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Making a claim on the public sphere: Toronto women’s anti-slavery activism, 1851-1854 Leroux, Karen


This essay reconstructs the unexplored history of a group of women who claimed a place for themselves in the male-dominated public sphere of Toronto in the early 1850s. The history of these women, who took a public stand on the issues of slavery, abolition and the fugitives escaping to Canada, does not fit seamlessly into the history of the struggle for women's rights nor the history of women's philanthropy. While the anti-slavery women engaged in some of the same activities as these better-known subjects of women's history, they brought a distinctive set of social and political concerns to their activism. Troubled by the influx of destitute fugitive slaves arriving in Canada from the United States, the potential extension of slavery on the North American continent, and the implications these developments could have for the free Christian nation they were building in Canada, these women took advantage of the public sphere to voice and act on their concerns about the moral progress of society, especially in their city. They constructed a distinctly feminine political culture that represented themselves and their activities as conforming to the canons of femininity and domesticity, while it enabled the women to secure access and influence for themselves - albeit limited access and influence - in the public sphere. With aspirations to influence public opinion, but without formal positions of authority in the public sphere, these women called upon the moral authority that nineteenth century society ascribed to women to underwrite their public activities. Feminine moral authority affirmed the righteousness of the values and beliefs that underlay their public activities, and it justified their attempts to persuade others to espouse similar beliefs. It was the foundation upon which these women tried to build a collective political culture and speak on behalf of all Canadian women in the public sphere. Construed as gender-specific, this moral authority rested, however, not only on the distinction of gender, but also on a combination of social attributes and cultural distinctions that included the distinction of race. While there is no doubt that positions of authority in the public sphere of mid-nineteenth century Toronto were dominated by white men, the inroads the women achieved and the roadblocks they confronted suggest that the public sphere was undergoing considerable change in the early 1850s. To be sure, their attempts to influence the formation of public opinion were indicative of larger social and political changes underway in Canadian society — changes that historians have only begun to consider.

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