadd Cary was a well-known woman activist of her time who delivered numerous speeches about suffrage and abolitionism across her historic career. Frederick Douglass remarked that she possessed a “sterling and stirring character” and was “with voice and pen . . . equally able and eloquent.”23 The NWSA similarly recognized her excellence as an activist speaker by inviting her to address the 1878 convention where she claimed Black women would support whichever political party that would allow them their rights as citizens.24

Shadd Cary died of stomach cancer at age 69 in 1893.25



  1. Martha Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, And Insisted On Equality For All (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 73.
  2. Carol B. Conaway, “Racially Integrated Education: The Antebellum Thought of Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Frederick Douglass,” in Life Stories: Exploring Issues in Educational History through Biography, ed. Linda C. Morice (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2014), 4; Carla L. Peterson, “Doers of the Word”: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 98.
  3. “From Mississippi Hon. J. D. Shadd,” New National Era, letter to the editor, April 16, 1874, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn840 26753/1874-04-16/ed-1/seq-1/.
  4. Rinaldo Walcott, “‘Who is She and What is She to You?’: Mary Ann Shadd Cary and the (Im)possibility of Black/Canadian Studies,” Atlantis 24, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2000): 138, https://journals.msvu.ca/index.php/ atlantis/article/view/1598/1359; Jason H. Silverman, “Mary Ann Shadd and the Search for Equality” in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, eds. Leon Litwack and August Meier (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 88.
  5. Shirley J. Yee, “Finding a Place: Mary Ann Shadd Cary and the Dilemmas of Black Migration to Canada, 1850-1870,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 18, no. 3 (1997): 1, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3347171; Walcott, “‘Who is She and What is She to You?,’” 138; Conaway, “Racially Integrated Education,” 5.
  6. Jane Rhodes, “At the Boundaries of Abolitionism, Feminism, and Black Nationalism: The Activism of Mary Ann Shadd Cary,” in Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation, eds. Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Brewer Stewart (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press: 2007), 356; Mary Ann Shadd Cary, A Plea for Emigration; Or, Notes of Canada West in its Moral, Social, and Political Aspect: With Suggestions Respecting Mexico, West Indies, and Vancouver’s Island for the Information of Colored Emigrants (Detroit, MI: George W. Pattison, 1852).
  7. Rhodes, “At the Boundaries of Abolitionism, Feminism, and Black Nationalism,” 357-358.
  8. Walcott, “‘Who is She and What is She to You?,’” 138; “Mrs. Mary A. S. Cary,” New National Era, July 13, 1871, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/sn 84026753/ 1871-07-13/ed-1/.
  9. Rhodes, “At the Boundaries of Abolitionism, Feminism, and Black Nationalism,” 360; Silverman, “Mary Ann Shadd and the Search for Equality,” 93.
  10. Jones, Vanguard, 75-76.
  11. Yee, “Finding a Place,” 11; Silverman, “Mary Ann Shadd and the Search for Equality,” 97.
  12. Yee, “Finding a Place,” 11; Silverman, “Mary Ann Shadd and the Search for Equality,” 97-98; Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1998), 186; S.C. Evans, “Mrs. Mary Ann Shadd Cary,” in Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, ed. Hallie Quinn Brown (Xenia, OH: Aldine Printing House, 1926), 95, https://search.alexanderstreet. com/view/work/ bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C3179861.
  13. Rodger Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 3.
  14. “From District of Columbia,” New National Era, letter to editor, February 5, 1874, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026753/1874 -02-05/ed- 1/seq-1/.
  15. As a teacher in Canada West, Shadd Cary consistently promoted racially-integrated schools, believing that interracial “exposure would guarantee each race’s appreciation of and respect for the other.”  This incredibly controversial view was rather ahead of her time. See: Conaway, “Racially Integrated Education,” 6; Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 193.
  16. Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice, 35.
  17. Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984), 69.
  18. Jones, Vanguard, 118; Yee, “Finding a Place,” 11.
  19. Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 75.
  20. Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 191.
  21. “Woman Suffragists,” Alexandria Gazette, January 21, 1874, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1874-01-21/ed-1/seq-2/.
  22. A series of secondary sources cite Shadd Cary as having testified before the House Judiciary Committee and often quote parts of the speech. However, as biographer Jane Rhodes concludes, the speech was “never recorded in the public transcript.” Ultimately, a few factors call into question whether Shadd Cary delivered this speech at all, including the failure of the Congressional Record to take note of this speech and the lack of reference to her role in the hearings within African American newspapers. See: Jones, Vanguard, 119; Yee, “Finding a Place,” 11; Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice, 35; Silverman, “Mary Ann Shadd and the Search for Equality,” 98; “Mary Ann Shadd (1823-1893),” in Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1992), 1002; Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 194.
  23. “Mrs. Mary A. S. Cary,” New National Era, July 13, 1871.
  24. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 3 (Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1887), 72.
  25. Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 211.