This article demonstrates how both the agency of women of colour and a particular set of ideas about femininity and maternity played an important part in shaping the ending of slavery in the city of Rio de Janeiro. It does so through the prism of untapped municipal documentation, exploring initiatives taken by the city council both to abolish slavery by emancipating mainly women and to shape the city's first generation of fully free working families by founding schools and charitable institutions. In enacting these measures, councillors found themselves debating not only the meanings of freedom, but the meanings of ex-slave womanhood. Their discussions reflected both the long-term development of ‘free womb logic’ in Brazilian slavery and emancipation, and tendencies by the 1880s abolitionist movement to make emotive, ‘feminised’ appeals for elite women to sympathise with enslaved mothers. The article explores how women of colour used elite discourses about freedom, maternity and womanhood in order to achieve freedom, but also contested and reshaped them as they sought to bring their own lived meanings to freedom.