New France: Les femmes favorisees

Jan Noel
You constantly behold, with renewed astonishment, women in the very depths of indigence and want, perfectly instructed in their religion, ignorant of nothing that they should know to employ themselves usefully in their families and who, by their manners, their manner of expressing themselves and their politeness, are not inferior to the most carefully educated among us. 1 Les femmes I'emportent sur les hommes par la beaute, la vivacite, la gaite [sic] et l'enjouement; elles sont coquettes et
more » ... antes, preferent les Europeens aux gens du pays. Les manieres douces et polies sont communes, meme dans les campagnes. 2 ... les femmes y sont fort aimables, mais extremement fieres. 3. .. elles sont spirituelles, ce qui leur don-ne de la superiority sur les hommes dans presque tous les etats. 4 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. Even an unsympathetic observer of colonial society, such as the French military officer Franquet, who visited New France in 1752-53, admitted that its women "I'emportent sur les hommes pour l'esprit, generalement elles en ont toutes beaucoup, parlant un francais epure, n'ont pas le moindre accent, aiment aussi la parure, sont jolies, genereuses et meme manierees." 5 He notes, albeit with disapproval, that women very commonly aspired to stations above those to which they were born. 6 The Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm, who deplored the inadequate housekeeping of Canadian women, nevertheless admired their refinement. 7 Those for whom history is an exercise in statistics have taught us caution in accepting the accounts of travellers, which are often highly subjective. However the consensus (par-ticularly that of seasoned observers such as Charlevoix and Kalm) on the superior education and wit of women in New France suggests that their views are founded on something more than natural male proclivity towards la difference. Moreover, historians' accounts of society in New France offer ample evidence that women did indeed enjoy an exceptionally privileged position in that colony. The position was so privileged, in fact, that it contrasts favourably not only with that of their contemporaries in France and in New England, but probably also with twentieth-century Canadian women as far as en-trepreneurial activity is concerned.