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Women Of Early Canada Essay, Research Paper
The female immigrants of New France were categorized into two
groups. The first group were the religious figures that came to enhance the
religious aspects of new settlers. These women began to arrive in 1639 and
continued on into the 18th century. The second group were the devotes and
the filles du roi, brought over to marry the settlers and increase the population
of the newly developing nation. They arrived in New France between 1663
to 1673. The lives of these women differed greatly to that of the women in
the old country. It is said that the women in New France had many privileges
that didn’t exist in Old France. Jan Noel’s article, “New France: Les Femmes
Favorisees” and Jacques Mathieu’s article, “New France: The French in
North America, XVI-XVIIITH Century,” discuss the role of women in New
France and how privileged their lives were.
“Many a man, observing the women of New France, was struck by the
advantages they possessed in education, cultivation and that quality called
esprit or wit.”1 Historians have found documents that describe the way
women in New France were seen by men of Old France. “A young woman
had lost her understanding and reason because she had given herself for
reading and writing, and written many books,” Winthrop said, “If she had
kept her place and had attended to household affairs, or such things as
belongs to women; and not gone out of her way, and calling to meddle in such
things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her
wits, and might have improved them usefully and honourably in the place
God had sent her.”2 This quote found in John Withrop’s journal, often is used
to encapsulate the male attitude toward women in New France. When the
men of France came to New France as visitors or traders, they were quite
uncomfortable and openly disapproved of the women and their role in society.
Women in New France were involved in all aspects of the colony.
They were better educated than the general public, involved in positions of
politics, and held jobs outside of the home. The women in New France
diversified their lives by expanding the roles they took on, but at the same
time, did not neglect their traditional position in the family. “… they (the
women in New France) almost certainly-being better educated than their
French sisters took up the farmwives customary role of keeping accounts and
managing purchases and sales.”3 Women helped in the fields and managed
the farms, but they also had a role in business operations.4 These jobs were
more common than others and women played a key role in these occupations.
Other woman-dominated jobs that were common in New France, but
uncommon in Old France included: fur traders, canoe manufacturers(to carry
the furs), and trading post holders, iron-forging, tile-making, sturgeon-fishing,
brick-making, sealing and contract building. Women were also involved in
retail sales and real estate. Women in New France thrived in the
enterpreneuring field, which was directly related to the shortage of
entrepreneurial talent in New France. Agathe de St. Pere established the
textile industry in Canada, after colonial administrators had tried repeatedly
but did not succeed.5 Women also played a big part in the military, involved
in fighting, building and maintaining the imperial forts and provisioning the
troops. The new privileges the women of New France obtained were the
result of three factors- the ancien regime, the demographic configuration, and
the colonial economy.
Women of the ancien regime were often generalized as not being
relegated to the private, domestic sphere of human activity because that
sphere did not yet exist. They had not yet learned how to separate private
and public life.6 This was mainly due to the fact that single houses were not
yet common and people lived in manor homes. Manor homes were made up
of no more than one long hallway, not allowing any form of privacy. Eating,
sleeping, working, and receiving visitors were all done in the same room. All
extended family lived together with their servants, clerics, and apprentices.
In public life everything was very open, people didn’t control their bodily
functions, close their bedroom doors, or care about what they did in public.
The reasoning behind this comfort was that people of society saw themselves
as a group rather than individuals. This idea of a “comfortable” society
helped women in New France adapt to their surroundings allowing them to
prosper in different areas other than the household.
Women in New France were pressured into marriage more so than in
Old France, but they were granted special laws to protect their rights as
women. The Coutume de Paris, a French legal system, protected the rights of
family members. Since the women often brought money and land into a
marriage, handing it over to their husband to care for, they(the women)
needed reassurance that their property would be transferred back to them in
case the marriage didn’t survive. “Louise Dechene, after examining the
operation of the marriage and inheritance system, concluded that the
Canadian application of the law was generous and egalitarian.”7
“Demography favoured the women of New France in two ways. First,
the women who went there were a highly select group of immigrants.
Secondly, women were in short supply in the early years of the colony’s
development, a situation that worked in their favour.”8 The women that came
to New France were either there to spread religion or increase the population.
The nuns, a group of extremely well-born, well-endowed and highly
dedicated religious figures were the first to arrive in the New World. The
second group were the filles du roi, who were specifically sent to New France
to marry the settlers. The majority of the women came from the north of
France, where they were more educated, enjoyed fuller legal rights, and were
more involved in commerce. When the women arrived in New France, they
constituted a small percentage of the population and were therefore very
valued.9 “Comely or homely, strong or weak, any young woman was too
valuable to be overlooked, and most could find a man with prospects.”10
Women also had many other privileges, that were directly related to
their small numbers. For example, in New France witchcraft trials weren’t
practised, while other European women were continually persecuted and
burnt at the stake. Women were also given much lighter sentences for crimes
committed. Adultery was a very serious matter and wasn’t looked lightly
upon, yet women were often given lesser punishments then their male
counterparts. “Marguerite Leboeuf, charged with adultery in 1667. The
charge was dismissed when her husband pleaded on her behalf.”11 Another
major privilege women in New France held were the opportunity for
increased wages. The women of New France made more money than the
men. For example, a male college professor would make about 400 livres,
and a female principal would make 500 livres.12 In general, women in New
France had many advantages over both the men and women of France.
Some historians argue that the women of New France weren’t really
that privileged and they had the same rights as the women in France. “In the
legal system, women enjoyed only certain protections specified in the law or
marriage agreements.”13 Jacques Mathieu argues that the women of New
France were more of a commodity than anything else. The daughters of
wealthy merchants were often married off to men of high social status, in the
hopes that the husbands would share their wealth with the woman’s family.
Mathieu’s article doesn’t deny or agree with the assertion of women being
privileged in New France. Instead, he discusses the general social structuring
of society, without focusing on women. Mathieu’s article is very general and
filled with blaring facts, but he doesn’t fully discuss the role of women as a
” Historians’ accounts of society in New France offer ample evidence
that women did indeed enjoy an exceptionally privileged position in that
colony.” 14 It is these privileges that helped to shape not only the women of
New France, but also a variety of aspects of colonial life. Due to the factors
of demography, colonial economy, and the ancien regime, for the first time
women were given opportunities to expand their positions, and find a more
rewarding place in society.
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