- Private Women and the Public Good: Charity and State Formation in Hamilton, Ontario, 1846–93 by Carmen J. Nielson
In this slim but well-written book, Carmen Nielson, an associate professor of history at Mount Royal University, explores how, in nineteenth-century Ontario, a small group of forty-six women helped shape the ‘‘public sphere’’ through what would become one of Hamilton, Ontario’s most important social welfare institutions, the Ladies Benevolent Society (lbs) and the Hamilton Orphan Asylum (hoa), which were brought together as one association and renamed hoa/lbs in 1852. Drawing on the ‘‘principle of scientific charity’’ (33) the women managed and administered the association in order to address the effects of poverty on economically disadvantaged families and children. Always in a position of precarious funding, this small group of women still exercised their civic duty and participated in the process of state formation. Their participation and engagement was shaped however, not only by their class-based and religious ideology, but also by prevailing notions of masculine ideology that defined the nature of the state.
Drawing particularly on the work of Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Darmstadt & Neuwied, 1962), Nielson argues that the religiously informed child welfare work conducted by the women in these state-sanctioned organizations functioned in complex ways to uphold, rather than upend, the social, political, and economic status quo. It is what Nielson calls the paradox of nineteenth-century women’s charitable work. She notes that this work was seen to be private because it was both voluntary and feminine; at the same time these efforts were maintained by public funds that were influenced and controlled through a small group of powerful, privileged, Protestant men. Some of the exquisite tension that Nielson highlights for readers existed in the gendered and class-based places and spaces that shaped the boundaries between the public and private spheres. The book’s main argument, as Nielson states, is that ‘‘while the complexity and extent of charitable associationalism’s political significance has been underestimated, the challenge that women’s charitable endeavors posed to the ideology of separate spheres has been over estimated’’ (3).
Nielson’s compelling and engaging work is principally a case study, or as Nielson describes it, a ‘‘micro-historical analysis,’’ that is grounded on previously unexplored lbs and hoa records. We learn from Nielson’s introduction that for the entirety of its institutional history, the Association’s activities were recorded in the minutes of monthly and bi-monthly meetings. Nielson also relies on other primary sources such as reports submitted by volunteer members and other visitors who were assigned to [End Page 387] oversee the affairs of the hoa/lbs. In an effort to broaden her evidentiary base, Nielson also draws on published annual reports of the hoa/lbs that presented the Association’s accomplishments, challenges, and financial statements to the general public. The evidence used to ground her argument would suggest a book that details a rich institutional history; but Nielson is not just writing an institutional history, she also makes much larger claims. In particular, Nielson shows how private female volunteerism, in particular its intervention in the lives of working poor families and their children, was related in important ways to the development of the state. In this, she succeeds wonderfully.
In sum, Nielson does an excellent job of using the primary sources and stories from the records; combined with an attractive prose style, this makes for an engaging and fairly accessible book for interested students, academics, or others interested in Ontario’s gendered past. Providing new evidence and fresh insights, Private Women And The Public Good is very clearly written, well-crafted, logically organized and, in my view, makes important and useful contributions to the research literature on gender and the development and formation of the liberal order, along with female volunteer associations in nineteenth-century Ontario.