In the 17th and 18th century, France claimed and controlled vast regions in North America. For instance, according to Barker, approximately 70,000 French speaking nationality based in what is currently the province of Quebec kept more than 1,000,000 British subjects confined to the Atlantic seaside from Florida to Maine.1 France also claimed more than 15 states in the current United States including the State of Michigan. France is a major part of the North American history as it is central to the struggle for control of land and other resources by France, Britain, and Native Americans, which eventually led to one of the greatest wars in North America. Despite the vast knowledge that exists about New France, very little information is available on everyday lives of people, especially women.
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Native Women in New France
Native women lived mainly along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes river system and had been North American inhabitants of North America for thousands of years before the French and Britain explorers set foot on the continent as Lozanski confirms.2 The lifestyle of many Native American women is not well known although unlike their European counterparts, they had more independence in the society. In addition to the normal child bearing and household economic practices, they had political power and participated in electing village and tribal leaders.
European Women in New France
The lives of European and Native American women were shaped by the legal, cultural, and religious values that the society of the time held. It is common for people to view the lives of French women in New France as replicas of their counterparts in Old France. However, as Dawdy asserts, such an argument is far from the truth and it is worth noting that although the French women in New France borrowed from their lifestyle from France, they had unique lifestyle behaviors and concepts that made them unique and different from their counterparts back in Europe.3 For example, Brazeau says that women in New France were fewer and that they were married at an early age as compared to those in Europe.4
Further, because of their fewer numbers, women in New France acquired a higher status and level of importance than in France. In the Old France, women were required to join religious orders where they would tend to the sick and provide education services. However, since women were fewer in New France, women especially nun were vital individuals in the education of the locals and other migrants and hence were more involved in community activities that in France since their services were more needed in the new territory. Women were also involved in providing nursing services in hospitals that were established in New France.
Needle Arts were an important part of defining a woman in New France. Regardless of the class that a woman belonged to, she was required to master sewing and needle arts. Although many readymade garments were ordered from Europe and cities such as Montreal and Quebec, Rude claims that the items required further work such as fitting and finishing to the specifications of each individual.5 It was the role of women to undertake the roles of fitting and finishing the garments into clothes required by people. Women made household linens, children’s clothing, and undergarments and further, embellished the clothing with embroidery, quilting, and beading.6
Since clothes were very expensive, women were expected to repair torn clothes for continued use. Clothes were also re-made to reflect the latest trends in fashion and hence the skills were very essential for women.
Women were also required to have weaving skills although British and French governments restricted the development of commercial weaving in the New World. As such, nearly all fabrics to New France were imported from Europe. However, women were allowed to weave at home although on a limited basis. Some of the fabrics that women in New France knit included yarn hats, stockings, and mitts. They then braided such fabrics into finger-women sashes and garters that were specific to the requirements of the New France and Native American residents.
Sewing was also another important needlework that women in New France were required to have. Women learned the sewing skills at a very young age from simple sewing activities such as making hemming pillowcases and sheets. Later, they would learn complex skills such as embroidery, quilting, and lace making as White observes.7 Tools such as needles, thimbles, scissors, and beads have been found by archaeologists, which prove sewing as part of the normal lifestyle of the women in New France.
Clothing and Dressing of Women in New France
Clothing and dressing are an important part of people’s daily life in any society. As Hollifield and Ross assert, it is important to review the dressing and clothing trends of the time as part of the lifestyle of New France women at the time.8 Women in New France, just like their counterparts in Europe, wore similar basic garments. On Sundays, women in New France strived to dress as fashionable as they could as they attended church and other related roles on the important day. The church at the time was against immodest and expensive clothing that were beyond the means and status of women. Short skirts and jackets were common among New France women as compared to Old France women.
Another important part of women clothing and dressing in New France was Caps and Hats. For example, a coiffe (cap) was put on by a woman covering her hair at all times unless the hair was well styled. The coiffe was majorly worn while indoors. On the other hand, when outdoor, women wore a wide-brimmed to keep the sun’s rays from their faces as Johnson reveals.9
Women wore simple chemise mainly made of linen. The chemise was used as an undergarment as well as a nightgown. Over the chemise, the women wore at least two petticoats, tied around the waist. The addition of whalebone stays to jackets or gowns allowed the dresses to have a rounded fashionable shape. At home, women would wear quilted vest or jumps as opposed to stays. Another major dressing style of the time was the use of pockets that were tied to the waist as opposed to being sewn into a cloth. Around the shoulders, Berlin reveals how women were required to wear fichu, which was tucked at the front of the gown.10
The shoes that the women wore were made of fine leather or brocade over thigh high stockings. Others wore moccasins or wooden shoes while at work. Sometimes, Native American women went barefoot. Lastly, women wore various adornments such as necklaces, fingerings, crosses on ribbons around their necks, medallions among others.
Cooking in New France
Just like in France, cooking was the role of women in New France. The open Hearth cooking was the most common method of cooking where meals were prepared over a fire or hot coals. However, the fireplaces were varied in terms of how they were quipped and/or the kind of hardware that was used in the cooking process.11 Most fireplaces did not have dampers while others had a “crane” to move the pots near or away from fire or coals.12 Cast iron oven with Dutch origin was in baking. Other women used brick or mud oven that was located outside houses for baking.
Music, Dance, and Other Leisure Activities
Music was an integral part of women’s lifestyle in New France and was thus included one of the areas of education in the 18th century. Women were encouraged to learn string instruments and vocal music as opposed to wind instruments that women were discouraged from learning. Some of the instruments that were common for women were violins, fiddles, and guitars. Families with financial resources would afford to buy harpsichord for their daughters.
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Dancing was a very popular leisure time activity among the people of New France. Women as well as men were keen on learning the latest dance moves from Europe. Indeed, Dawdy confirms how it was very common for rich people to hire dancing masters to train them and their families the perfect dance steps.13 Other people acquired books that provided information on the latest dance moves and how to perform them. The love for dancing was evident in the fact that priests tried to prevail over local population to abandon dancing to no avail. In most areas such as Fort Michilimackinac, dances were held weekly.
Lastly, other activities that women were involved during leisure time were various games. Archaeologists from Fort St. Joseph have recovered game pieces made of bone and other materials. Card games were very popular and were often accompanied by drinking and gambling when done in fur trade posts.
Education and Literacy
Education of women was very important among the French women and thus was extended to women in New France. For instance, in 1639, three Ursuline nuns from France arrived in Quebec were they established a school to educate Native and French girls. The nuns led by Mother Marie de I’Incarnation composed a dictionaries, grammar, and books that contained Christian doctrine in the Native languages. By 1731, twelve schools provided education to the girls of New France.14
Literacy rates were very low in New France although there were some people who possessed libraries in Detroit and Michilimackinac. Literate women and other people in the society were very important and were used to produce letters to aid communication between New France and France. Further, they were used to write correspondence for business purposes. Most importantly, education of women allowed the spread of Christianity in New France.
The Role of Women in Business and Peacekeeping
Women served as “soothers” or resident-American and European civilization peacekeepers who relayed communication and/or bargained on behalf of their respective societies. They were involved in the transformation and delivery of messages to discuss about tranquility and to establish discreet concords between the two societies. Women in New France were heavily used in the trade between the two communities.15
For instance, one of the most famous women was Madame Montour, who was of Native and European descent and was a fur trade era translator and a diplomat. She was multilingual and this allowed her to serve as a translator in Michigan. She is famously remembered for serving as an interpreter for the New York governor, Robert Hunter, from 1709-1719. She was evident the most visible Native American Woman in colonial New York. It is thus evident that women played an important role in New France.
Women and Slavery in New France
Evidence shows that there were female slaves and servants in New France. There were approximately 1100 slaves both male and female, who were present in New France. Most of the slaves at 55% were Indians who were captured by natives and other allies of the colony and sold to the French.16 Female African slaves served as house helps in wealthier homes in Montreal and Quebec. Young women in New France also worked as servants where they were contracted to work by families where the only pay was a room and board. Such an arrangement allowed the families were the servants came from to save on the food and resources that they would they would have used on their daughters.17 Further, it allowed locals to acquire education if they were lucky because of association of better-off members.
Old France influenced the lifestyle of women in New France although it had some differences. Some of the various areas of lifestyle that defined women in New France included their roles at home such as cooking and needle arts. Women were also very important in trade and diplomacy. Further, they were learned since education was encouraged for girls in New France. However, some of them served as slaves. As such, the lifestyle of women in New France was diverse and included both French and Native American influences.
Barker, Adam. “The contemporary reality of Canadian imperialism: Settler colonialism and the hybrid colonial state.” The American Indian Quarterly 33, no. 3(2009): 325-351.
Berlin, Ira. Many thousands gone: The first two centuries of slavery in North America. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Brazeau, Brian. Writing a New France, 1604-1632: empire and early modern French identity. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2009.
Dawdy, Shannon. Building the devil’s empire: French colonial New Orleans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Hollifield, James, and George Ross. Searching for the new France. London, UK: Routledge, 2013.
Johnson, Julie. Satire in colonial Spanish America: turning the New World upside down. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014.
Lozanski, Kristin. “Memory and the impossibility of whiteness in colonial Canada.” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2(2007): 223-225.
Rude, George. The crowd in history: A study of popular disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848. London, UK: Royal College of General Practitioners, 2014.
White, Richard. It’s your misfortune and none of my own: A new history of the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.
- Adam Barker, “The contemporary reality of Canadian imperialism: Settler colonialism and the hybrid colonial state,” The American Indian Quarterly 33, no. 3 (2009): 325
- Kristin Lozanski, “Memory and the impossibility of whiteness in colonial Canada,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007): 223.
- Shannon Dawdy, Building the devil’s empire: French colonial New Orleans (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 38.
- Brian Brazeau, Writing a new France, 1604-1632: empire and early modern French identity (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009), 3.
- George Rude, The crowd in history: A study of popular disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848 (London, UK: Royal College of General Practitioners, 2014), 16.
- Barker, 327.
- Richard White, It’s your misfortune and none of my own: A new history of the American West (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), 9.
- James Hollifield and George Ross, Searching for the new France (London, UK: Routledge, 2013), 46.
- Julie Johnson, Satire in colonial Spanish America: turning the New World upside down (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014), 17.
- Ira Berlin, Many thousands gone: The first two centuries of slavery in North America (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 23.
- Brazeau, 8.
- White, 13.
- Dawdy, 42.
- White, 9.
- Johnson, 23.
- Barker, 336
- Lozanski, 226.