The western world in the era of colonialism was characterized by patriarchal values and the new world acquired these features as well. However, the development of New France was quite distinct due to peculiarities of the gender roles in the North America and France. The need to encourage people to live in new settlements also led to quite a specific attitude towards women in the area. 1 These two factors resulted in the development of the society where women enjoyed a wide range of rights and were rather empowered. Nevertheless, even this empowerment was limited and had the other ‘darker’ side. Women were confined to unpaid domestic labor, sexual abuse, domestic violence and so on.2 It is necessary to note that various factors affected the way gender roles were distributed in New France. This paper explores the way the gender roles developed in the area with a particular focus on race and class.
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Native Americans and the French Law
Native Americans had the societal order that was very different from the European tradition. Thus, Native American females enjoyed equal rights with men.3 For instance, in the 17th century, Europeans reported that a Native American man could promise something, and if he did not do it, he could simply say that his wife did not want him to do that.4 Apparently, women took the prominent part (and often had equal rights) in the decision-making process. They were respected in the communities as they also participated in the fur-trade. Native American females were often mediators and interpreters between Native Americans and Europeans. Of course, women handled domestic issues. They were also mainly involved in making clothes, preparing food (including preparing supplies for winter).
As far as French women of that period were concerned, they enjoyed few rights. However, they were still more empowered than, for instance, British women. Thus, the Catholic Church propagated patriarchal values. Females did not take any part in the political as well as social life of the country.5 Those pertaining to the higher and privileged classes could have salons inviting different people (mainly people involved in art or charity). They were also involved in charity activities. However, the major role of a female irrespective of her class was domestic issues. Women brought up children and focused on their households. At the same time, some women rights (mainly concerned with property and dowry) were protected by the law.6 Thus, the woman could keep the dowry or any property she had prior to her marriage in the case of divorce.
The New Order in the New World
Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities of Females
Evidently, when Europeans came to the New World, they started spreading their ways and New France could be no exception. It was especially true for religious matters. Catholic priests tried to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, and First Nations women were highly resistant to this conversion.7 Their position can be easily understood as they knew that they would lose their freedom and their authority in the new world order. This is what happened in a few decades as the new society became highly patriarchal.8
It is necessary to add that irrespective of religious canons and social taboos, indigenous females earned some authority in the new world. Females often became settlers’ wives as it was common for New France when native people gave their daughters to male settlers to set right relationships for trade. Remarkably, men often valued their native wives who could live in the harsh environment of the new settlements. These women could make good clothes and footwear, they could take care of the household, and they could be interpreters and mediators in the fur-trade.9 However, men still preferred European females and it was common for a man to abandon his ‘country’ wife when he returned to Europe. This practice led to the development of the so-called “turning off”, which consisted in the tradition to place such a wife to another male who would take care of her.10
As has been mentioned above, there was particular bias (as well as various taboos) since First Nation females were seen as savages and inferior to Europeans. As a result, European women were encouraged to come to the New World. Some of the first females who came to New France were quite well-off wives of traders and officers or their daughters. These women were respected, and they occupied a privileged position in the new society. Wives handled their households and their children’s upbringing. However, they could also launch some clubs or meetings. They were often involved in missionary and later charitable work. They were often Catholic nuns who created new orders or joined existing ones.11 These females worked (and often opened) hospitals, schools, orphanages, and so on.
The French government’s desire to encourage people to live in New France also resulted in the appearance of the so-called ‘filles du roi’ (‘daughters if the king’). Those were women who received a particular sum of money (a kind of dowry) to go to the new world and create a family. The daughters of the king were to find a husband within 15 days, but this period often extended to several months as women tried to find the most appropriate candidate.12 It is noteworthy that these were often females coming from poor families (who did not have dowries) and orphans. Of course, they could not have a bright future in France, but they had a chance in the New World. These women had a privileged status in New France as there was a high demand for wives.
As far as responsibilities of the wife in New France, they were quite diverse. Clearly, females handled their households. They also made and mended clothes. Apart from that, they helped their husbands to gather the harvest. When their husbands were away, women took up their responsibilities that could extend to running the family business. In such periods, they were the decision-makers. Therefore, it is possible to state that women had quite many rights in New France, and many of them could be seen as a privileged class.
As for their lifestyles, they tried to live the lives they used to (or wanted to) have in Europe. They attempted to make their dwellings similar to European ones.13 The fashion was also European (French to be more precise). Women looked at newcomers, females of higher classes or just followed the trends they saw in magazines. This can be explained by the desire to feel at home in the new (and rather hostile) world. Women’s attention to fashion in clothes, households can also be explained by the lack of power in other spheres of their lives.
The Other Side of Females’ Lives
Nonetheless, there was the other side of women’s existence in New France. This side was characterized by abuse, extensive labor and exclusion from the social life of the community. Of course, class played the central role in the life of the woman in pre-confederation times.
For instance, First Nations women were often victims of sexual abuse.14 As has been mentioned above, indigenous women were seen as inferior and, hence, it was acceptable to treat them in a way considered inappropriate with European females. It is noteworthy that this image developed during the first years of colonization. For example, the famous discoverer, Vespucci, wrote that indigenous women were driven by lust and became prostitutes themselves.15 Clearly, the colonist distorted the truth as European men sexually abused females who later could be forced into prostitution proper. Poverty and complete discrimination of First Nations women also forced many girls to become prostitutes in the 17th century.
Apart from the fact that Native American women were often raped, and they were often given to European men as “sexual servants”.16 Even when First Nations females became country wives, they were often victims of domestic violence. It is also necessary to add that such marriages could be regarded as a more decent type of prostitution. As has been mentioned above, country wives could be abandoned when their husband returned to Europe. Of course, these women’s lives were not easy as they often had children and had to take care of them. Sometimes these females found other European men, hence, they entered a new relationship, but often they had to return to their communities. The abandoned First Nations women did not have any rights to keep the property. Basically, they totally depended on the decision of their European husbands.
It is noteworthy that the position of European women also had a darker side. This is especially true for the daughters of the king. Even though they were a privileged class, due to the scarcity of women during the first decades of colonization, they often became victims of different types of abuse. Domestic violence was still present in families in New France. Females who came from Europe sometimes became prostitutes due to a variety of reasons. Poverty and inability to find a husband were two major reasons for that.
As has been mentioned above, women were often left alone in their houses while men went hunting or trading. They had to take care of their children, households as well as fields.17 Those living on the frontier were even in a more difficult situation as they could be attacked by wild animals, gangs or indigenous people. Thus, it is possible to note that the price for the ability to make decisions was quite high.
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Of course, women who came from wealthy families rarely faced such issues. They had families. They were respected. Nonetheless, they were almost entirely excluded from the social life of the community. They were not involved in the decision-making process. They stayed out of the political and economic spheres. As for activities within the society, these women took up roles of nuns and could have some power.18 Of course, this was the limit for females.
It is important to add that when New France was under the British rule, things became even worse for women. The British law was not as liberal when it came to the protection of females’ right. Under the British rule, women became totally dependent on men. Of course, women were still involved in charity work, but this was the limit for them. Only in the 19th century, the struggle for their rights started, and it became successful in the 20th century.
On balance, it is possible to note that females’ lives were not comfortable in New France. They played a meaningful part in the social life of their communities, but this role was steadily shrinking. Indigenous women had equal rights with men in their communities, but they had to submit to a European husband when they created families. The major social activity for women in New France was charity work and females achieved a lot in this sphere. They opened hospitals and schools orphanages and shelters for unwed women.
Therefore, the role women played in the development of the region as well as the Canadian society cannot be overestimated. Education and healthcare developed in terms of the values spread by those women. New Nations women helped immensely, and Europeans were able to colonize new territories due to their country wives’ knowledge and skills. Of course, the Canadian culture developed and embraced the mix of European and indigenous values.
At present, Canadian women are empowered, and they play a significant role in all spheres of the Canadian society. It is possible to note that this is partially due to the struggle of women as well as the values developed during the first decades of colonization.
Farley, Melissa, and Jacqueline Lynne. “Prostitution in Vancouver: Pimping Women and the Colnization of First Nations.” In Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, edited by Rebecca Whisnant and Christine Stark, 106-131. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2004.
Henderson, Jennifer Anne. Settler Feminism and Race Making in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003.
Nyholm, Christine Terese. “Obstinate Nuns, Industrious Wives, and Independent Widows: Women and Power in New France, 1689-1730.” The UCI Undergraduate Research Journal (2015): 61-71. Web.
Paluszkiewicz-Misiaczek, Magdalena. “From Strength to Weakness – Changing Position of Women in Societies of New France and British North America.” Presentation at the 3rd Congress of Polish Association for Canadian Studies & 3rd International Conference of Central European Canadianists, 2004.
Shoemaker, Nancy. “Kateri Tekakwitha’s Tortuous Path to Sainthood.” In In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada, edited by Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend, 93-117. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
Woodworth-Ney, Laura. Women in the American West. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008.
- Magdalena Paluszkiewicz-Misiaczek, “From Strength to Weakness – Changing Position of Women in Societies of New France and British North America,” (presentation, 3rd Congress of Polish Association for Canadian Studies & 3rd International Conference of Central European Canadianists, 2004), 382.
- Jennifer Anne Henderson, Settler Feminism and Race Making in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003), 99.
- Magdalena Paluszkiewicz-Misiaczek, “From Strength to Weakness – Changing Position of Women in Societies of New France and British North America,” 378.
- Christine Terese Nyholm, “Obstinate Nuns, Industrious Wives, and Independent Widows: Women and Power in New France, 1689-1730,” The UCI Undergraduate Research Journal (2015): 65, Web.
- Magdalena Paluszkiewicz-Misiaczek, “From Strength to Weakness – Changing Position of Women in Societies of New France and British North America,” 380.
- Christine Terese Nyholm, “Obstinate Nuns, Industrious Wives, and Independent Widows: Women and Power in New France, 1689-1730,” 69.
- Nancy Shoemaker, “Kateri Tekakwitha’s Tortuous Path to Sainthood,” in In the Days of Our Grandmothers: A Reader in Aboriginal Women’s History in Canada, ed. Mary-Ellen Kelm and Lorna Townsend (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 93.
- Jennifer Anne Henderson, Settler Feminism and Race Making in Canada, 96.
- Magdalena Paluszkiewicz-Misiaczek, “From Strength to Weakness – Changing Position of Women in Societies of New France and British North America,” 379.
- Laura Woodworth-Ney, Women in the American West (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008), 118.
- Magdalena Paluszkiewicz-Misiaczek, “From Strength to Weakness – Changing Position of Women in Societies of New France and British North America,” 382.
- Laura Woodworth-Ney, Women in the American West (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008), 119.
- Melissa Farley and Jacqueline Lynne, “Prostitution in Vancouver: Pimping Women and the Colnization of First Nations,” in Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, ed. Rebecca Whisnant and Christine Stark (North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2004), 111.
- Magdalena Paluszkiewicz-Misiaczek, “From Strength to Weakness – Changing Position of Women in Societies of New France and British North America,” 377.
- Laura Woodworth-Ney, Women in the American West, 119.