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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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