Reflections on Franco-American Women's Experiences

By Jessica Conyngham

 When entering into this course a dominate question in my mind was who are Franco-American women?  Upon completion of the class I am not sure that I can form any definitive statement in answer to that question.  Franco-American Women's Experiences introduced me to the immense dimensions of this culture.  The class looked at women's lives from all positions and walks of life.  Through reading both fictional and non-fictional accounts of French women in North America, I have gained a broader understanding of the history this culture has in America.  The journey through this course of study has impacted me in a number of ways.  Not only did I spend time reading inspirational stories, but I also became motivated to look at my own life and understanding of history as well.

 Franco-American Women's Experiences provided a glimpse into a history that seems to be largely ignored in traditional United States history accounts.  In New England, especially the state of Maine, there is a vibrant Franco-American culture.  I live in Androscoggin county, where you can hear people speak French when walking the aisles of the supermarket.  Lewiston-Auburn holds annual celebrations of Franco culture in Maine, and numerous individuals have contributed time and energy into collections of Franco-American history and literature.  Yet despite all these efforts I am struck by the fact that I was never taught about this culture during my time at school.  I was a resident of one of the most densely populated areas for Franco-American's in Maine, yet I went through my high school and junior high experience without learning anything about the culture or its impact on the life of the community.  After finishing this class I have found myself thinking about how much of a loss this seems for the learning communities of Maine.  Maybe my experience was an exception to the rule, but I am still impacted by how little I seem to know about the history of where I live.
 The mission statement for Echoes magazine asserts that the publication "focuses on positive values rooted in the past that have relevance for the present and the future. Echoes suggests that knowledge of rural experiences can help us live in modern society - that there is permanence in the midst of change and value in remembering our roots" (p. 3).  I found this to be a very positive mission statement.  In wondering about what to research for the final project my thoughts kept returning to my reflections on what I've learned in the class.  In the study to learn about who Franco-American women are, I began reflecting on my own life and understanding as well.  I think that there are powerful messages to learn from the past.  Discovering and learning about the fibers that form our communities and families can help to provide individuals with better self-awareness as well as a pride in shared history.  My experiences in this course motivated me to look further into my own background and history, and helped me to realize the importance of listening to other peoples stories.
 In the introduction to her book Wednesday's Child, author Rhea Cote Robbins writes "This is a book about how we are our historical self while we are in the present".  The readings and lessons of this class brought me to the realization that I know too little about local history and culture.  I found the readings to be uplifting in many ways, as we heard the stories of women who survived numerous hardships yet persevered and found importance and joy in life.
 Though I did not come to the conclusion of WHO Franco-American women were, I did conclude that they are many things in both past and present.  Culture, or more broadly how culture defines the way we live our lives, is not an easy concept to pinpoint and explain.  The lives and experiences that the class have studied are individual and diverse.  These stories span generations beginning with the earliest female French settlers, the filles de roi, and ending with the experiences of modern women today.  It is an immense history, filled with obstacles that are in many ways difficult to fathom.
 As my awareness about Franco-American women and their history began to grow, I attempted to form broad definitions about the group we were studying.  In my studies I formulated some ideas about themes that are important in the lives of these women.  The categories that I defined included family, spirituality, work, and dreams.  These are the themes that appeared in all of the material that we studied, the themes that dominate the lives of numerous generations of Franco-American women.  I think that an understanding of Franco-American women can be better found through the exploration of these themes.  At surface value it seems easy to determine cultural definitions based solely on language.  Though language is undoubtedly integral to the identity of human beings, I think that other values such as faith and love determine the paths of women as well.
 The texts that we have read throughout the course look deeply into the experiences of women within the society that they live.  In an attempt to further explore my understanding of the readings I have developed a web site that considers each segment of the class in light of what I have learned throughout the semester.  Not only do I feel that I have gained a better appreciation and understanding of the history of Franco-American women as a result of this class, but I feel that I have more knowledge about the modern Franco-American woman as well.  The class has also helped show me the value in spending time reflecting on our past, and exploring where we came from.  I now feel more motivated to take beginning steps in more own exploration of how I came to be where I am and what history I carry on my own shoulders. 

Link to Jessica's web site on her Reflections
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