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Last revised:
20 September 2000

How Others Have Viewed French Canadians and Quebec

Quebec Now - Chapter 8 : Womenfolk
By Miriam Chapin

LIKE the children, women in Quebec seem never to have been just persons. They are pawns m the game, ornaments or slaves, means to pleasure, temptations to sin, instruments for the production of children, members of a labour force, but not quite people. Now that they are becoming recognized as people they are making a revolution in Quebec.

The hope of making Canada a French Catholic state has rested on the fecundity of the French Canadian woman. The plan has not worked out, because somewhere along the route that woman discovered she had hands and a brain as well as a womb. The principle of the revanche des berceaux, the revenge of the cradles, was stated in its purest form by the Jesuit Father Lalande in 1918. He described the ideal Canadienne mother as one who took the first son from the cradle to replace him with his younger brother, while telling him that next year a little sister would take his place. The family of fourteen children is the exemplar of the clerical nationalist. He is perplexed and outraged by the change in woman's occupation and status. The average age of marriage for Quebec women has risen to 25, which in itself cuts down the birthrate. Families of two, three and four are common. The trouble seems to . be that if Ma is running a turret lathe or an adding machine, maybe she doesn't want a baby this year, and if she manages to, hang on to her pay envelope, maybe she won't have one.

The doctrine of the revanche was explained more moderately by Paul Sauriol in Le Devoir in 1949. Rejoicing over the fact that for the first time in 1945 there were more births in Canada from French stock than from all others combined, he said: "The real danger would be for us to weary of the constant struggle of a minority, to doubt our future before events like the present immigration. The temptations of a living standard easier than that of a numerous family, the attacks on family and morale waged by our surrounding customs, radio, cinema, journals, could weaken our traditions and our birthrate. We must show our people that our birthrate can assure the defence of our political position."

The fact that women do not as a rule. enjoy pregnancy and childbirth has never been of much concern to men or priests. They hate to admit that in order to, accept gladly the pain ,and drudgery, mothers. must want their children, must see a prospect . of bringing them up in joy. The woman who had to look, forward only to year after year of dreary pregnancies, bringing forth babies of whom a third would die before their first birthdays, could hardly have come gaily or even affectionately to her marriage bed. Once in a while one sees in a Quebec village the proud mother of many sons and daughters, but more often such mothers have been worn out and old at thirty.

Only an agricultural society with free land in plenty can afford to sanction unbridled procreation. The productivity of French Canadian women is a phenomenon attributed to various causes, one being the amount of E and K vitamins in the peasoup which used to make up so large a share of the farm diet. However that may be, the day has gone by when a big family was an asset. There are few lands left for the younger sons, after the older ones are provided for. Now more than half the population lives in towns. Women have long tended the bobbins in the textile mills; now they work in hundreds of factories, in thousands of offices.

Perhaps life in crowded tenements, away from sunlight, itself lessens fecundity. No one knows exactly why countries with high living standards tend to fewer births; contraception alone cannot explain it. In any case the French Canadian who lives in a three room flat at the back of a big immeuble in Verdun no more wants a big family than his Scottish neighbour does. If his wife also works outside their home, her child-bearing lowers the family income as it would not if they were on a farm, where she could rest from hoeing and baking while she nursed the baby. French Canadian women in the city are not isolated; they talk with nonCatholics and they learn to use contraceptives while conveniently forgetting to confess the sin. Or they may simply refuse their husbands their privileges, which does not conduce to happy family life. The parish priest in the city is not aided by local gossip in his supervision to the extent than he is in the village. Not all priests try their best to enforce the rules. A social worker I knew, a Catholic woman, went to consult her director in an Ottawa district. She told him of a woman with ten children, in wretched health. "Can't I send her to a doctor for information," she asked.

The priest answered her brusquely. "What do you ask me for?" he said. "Use your common sense."

The population grows for better reasons than the urge to bear many babies-it grows because there are no longer, as Mr. Sauriol noted, the tens of thousands of little white coffins marching to the cemeteries. It is of course within the range of possibility that without a massive immigration Canada might become a Catholic country-or even with it. The proportion now is about 6 out of 14, including Irish Catholics. But before that happens, if it does, enormous changes toward greater freedom will have taken place within the fold of the Church-and many of the clergy desire them.

The war had a great effect on the position and thinking of women. Married ones who had once held jobs and given them up, or had never worked outside their homes, pushed into munition factories, happy to make good wages for a time. They held responsible posts, checking over shells, operating complicated machinery, spending their money independently, if not always wisely. They sent their children to the few day nurseries the Government was forced to open, left them on the street, or clubbed together with other families, paying one mother to watch over several broods.

That was only an accentuation of the change already going on. For thirty years French Canadian girls have been infiltrating the office world as typists and secretaries. Such employees in Montreal need to be bilingual, and French girls are more apt to have both languages than English ones. The convents had to give business training or lose their pupils. They had always turned out girls good at spelling and penmanship; now they trained such good secretaries that many English-speaking girls enrolled in their courses. The training they gave was never meant to develop initiative. Girls depended on the boss as they had been brought up to depend on father and then husband. But at least they had an alternative to marriage or the convent-or to existence t as the dependent old maid, drudge of the household. If they lived at home, their wages might be engulfed in the family purse, but more and more they learned to hang onto them. And if they married, and marriage failed, they could go back to work. They had a trade.

Under Quebec law, a single woman, maid or widow, has complete control of her own property. A married woman, married in Quebec, who has no marriage contract stipulating her rights, lives in community of property with her husband, and he controls it. Even with a contract, she cannot without his permission dispose of stock or real estate, though she may have her own bank account, and since 1931 she has the right to her own wages. It was a triumph to get that law passed. She cannot be director of a corporation, even of a charity committee if it handles money, without his written consent. Nor can she borrow from a bank. A husband can, however, give his wife a general authorization as a public trader, so. that she can manage her own business. But she must have his signature. Nowadays women do most of the shopping, so lawyers have worked out a theory of tacit authorization, to insure that if a woman gets credit for household goods, her husband will have to pay. No hospital will accept, unless in desperate and unusual circumstances, a wife for an operation without her husband's consent. Her own agreement to pay would not be legally binding. If her child is ill, she has to wait for his father's permission to get him surgical care, or apply for a court order. She may not even apply for a legal separation without a court order, though that is usually given as a routine matter.

The husband is the head of the family in Quebec, no matter how unworthy he may be. In a 1949 case, a woman brought her husband into court on charges of beating her. It turned out she had interfered when he had beaten their daughters, aged 11 and 12, because against his orders she had sent them to stay with a neighbour while she was away at work. Justice Irénée Lagarde dismissed the man's shamefaced plea of guilty, after a doctor said that though the blows were severe they did not endanger life. The judge said, "We must not forget that the father commands. Too many women seem to forget that today. Is it not better that the children should be corrected than to let them see the unhappy spectacle of a mother who revolts and tries to hinder that correction?"

It is only fair to note that most judges in such cases rally chivalrously to the side of the little woman and jail her husband, even when it is evident that he . must have had considerable provocation. But Justice Lagarde was within the law.

Neither divorce nor civil marriage exists within the Province. A husband might get a separation, which does not permit remarriage, on grounds of adultery, but the wife might not utilize those grounds unless he brought his mistress to live under their roof. In practice, this mattered little, since she could get her separation for outrage and grievous insult. Only in 1954 was the law equalized. Many a Catholic woman lives with a man she cannot marry because he is divorced, or because he is married and cannot get a divorce for lack of money or fear of the Church's ban. She can confess and do penance for the sin of concubinage, but marriage is out of the question. Judges take a realistic view of the situations resulting from separations-one woman I knew listened in some indignation while the judge granted her plea, and allowed a special sum to her husband, "pour I'amour."

Non-Catholics in Quebec, and a few rebellious Catholics, apply to Parliament for divorce by private bill, at a cost of some $1,000, far beyond the reach of many. Three or four hundred of these bills are jammed through Commons after a hearing by a Senate Committee. Evidence seems to be based often on the obscene nonsense of hiring a co-respondent whom detectives may find in bed in the same room with the supposed-to-be-erring spouse. Collusion? Never!

Annulments used to be granted with comparative ease. These make the marriage as if it had never been in the eyes of the law, though children of such marriages retain their civil rights, and so do not become suddenly illegitimate. Certain judges were very amenable to such pleas, particularly in marriages between Catholics and those of other creeds. But some time ago, Premier Duplessis, in his role of Attorney-General, ordered that his office be notified so that he might intervene in annulment cases, and now they are much harder to win. Still, if you can discover to your great astonishment that your partner was an atheist or communist when you married, and you never knew it, or was never baptized, or lied about some point like a previous divorce, you can usually get free of the bonds in the course of two or three years.

Girls may marry at twelve, as in four American states, including Maine. A father may give consent to the marriage of a minor child, even though the mother objects, but the reverse is not true. Since children in Quebec may not attend the movies until they are sixteen, a girl could theoretically be the mother of three children before she ever laid eyes on Gregory Peck, by which time she probably wouldn't be interested.

Of course women could change the laws if enough of them wanted to. In every country, women are parted with difficulty from their inferior status. The matriarch, not the young husband, maintains purdah. Education, tradition, fear, possessiveness, hold them more tightly than any law. Taught submissiveness, conventionality, the necessity of getting a husband and then managing him by secretive manoeuvring, they are little concerned with freedom until they themselves are caught in the net of legal restriction or injustice. But the younger women who earn their own living are growing impatient with Quebec laws.

It took years of pressure and hard work by wellto-do and able women to win the provincial franchise in 1943. Labour did not help much. The unions have not as a rule been deeply concerned over women's industrial and political problems. They have too often preferred to worry over the danger of low-wage competition from them, instead of getting out to raise their wages to equality. Women have had to fight their own battles in the unions, as elsewhere. They have been backward about it. Le Travail, organ of the Syndicates, wrote recently: "Why in the CTCC do we not hear the problems of women's work discussed more often? Perhaps the women who belong to the Syndicates, who make up nearly a third of our effectives, do not busy themselves enough with their affairs. They complain in little groups about too long hours and inhuman conditions, and they don't realize what they could do all together to better their lot. But when you are conscious of an injustice, it is for you to cry out. If your masculine comrades do not hear you, go to our Commission on Women in Industry, set up expressly for that. If you don't have the position you ought to have in your unions, it is because you don't take it. When you decide to assume your responsibilities, there will not be a man who will hinder you from going where you want to go!"

The same group of upperclass women who won the vote have been tackling the laws on married women's property rights. Premier Duplessis appointed Me. Leon Methot of Trois Rivières to study the matter. The Women's Committee, the Chamber of Notaries (notaries administer much of the civil law in Quebec) and others, submitted briefs. After stressing that some of the women's demands were "outlandish and dangerous," the Notaries agreed to most of the reforms they asked, including giving a woman hit by a car the damages she might receive for her injury. Then Mr. Methot made his report, which has never been given any publicity and is hard to get hold of. He asked only a few mild changes for the better, and refused flatly to ask that the discrimination in grounds for separation be removed. But that change was won, and the fight goes on.

Meanwhile, with few changes in the law, a big change has occurred in customs. The gay and pretty girls who swim and ski have no mind to settle into married slavery. They make their own terms. The genie is out of the battle. They push into every profession, they marry when they choose, for love, not for family-driven necessity. Montreal's twenty excellent policewomen created a sensation in 1946; now they are taken for granted. So are women customs officers. About fifty women, half of them French Canadian, have been admitted to the bar, and practice, though none is yet a Q.C. or a judge. It was a long fight, but they made it. The shocked tones of the learned judges who refused them the right to take the bar exams only thirty years ago, now arouse only laughter. In 1954, they were told they could be notaries if they liked. Girls study medicine at the University of Montreal as well as at McGill, and set up practice, though surgery is still a closed profession to them.

Women columnists on the French dailies have wide influence. Naturally they operate within their own framework; when Mary Haworth in the Gazette tells the wife of a man obsessed by jealousy to get him to a psychiatrist, Colette in La Presse urges resignation and a talk with her confessor. When one says, "See a lawyer," the other, though not always, speaks of prayer. But there is sound advice in these columns. Women are told to let bygones be bygones, not to rush into hasty marriages, not to remind a daughterin-law that her .baby came six months after marriage (Easter before Palm Sunday is the phrase), not to interfere in their grown-up children's lives, not to henpeck their husbands.

Women as yet take little part openly in provincial politics. That is far from meaning that they don't comprehend it. Sometimes when I have asked a French Canadian. friend some question about an election, she has replied, "Oh, I do not concern myself with these political matters. It is all so dirty." And then she has proceeded to give me a detailed, penetrating and accurate account of the situation I sat in the Quebec Assembly, or been elected to Parliament from Quebec. No French Canadian woman from a major party has ever run for the Assembly, or for the Montreal City Council. Nor has one been appointed to the School Commission. One was appointed to the City Council, in the C category, who got a curfew ordinance passed. It was never enforced. Two are on the present Council, appointed. Madame Marianna Jodoin was appointed to the Canadian Senate by Prime Minister St. Laurent, after long years of organizing Liberal women's clubs, and of friendship with the St. Laurents. Yet each election, more and more girls work in the back rooms at local headquarters, tabulating and typing, more and more get out to ring doorbells, more and more every time learn how the ropes are strung, how elections are run. Some day, they'll be in the seats of the Assembly.

The truth is that it takes a woman of exceptional ability and courage to break through the barriers and propel herself into public life in Quebec. Those who have are outstanding. Florence Martel ran the women's selective service for Quebec during the war; Renée Morin worked with her, and wrote a valuable pamphlet on women's work after the war, foreseeing the drive to send them back into their homes. Françoise Gaudet-Smet edits a magazine for farm women, and runs a handicraft centre down in Beauce; women are active in the co-operative movement.

The two best known Canadiennes, the only ones known outside the Province, are both, significantly, women from old families, with some means. Renée Geoffrion Vautelet served on a provincial economic commission, appointed by Premier Godbout, and made an excellent report on women at work. She has been a vigorous campaigner for the Liberal Party. In 1946, she outlined the discussion on Mandates and Minorities at the Niagara Falls meeting of the Carnegie Foundation for World Peace through the Churches. Now she runs the Canadian Association of Consumers, trying to persuade women to realize the power they, hold through being housewives, doing the buying for the families of the nation. Whether she is climbing Mont Blanc, arguing with premiers, or writing science fiction, she is dynamic, self-possessed, and intelligent.

Madame Therèse Casgrain is a grande dame without a trace of snobbishness, who has fought for neglected children and textile strikers with equal fervour, irritated the Liberals by her nationalism and the Nationalists by her liberalism, and ended up leader of the faintly socialist CCF in Quebec. She has bullied her society friends into working for child welfare and women's rights; she has cajoled bishops and premiers, calling on beauty and social position and wit to drive for emancipation of her sex. She enraged English Canadian women by her Non vote in the plebiscite on conscription, while encouraging - a not unheard-of attitude in Quebec, which does not take kindly to coercion from Ottawa. She assails British imperialism, and accepts .an O.B.E. Those most exasperated by her inconsistencies continue to regard her with affection; her enemies quote with relish her latest wisecrack. A consummate wire-putter and lobbyist, no suspicion of corruption has ever touched her: Whoever reckons up. the slow progress of French Canadian women toward the . freedom and respect they have never known, must give full credit to Thérèse Forget Casgrain. In the dirt and turmoil of Quebec politics, she has shone a gay and gallant figure.

But the surge that wins the victory must come from below, from the rural teachers who stick by their union; from the farm wife who tries to keep her daughter in school until she is fourteen, "so she can do better than I have"; from the girl in industry who hides her wedding-ring lest she lose her job, and secretly joins the union; froth the department store clerk who helps win a strike for better wages; from the nuns who now go out to vote in elections, if at no other time. There are great reservoirs of ability in French Canadian' women, which have never been fully used. When they are, it will be a fairer day in Quebec.

Source: Miriam CHAPIN, Quebec Now, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1955, pp. 96-108.

© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College