Minority Women of North America:  A Comparison of French-Canadian and Afro-American Women

By Jill M. Bystydzienski, Iowa State University

Taken from American Review of Canadian Studies, 1985, XV, 4
Reprinted in Le F.A.R.O.G. FORUM, Avril 1988
Reprinted here with permission from the author*
With thanks to the Franco-American Center, University of Maine, Orono, for the help in obtaining this copy.

 In White Niggers of America, Pierre Vallières calls attention to the similarities in status between French-Canadian and Afro-American people.  Just as American blacks had first been imported to the New World to serve as cheap labor and continued to be exploited for the better part of three centuries, so, too, were French Canadians, since the establishment of New France in the seventeenth century, "servants of the imperialists...(and) still constitute a reservoir of cheap labor...mistreat(ed) and trample (d) underfoot..." Although cognizant of the particularly difficult situation of French-Canadian women in the struggles of the Francophones, Vallières did not consider the parallels between them and their black U.S. counterparts.

 This paper focuses on the similarities in situations and positions of French-Canadian and Afro-American women.  It begins by examining the historical roles and contributions of women in both groups.  Although French Canadians did not experience outright slavery, the subjection of women to hard physical labor and constant childbearing parallels the situation of black American women.  Moreover, striking similarities exist in the images of women in both groups ? they range from the idealized and revered mother figure to the overpowering and castrating "bitch".

 French-Canadian and Afro-American women constitute double minorities and are thus subject to the "double jeopardy" or "multiple hazards" hypothesis which refers to the additive negative effects of having two or more low statuses.  Thus, although being black in the United States provides one with a lower status than being white, being black and, for instance, old has the effect of further decreasing an already low status.  Since women's status is lower than that of men, following the "double jeopardy" hypothesis, it can be expected that minority women will be accorded a particularly low status.  When compared to men and women in the majority population as well as to minority men, minority women can be expected to rank lowest on such indicators as education, occupational status, income, health and power.  This hypothesis will be examined in relation to the status of French-Canadian and Afro-American women.

Finally, this paper will discuss the particularly difficult dilemma the liberations poses for a double-minority.  In the case of both French-Canadian and black American women, tensions exist between a desire to achieve emancipation for the entire group and a desire to embrace women's liberation.

Roles of French-Canadian and Afro-American Women:  A Historical Overview

Historically, the roles of French-Canadian and Afro-American women have been determined fundamentally by their functions within the family.

Although this fact has been true to a large extent for women in most societies, it was particularly crucial given the circumstances under which women of both groups found themselves in the New World.

Black American women were brought to the New World involuntarily as slaves.  From the point of view of slave-owners, their function was twofold:  to provide cheap physical labor and to increase the labor force through procreation.  However, from the perspective of the women, survival of the black, and ultimately, their race, became their main purpose in life.  Recent research on black families under slavery has shown that such families were formed and sustained whenever possible, and that much if the credit has to go to the women for maintaining family stability against all odds.  It has been suggested by some that the strength of black women to persevere under slavery and thereafter was derived from their African heritage which stressed the importance of motherhood as vital to the survival of the group, a strong work orientation, the relative independence of women, as well as the value of extended family network.  Black women thus managed to provide affection, support, and some semblance of security to children, husbands and sometimes relatives, despite frequent abuses and family break-ups resulting from the slave trade.  More importantly, as numerous accounts of black family life under slavery indicate, black women instilled in their children the value of kinship and mutual support.  Evidence of this has been found in the enduring family unions formed after slavery, as well as the propensity of American blacks to establish elaborate kinship exchange networks.

The role of black women in the United States was established early, in part by the circumstances under which they were forced to live and in part by their African heritage.  Emphases on motherhood, hard work and independence were reinforced by the requirement to produce children to work on plantations, and by the necessity to labor in the fields and to endure the degradations of slavery.  Under such conditions, black women's role within the slave community was the substance of family members, providing a sense of dignity and hope.

The women of New France assumed similar roles to those of black slave women in the United States.  Their circumstances also closely paralleled those of black women.  Although technically free persons, French women were brought to the New World to be the wives, and legal property, of fur trappers and traders of men involved in the logging industry.  Marriages were frequently the result of contracts secured between men as, for instance, in the case of a "coureur des bois" who obtained a large sum of money and furs for bringing his sister to the New World to become the wife of an acquaintance.  Like the female slaves of their Southern neighbors, women in New France were regarded as desirable property; not only did they help in increase the labor and could manage households and farms for the frequently absent men, but most importantly, they bore children and made it possible to propagate the group.  It was not uncommon for women of both groups during this time to have ten or more children, and in New France, just as in antebellum South, making use of a women's entire period of fertility had the result of increasing the population.  Woman's function as a childbearer in French Canada was reinforced by the pervasive control of the Catholic Church.

The cultural heritage French women brought with them to the New World helped them cope with harsh environmental conditions and demanding physical labor.  Like their Afro-American counterparts, French women accepted hard work, valued motherhood and assistance to those in need.  They were able to survive and even to triumph over extremely difficult circumstances by maintaining the family institution.  Like Afro-American women's roles, so too, those of French-Canadian women were inexorably derived from their crucial function in the community to uphold the family and, by extension, they contributed to the survival of the entire group.

It should be noted, however, that despite the frequent absence of husbands and fathers during this period within both groups, intact families were patriarchal.  In French-Canadian as well as black slave families, whenever adult men were present, they assumed the roles of heads of households and were accorded respect and authority by women and children.

French-Canadian and Afro-American women's roles did not change much following in the initial period of introduction to the New World.  Although their circumstances eventually improved somewhat, as with abolition of slavery in the United States and a brief period during the eighteenth century when Quebec women had the vote, the majority of both groups continued to struggle in poverty, under the yoke of racism and discrimination.  After the conquest of New France in 1760 by the English, the situation of French-Canadian women actually worsened as the options open to Francophones narrowed and their institutions and codes of behavior became more restrictive.  Similarly, free blacks found insurmountable obstacles to equality during the Reconstruction era and beyond which placed a special burden on black women.

During the nineteenth century, many of those women in both groups who migrated from rural to urban areas, in order to support their families, were forced to work in lowest status occupations.  The husbands and fathers of their children were frequently unemployed and even when working, experienced the degradation and exploitation of oppressed minorities.  Farming in the hostile environment of Quebec or New Brunswick continued to be a struggle well into the twentieth century as did black sharecropping and independent farming in the Southern United States.  It was the women in both minorities who often kept the family going by taking it upon themselves to provide continuous economic sustenance.  French-Canadian farm women often found ways to supplement the family income by sewing clothes, taking in washing or selling eggs, vegetables and poultry, while those in the cities went mainly into domestic service and unskilled factory work.  Black U.S. women, since the post-Civil War era, in both rural and urban areas, have augmented or maintained the family income by similar means.

Despite adverse conditions, American black and French-Canadian families have exhibited a remarkable degree of stability.  Until 1960, 80 percent of black children grew up in two-parent families and the rates of divorce and desertion among French-Canadians, until the last two decades, had been very low.

Since the 1960's, the number of female-headed families among both blacks in the United States and French-Canadians has grown rapidly.  Women in both groups have thus increasingly become solely responsible for supporting and raising children and maintaining households.

Contemporary roles of French-Canadian and Afro-American women reflect the strong historical emphasis in both groups on women's important functions within the family.  Black American women of all social classes are more likely than their white counterparts to derive a sense of identity and personal pride from motherhood and the support, both economic and psychological, of family members, and are more likely to use extended family support networks.  Similarly, French-Canadian women view their most important role as that of mother and family "manager".  French-Canadian women, at all socio-economic levels, are less likely to derive personal satisfaction from a career than are Anglophone women and are more likely to contribute to and rely on the extended family.

The contributions and loyalty to the family exhibited by French-Canadian and Afro-American women have been generally recognized by their own communities as well as the larger societies.  In autobiographies, novels, as well as social scientific interviews, women and men from both groups frequently report the strong presence of a mother figure who somehow managed to make ends meet and to have an abundance of love and an encouraging word for her offspring and spouse.  In the United States, the image of the resolute yet loving "mama" is widely accepted, and in Canada the phrase "la bonne maman" conjures up the image of a caring, self-sacrificing, matriarch.

There is a tendency to idealize the French-Canadian and the black American woman, particularly in the mother role, as "superior".  French Canadians, under the influence of Catholicism, tend to see her as a martyr, a selfless, suffering being, totally devoted to replenishing the group to propagating its traditions, language and religion ? both essential to the survival of "the race".  Although American blacks tend to depict black women as stronger and more self-sufficient than their French-Canadian counterparts, they are similarly seen as responsible for the survival of the black family and black people.

Despite such favorable, though romanticized, views within both groups of the adult woman as nurturant mother and sole support of the family as well as the entire group, negative stereotypes of French-Canadian and Afro-American women also exist.  For French Canadians, the other side of the devoted mother and wife is the passive-aggressive woman who completely loses herself in her family, becomes timorous of the outside world and tries to manipulate ("nag") family members into submission to her wishes.  Consequently, she becomes "the 'boss' of the family in 
which she is also the principal servant."  Clinging to the security of the immediate family group, she discourages political participation among her children and husband and is generally seen as a conservative force within the community.  To this day, French Canadians, as well as outsiders, often blame the lack of greater support for their liberation movement on the political passivity of French-Canadian women.

The negative black female stereotype emphasizes dominance and aggression.  According to this view, black women control and dominate the family.  The super strong, "unnaturally superior" female is no match for the downtrodden and emasculated black man and thus relationships between the sexes within the black community are often strained.  The stereotype suggests that black women contribute to the "cultural put-down" of black men, that, in effect, they preclude men from having a meaningful role to play within the family, and that the resulting absence of appropriate role models for male children leads to a cycle of family relationships in which women rule and men have little or no influence.  From their perspective, black women are blamed for perpetuating poverty among blacks by keeping men from assuming their rightful responsibility as family providers and heads of households.

The positive and negative stereotypes of French-Canadian and Afro-American women bear striking similarities.  The favorable ones idealize the contributions and sacrifices women of both groups have made to their people.  Although black women are often portrayed as stronger figures than the sometimes self-effacing French-Canadian women, an identical emphasis is placed on the determination and perseverance of these women in the face of adversity.  Such views are, no doubt, derived from the historical roles women of both groups assumed in adaptation to the conditions of the New World.

The negative stereotypes appear to be derived from a deep-seated resentment within, as well as without, both communities, of behavior patterns which defied traditions.  In patriarchal societies, the possibility that women were assuming responsibilities inappropriate to their station was a dangerous one to entertain.  What better way to keep female power in check than by denigrating any sign of matriarchy?  Thus, both French-Canadian and black American women are often presented as "castrating bitches," limiting the opportunities of their children and husbands when they assume too much control within the family.  They are viewed as holding back progress and helping to perpetuate the low status of their respective groups.

Both the positive and negative stereotypes of French-Canadian and Afro-American women have been questioned by numerous authors in recent years.  There is a growing agreement that a more balanced view of women in both groups is necessary ? one which neither idealizes nor denigrates.  Historians and sociologists studying black American and French-Canadian women are beginning to compile more accurate accounts of their lives in the past and present and the previously accepted stereotypes are starting to be less prevalent.  While some of the recent historical research has been cited above, data on the current status of French-Canadian and Afro-American women will be examined in the following section.

The Double-Minority Status of French-Canadian and Afro-American Women

The idealized views of French-Canadian and black American women suggest a superiority in their positions within their respective groups which is not substantiated by available evidence.  Not only are these women at a disadvantage because they belong to cultural or racial minorities, but their status as women, in combination with their minority status, has the additive effect of decreasing their positions relative to the majority population as well as to men within their own respective groups.  They are thus subject to the double-jeopardy hypothesis which states that on various quality of life indicators persons who simultaneously occupy two minority statuses are likely to come out particularly low.  The indicators examined herein will include education, occupational status, income, health and political power.

Although French-Canadian and black American women are more likely than their respective male counterparts to complete secondary schooling, a significantly smaller proportion of women in both groups obtain a college education.  In 1981 in Canada, 58 percent of all Francophones who graduated from high school were women, while women constituted only 36 percent of French Canadians with a college degree.  Similarly, although more black female students finish high school than black male students, women make up only 29 percent of all blacks who complete four or more years of college.

When compared to both men and women in the majority populations, French-Canadian and black American women occupy the lowest educational status.  French-Canadian women are least likely to obtain higher education when compared to English-Canadian men and women.  While Francophone women with college degrees constitute 2.5 percent of the French-Canadian population fifteen years old and older, Anglophone males constitute 5.4 percent of the 15+ English-Canadian population.  A parallel situation is found when black female educations status is compared to that of white men and women in the United States with 7.6 percent of black women over sixteen years of age completing four or more years of college as compared to 24.9 percent of white men and 17.2 percent of white women.

Studies of educational aspiration of French-Canadian and Afro-American women have shown that both are less likely to expect to obtain higher education than are their male counterparts, or than men and women in respective majority populations.  Several reasons for this attitude have been cited, including a greater emphasis on motherhood placed by women in both minority populations.  Most importantly, as some have pointed out, the attitudes of these women reflect realistic assessments of the opportunity structure of societies within which they live.

The occupational positions of women in both minorities parallel their relatively low educational status.  Both French-Canadian and black American women are less likely to be found in professional and managerial occupations than their respective male counterparts as well as mean and women of the majority populations.  Only 5 percent of employed French-Canadian women work in managerial or professional occupations, while 13 percent of French-Canadian men in the labor force are similarly employed.  The corresponding figures for English-Canadian women and mean are 7 percent and 15 percent respectively.  While black men occupy about 6 percent of managerial and professional positions in the U.S. labor force, black women fill only 2 percent, and white women roughly a quarter, of all such occupations.  Both minority women are also disproportionately concentrated in lowest-paying low prestige occupations.  French-Canadians women are predominantly found in clerical, sales and service and household work, while black American women constitute a high proportion of private household and service workers.

The small percentage of those French-Canadian and black U.S. women who find themselves in high-level occupations experience more strain than English-Canadian and white women respectively.  Both groups report that discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity creates for them an added burden in coping with non-traditional job situations.

The double-minority status of black American and French-Canadian women is reflected also in income statistics.  In 1980, black women in the United States earned less than black men, white men and white women; in addition, they had the highest unemployment rate of all four groups.  Similarly, in 1981, unemployment among French-Canadian women was almost double that of Anglophone women and the average income of French-Canadian women was lower than that of French-Canadian men and Anglophone mean and women.  Women of both minorities are also disproportionately represented in poverty and among welfare recipients.  This has been shown to be related to the high proportion of female-headed households in both groups.  In the United States there are more female-headed households among blacks than among whites, almost 25 percent of which are below the poverty line.  In Canada, the percentage of female-headed households with incomes below the poverty line is also greater among the Francophones than among the Anglophone population.

The health status of both minority women in some respects follows the pattern established by other indicators.  For instance, maternal and infant mortality rates are higher among blacks than among whites in the United States and among French-than among English Canadians.  Afro-American women are more likely than white American women to die of accidents, diabetes or homicide, whereas French-Canadian women are also over-represented among the mentally ill.  However, black United States as well as French-Canadian women are generally less likely to die of "unnatural" causes (e.g. suicide) then are men in their respective groups as well as mean and women in the majority populations.

The political power status of the two groups of women again supports the double-jeopardy hypothesis.  Although blacks in general make-up less than 5 percent of all U.S. senators, representatives, state legislators and mayors, black women constitute only a fraction of one percent of persons in such positions.  Similarly, French Canadians are underrepresented in positions of power outside of Quebec and there are considerably fewer French-Canadian women than men in such positions in Canada and even in the predominantly French Quebec province.  Women in both groups generally are less involved politically at all levels, including local participation and voting.  Most significantly, female political leaders are conspicuously absent in the black civil rights and the Quebec liberation movement. 

Almost all of the status indicators examined above show that minority women do indeed fall subject to double-jeopardy.  As the result of the interactive effect of race/ethnicity and gender, the status of French-Canadian and Afro-American women is considerably lower than that of men in their respective groups as well as that of both sexes in corresponding majority populations.  Both minority women have lower educational status and aspirations, less occupational prestige, lower income, and less political power than minority men as well as men and women in the majority populations.  The only exception is health status where minority women fare better on some of the indicators than the three groups of comparison.

The above analysis suggests that French-Canadian and Afro-American women experience a kind of "double-oppression" as the result of both their gender and minority statuses.  Thus, in order to achieve liberation, both groups need to work simultaneously toward the ending of discrimination against them as a racial/ethnic group and as women.  The attainment of this goal is not likely to become a reality unless a merging of the ideals of two movements ? women's liberation and minority emancipation-take place.  However, as the following section will show, such an alliance is not to be forged easily.

The Problem of Liberation for Minority Women

In the case of both French-Canadians and Afro-Americans, women's problems and issues have been subordinated historically to the problems of discrimination and prejudice shared by the entire minority groups.  This has not meant, however, that the doubly difficult position of women has been totally ignored, as periodically spokespersons from both communities will call attention to the particularly denigrating conditions under which women of both minorities have been forced to live.  From the eighteenth century Francophone feminists who supported women's right to vote in Quebec, to the "Marichette" letters of the 1890s depicting the struggles of Acadian women, to more contemporary accounts of the problems of Francophone women on Quebec and the Maritimes, the situation of French-Canadian women does not go unheeded.  Similarly, since abolition of slavery in the United States, the special plight of black women has received growing recognition.  Nevertheless, in their struggles for liberation, French Canadians and Afro-Americans have given clear precedence to the goal of ending racial/ethnic discrimination and have largely ignored the issues of sexism.  Consequently, women of both minorities have not benefited equally from any gains secured by their respective groups through the liberation movements. 

There are several reasons why women's issues have not been prominent on the agendas of French Canadians and American blacks.  First, and most important, both groups have recognized racism as the main tool of their oppression.  It is widely believed among American blacks as well as French Canadians that the acquisition of equal rights, and political and economic power, will benefit men and women alike.  Second, women of both minorities do not identify easily with the North American Women's Movement which has been organized, disseminated and largely maintained through the membership of middle-class majority women.  As most women in both minorities remain part of poor or working class cultures, they have a hard time seeing what women who are relatively well off economically are complaining about.  Moreover, both groups of minority women often feel threatened by the goals of women's liberation.

The emancipation of women, as frequently presented by the leaders of the women's movement as well as the mass media, has meant freedom from the traditional duties and obligations of women's family roles.  Both French-Canadian and Afro-American women, however, have the legacy of struggling for close to three centuries to maintain the traditional family.  The importance and dignity of women in both groups have been historically derived from their roles as childbearers and family supporters.  Thus, it is small wonder that Black American and French-Canadian women react strongly against groups or ideas that appear to be threatening the very core of their existence.

Black U.S. women who, from the time of slavery until the present, have had the particularly difficult burden of keeping their families together, are often upset by the pronouncements of white, middle-class women that the two-parent family where the husband is head of the household is an oppressive institution for women.  If anything, the traditional family is one that remains an ideal for the majority of American women.  Similarly, French-Canadian women have been very slow to embrace women's liberation because of their acceptance and continued support of the traditional family roles of women.  Despite growing "modernization" of French-Canadian society and the correspondingly decreasing birth rate in Quebec, even the younger and better-educated women among the Francophones continue to value family and children above all else.

Finally, since the majority of French-Canadian and Afro-American women are either lower- or working-class women, they are typically absorbed in daily efforts of "making ends meet" and simply do not have the time or inclination to get involved in organizations outside the family or community.  Just as it is true of other groups, predominantly middle-class French-Canadian as well as middle-class black American women are involved in the women's movement.

Since the 1960s, blacks in the United States and Francophones in Canada have achieved important gains relative to their previous standings.  Because of the growth and significance of the civil rights movement, U.S. blacks gained the right to vote, and major legal changes outlawing discrimination have increased their chances to participate more fully in the institutions of American society.  Similarly, in predominantly French Québec, "the Quiet Revolution" brought about major changes in law and institutional structures allowing for increased social and political participation for the Francophones.  Since the election to the Parti Québécois in 1976, French-speaking Quebeckers have come closer than ever to self-determination.  Despite such changes, however, as indicated in the previous section, U.S. blacks and French Canadians continue to occupy minority statuses within their respective societies, and the situation of women in both groups is that of a doubly-disadvantaged group.

There is no doubt that men of both minorities have benefited more from the changes brought about by the black civil rights movement and the Québec "Revolution" than have women in their respective groups.  The reforms achieved by French Canadians and Afro-Americans, although far from equalizing their minority statuses with those of the majorities, have given men in both groups more educational, economic and political opportunities.  It may even be, as some have suggested, that men in both minorities have benefited at the expense of women, with the result that the position of women within their respective groups has deteriorated rather than improved in recent years.  For instance, both French-Canadian and black American women have become relatively poorer economically during the last decade and their position within the family appears to be eroding as well.

In order that the two minority groups of women might improve their positions within their respective groups, and within the larger societies, they clearly need to channel their energies into a collective struggle against both racism and sexism.  Unless both fights are carried on simultaneously, the situation of these minority women will not change.  However, given the nature and complexity of the problems facing the two groups, French-Canadian and black American women are likely to continue to experience their double oppression for some time to come.

Summary and Conclusions

The two groups of minority women examined in this paper have been shown to have similar historical legacies, stereotypes, and positions within their respective groups and wider societies, as well as problems in regard to liberation.  Historically, the adverse conditions under which French Canadians and Afro-Americans found themselves in North America determined, at least in part, the roles of women.  The harsh climate of New France and eventual colonization of the French by the English, made survival of the group a pressing reality for French Canadians, just as life under slavery and continued discrimination after its abolition demanded survival strategies of U.S. blacks.  Under these conditions, the family and the woman's role within it assumed an unusually important place in the community and within the collective consciousness of both groups.

As available data indicate, women did indeed play an important role in the survival of both minorities.  The cultural heritage that both groups of women brought with them to the New World helped them cope admirably in their tasks as childbearers and upholders of families.  These central and very crucial functions historically performed by women of the two minorities have had at least three important consequences.  First of all, they have led to the development of an ambivalent view of women within both groups as represented by the idealized and the denigrating stereotypes of women.  Secondly, they have influenced the contemporary roles of French-Canadian and black American women.  And finally, and ironically, they have been, at least in part, responsible for the lack of development of or support for a women's movement that could improve the doubly-difficult situation of both groups of minority women.

As the examination of data on the contemporary status of French-Canadian and black American women shows, the two groups remain similarly doubly disadvantaged due to the interaction of racism and sexism.  Both minority women rank lower than men in their respective groups as well as women and men in corresponding majority groups on such status indicators as education, occupation, income and political power.  There are also indications that the relative standing of both minority women has deteriorated rather than improved in recent years, despite the gains made by social movements spearheaded by French Canadians and U.S. blacks.

The situations of French-Canadian and Afro-American women are, no doubt, comparable to those of other minority women in North America as well as in other parts of the world.  As emerging research on the plight of women who are members of politically oppressed groups is beginning to show, minority women, while making important contributions to the survival of their groups, have experienced profoundly difficult, dehumanizing conditions.

To suggest that the existing women's movement can solve the problems of minority women is to oversimplify the complexity of the issues involved.  Emancipation for minority women, out of necessity, means something different from what it does to women of the majority populations.  While majority women are struggling for equal participation with men in societies where the groups they belong to have political and economic power, minority women have to deal with belonging both to a despised race or nationality as well as the second sex.  Moreover, while majority women are increasingly seeing the family as a source of their oppression, for minority women the family constitutes the major, and often the only, source of dignity, strength and pride.  Hence, minority women are not likely to join or benefit from majority-controlled women's movements.

Nevertheless, in order to improve their lot, it is crucial that minority women everywhere recognize their common situations and interests, and form alliances with other minority liberation movements in an effort to develop long-range, effective strategies for change.  Perhaps, ultimately, such minority and majority women's liberation movements could converge, but for the present, given the special circumstances of minority women, they would need to proceed on separate, yet often parallel, courses. 


*To:  Jill M. Bystydzienski
From:  Rhea Côté Robbins

Hello, I have often quoted your paper, "Minority Women of North America:  A Comparison of French-Canadian and Afro-American Women." in my research and I am wondering if it would be possible to reprint this paper on my website that addresses the issues/concerns/contributions of the Franco-American women at the Franco-American Women's Institute:

I would put it on the ezine site, moé pi toé, [you and me] and this site in its entirety is used and listed by several institutions as a resource.


I could publish online your research, it would be of immeasurable use to researchers and students alike.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.


Rhea Cote Robbins, M.A.

You have my permission to reprint the article.
Thank you for asking.
Best wishes,
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