Quebec Studies

Women in Government: A View From Québec

Quebec Studies (1986), 4, (1), 90–117.

Abstract

WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT: A VIEW FROM QUEBEC Samia I. Spencer In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European travelers were struck by the extent of the knowledge, freedom, and power enjoyed by women in French Canada. Many noted in their letters that wives were more educated than their husbands. At that time in France, England, and New England, the percentage of illiteracy was at least three times higher for women than for men. By contrast, church records and notarized documents indicate that an equal proportion of men and women were able to sign their name in Nouvelle France.' A thorough history of Qubbec reveals the prominent role of its "citoyennes" in the preservation of French culture and heritage in America. Numerous Qubbbcoises such as Marguerite d'Youville, Elisabeth Bbgon, Marie-Thbr2se Baby, Henriette Dessaules, and Julie Bruneau Papineau left invaluable documents--correspondence, diaries, memoirs, etc.-which provide essential information for the study of French life and mentalities in the new world? On the economic and professional levels, the contributions made by women were critical, especially in early colonial times. They shared their husband's work outside the home and concluded business and legal matters on an almost equal footing. Among members of religious orders, many women such as Marie Guyart (1599-1672), Jeanne Mance (1606-1673),and Marguerite Bourgeoys stand as veritable entrepreneurs. While women were leaders in public education, health and charitable organizations, and partners in family business, their contributions to political life and government were less impressive.3 This is undoubtedly because although there were no laws specifically designed to prevent females from writing, working, or conducting business, they were legally deprived of certain civil rights. The purpose of this essay is to briefly review the historical role of women in politics and government and to introduce the brave pioneers who have recently been able to

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Spencer, Samia