BY Stephen Nartey, 12:00pm March 21, 2023,

How Mary Ann Shadd used her law degree and newspaper to fight for women’s rights

Mary Ann Shadd/Photo credit: Unique Coloring

Mary Ann Shadd Cary is considered one of the towering feminists of the 19th century. She defined her own narrative of what the contemporary woman should be, challenged those who were bent on asserting the status quo, and won with her definition; it was non-negotiable.

She was born on October 9, 1823, in Wilmington, Delaware, as a freeborn in an era where the system disadvantaged African Americans. Though many blacks were free in Delaware, there was limited access to education for their children. As a result of this, Mary Ann’s parents relocated to West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1833 to provide an enabling environment for their daughter and enable her to pursue her dreams. She was enrolled in a Quaker boarding school until she turned 16, and took on teaching jobs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York City when she graduated.

She was committed to making education accessible for black children, and when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, she saw it as an opportunity to pursue this agenda. Mary Ann relocated to Windsor, Canada, to live among the expatriate community of African Americans, and began teaching at integrated schools, producing her educational materials such as the pamphlet Notes of Canada West.

She wanted many African Americans to move to the North, where she enjoyed unlimited opportunities, and was able to establish her own weekly newspaper, the Provincial Freeman in Chatham, a small city east of Windsor, in March 1853 to fight the systemic barriers. She handled the reporting, editing, and selling of ads and subscriptions for the newspaper while working as a teacher, according to the library of congress. She was also a gifted orator, and honored speaking engagements on issues centering on racial segregation and discrimination. In 1855, she wooed a crowd at the Colored National Convention in Philadelphia.

Mary Ann married Thomas Cary, who operated a number of barbershops in Toronto, and had two children. He however died in 1860, leaving Mary Ann as a single mother; a tragedy which occurred when her newspaper business was crawling. Her life, however, took a different twist during the Civil War when the U.S. Army appointed her as a recruiting officer, making her the first black woman to be given that position. She was influential in recruiting African Americans in Indiana.

When she was discharged, she applied to Howard University to offer law, and graduated in 1870, making her the first black woman to get a law degree in the United States. She honed this knowledge to assist women’s rights groups and was part of 600 citizens who endorsed a petition to the House Judiciary Committee, demanding for women’s right to vote.

Mary Ann was also a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association and founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in the 1880s. She used her knowledge of the law to help the black community deal with legal issues and left a legacy as a torchbearer for women’s rights and equality for African Americans. She passed away in June 1893.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 21, 2023


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