- Private Women and the Public Good: Charity and State Formation in Hamilton, Ontario, 1845–93 by Carmen J. Nielson
Carmen J. Nielson’s slim volume provides a welcome contribution to our knowledge of early charitable social services in Ontario through her self-described microhistory of the Hamilton Orphan Asylum and Ladies Benevolent Society (HOA/LBS) in the last half of the nineteenth century. The book’s title is a bit misleading, however. Nielson doesn’t focus very much on the beneficent ladies, nor does she engage with the historical [End Page 548] scholarship on Canadian women’s organizations and charitable endeavours. Instead, she positions her work within the liberal order framework of Jurgen Habermas and Canadian historians Ian McKay and Jeffrey McNairn. The story she tells is that of a private, evangelically inspired charity being increasingly overtaken, regulated, and finally replaced by the public liberal state. As such, the second part of the title is a more accurate description of the contents of the book.
The reason for Nielson’s lack of focus on the women of the LBS is, as she admits, at least in part due to the lack of sources that present their point of view. The annual reports and minutes of meetings of the HOA/ LBS are formulaic and do not reveal much about the internal workings of the organization. She is able to give only very brief biographical information for the most prominent leaders. At least in part because the charity early on compromised their independence by accepting funding from the city of Hamilton, we learn much about the organization through the city council debates of male politicians as well as from visitors and others who inspected and regulated the orphan asylum. These sources provide some very interesting material, however.
When in 1850 the ladies requested a grant from the city for an orphanage building to replace their inadequate rented quarters, a cascade of consequences resulted. The request was initially unsuccessful because Catholic council members objected to their blatant evangelical Protestantism and accused them of snatching the Catholic orphans of unfortunate Irish immigrants and forcibly converting them. This controversy resulted in much local press and no fewer than three special committees to look into the matter, with the council finally narrowly approving the grant. In a laudable display of independence, the LBS turned it down and resorted to private fundraising. However, since they could not own property as married women, they were forced to legally incorporate with a male board of directors. Although most of the time the directors delegated everything to the LBS, later on they became more involved, especially after the organization received some substantial endowments.
Another very interesting theme revealed through the HOA minutes, inspection reports, and letters from visitors was the operation of the orphanage. Run for most of its years by a seemingly devoted, able, and kindly married couple, it received universal praise. Nielson’s discussion of the details of the children’s placement in the orphanage, daily life, adoption, and apprenticeship is fascinating.
During its life as an organization, the HOA/LBS did a truly impressive amount of work, both in the number of children helped by the orphanage, later enlarged to include a separate section for destitute elderly women, and in the visitation of poor homes to bestow financial aid and goods throughout Hamilton. The latter was accomplished by legions of female [End Page 549] volunteers, who imposed their many prejudices in judging the worthiness of their objects of charity but nonetheless were the first in their communities to take on this socially valuable task. Many historians have argued that this work trained middle-class women in public organizing, bringing them out of the private sphere, and ultimately led to claims for women’s political rights. Nielson questions this because of the sometimes intrusive control exercised by men over the HOA/LBS and the challenges presented by their “liberal and patriarchal discourses.” In the end, however, she does not want to adopt an overly pessimistic...