"'It Was Not a Life of Roses': Franco-American Women,

from Quebec to New England"


By Katherine Theriault



            During the progression of this project, I encountered a number of obstacles to my research.  That is not to say that anyone actively worked against it; on the contrary, most of the people with whom I interacted were quite helpful and more than willing to facilitate my efforts.  In fact, without their help, the project would not have come to fruition.  The opposition I encountered was not a person, but, you might say, perhaps an offshoot of human behavior.  For years, it has been waging a silent and hidden battle against those who have attempted to embark on the journey I have.  And I suspect that for many years to come, it will continue to dog our efforts to rectify historical record, to empower the underrepresented, and to activate voices in places unnoticed but for their silence.  In short, my research was greatly hindered by historical oversight and a general devaluation of women’s experiences, particularly those experiences of women who dwell in the margins. 

History’s dismissal of French-Canadian women is particularly evident in the lack of secondary sources available on their experiences in Québec, and especially obvious in those sources that purported to examine the experiences of those who eventually made their homes in New England.  Generally, discussions of women occupied only a few paragraphs in otherwise extensive books and articles; in some extreme cases, women were only awarded a few sentences in larger overviews of French-Canadian immigration and acculturation, as though they were accessories or afterthoughts.  It was even more difficult to uncover the voices of these women; more often than not, their stories were told second- or third-hand, lessening both their authenticity and their impact.  Perhaps even more frustrating are the inconsistent ways in which French-Canadian and Franco-American women have been portrayed.  Contradictory “facts” and statistics surfaced throughout my research, and I have used careful deduction and comparison—and taken many an intelligent guess—to corroborate my theories with my conflicting findings.  I apologize in advance for any vagueness in the paper, which may be partly attributed to the lack of specific information on the topic.  I find myself disappointed by the number of questions I have had to leave unanswered and issues that have gone unaddressed.  I only hope that I have not committed any gross historical blunders in my synthesis of these at times questionable materials.

            For practical reasons, primary sources on Franco women’s experiences are difficult to come by, given that “Franco-Americans were usually too busy trying to survive to write books about their trials and tribulations.”[1]  The very nature of life in Canada and New England precluded a serious and ongoing effort to transcribe it.  Complicating this reality is the fact that little attention, it seems, has been devoted to the unique nature of Franco women’s experiences, not only within Franco culture, but also in the broader scheme of American immigration.  Given the marginalization of groups that have been neglected in historical and academic circles, and the history of discrimination that characterizes their pasts and, to some extent, even their presents, the absence of thorough and accurate research on such groups suggests that more than simple unavailability of materials is responsible for such omissions.  By leaving the cultural rock of Franco-American women unturned, so to speak, mainstream academia participates in a troubling cycle of disenfranchisement, denying them validation of their experiences, and indeed, of their very existences.  Just as women are overlooked as significant characters in the story of America’s past, Franco-Americans as an immigrant group have also experienced a similar treatment.  Their limited exposure in both these respects is indicative of the double blow that Franco women—and many other groups of recently immigrated women—have had to fend off: the one-two punch of being a woman (pow!) in a marginalized lingui-cultural and socioeconomic group (wham!).  In other words, the dual identities that often develop among members of a diaspora, many of whom live with one foot in the homeland and one in the United States, are intensified by these women’s gender and the expectations attached to it.  Thus, inasmuch as the historical inconsistencies are related to the imprecision of census methods or record-keeping in the 19th and 20th centuries, they are also equally linked to greater trends in the explication and analysis of women’s history.

By examining the nature of women’s roles in French-speaking Canada, I aim to more fully understand the scope of the changes in their lives post-immigration, and to contribute to the relatively small, but slowly growing, body of research on these women.  They are meaningful both in the context of unearthing forgotten history and in the ways that they have influenced New England’s social and cultural landscape.  For many of us, particularly in the Northeast, they are the mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers who forged a way of life that has made us the individuals we are today.  In order to understand ourselves, then, it is important to understand them.  I also wish to contribute to the pool of resources upon which we, as members of the third generation, will have to draw if we wish to enable a movement for cultural preservation.  I hope that echoes of early Franco women’s experiences will resonate with us today, and that we will renew the process of la survivance with energy and a greater sense of urgency and purpose. 

            This study traces women from their pre-immigration lives in Québec (before they were ever “Franco”) to the early New England Franco families, with gestures toward the current situations of Francos today.  Because the scope of my investigation is limited to the years just prior to, during, and immediately following immigration to the United States, this paper takes up the experiences of today’s first- and second-generation Franco women—and omits those of the third and fourth generations.  Within the original parameters of this project, this narrow scope was necessary, as I had one semester and limited resources with which to work.  While I am somewhat uncomfortable with such omissions, I am glad that they are just that—omissions, not oversights.  I must also note that I researched and wrote this paper in late 2000, a date that is significant for a couple reasons.  The first is that in four years time, a great deal more research has been conducted and the number of available sources, both primary and secondary, has grown considerably.  Revisions I have made since the paper was originally written, however, are primarily cosmetic and not reflective of the substantive growth in the body of literature on Franco experiences.  Also quite influential, I think, is the ever-changing nature of my relationship to the culture, for it has inevitably affected my authorial voice and the very direction of my research.   Four years ago, I thought about things very differently.

            My relationship to the culture continues to grow and evolve as I do the same.  I picture my cultural identity and myself as two separate lines.  The lines run parallel for a while, then travel toward each other, intersect, and then swerve away in different directions.  There’s an invisible push and pull, much like the forces that first brought my ancestors to the States.  When I set out to write this paper several years ago, I was a student at a college whose culture does not consistently value experiences of those outside the mainstream.  Although I had long been part of the general American culture which also denigrates those on its fringes, I had never had a taste of what it was to be one of those outsiders.  And so after the first few months of college, away from home and family, the lines of culture and identity, which had been imperceptibly traveling alongside each other for seventeen years, began to converge.  As they did, my sense of self was greatly upset, but in such an overwhelming way that I did not know how to react.  Like a child who has poked around in a seemingly innocuous mosquito nest and now battles the insects swarming menacingly around her, I feverishly lashed out at the bearers of many small stings.  I sensed my Anglo peers’ subtle attack[2] on my identity, and I defended it wholeheartedly, perhaps even blindly.  I spoke my French slang and proudly explained the lexicon of Frenglish to those who scrunched their noses at “Behn, voyons!” (ben vway-onh).  Every time someone tripped over my last name (Theriault becomes “the-rault,” “the-row,” “therry-o”…), I felt a strange mix of pride that I had stumped them and anger that they had such trouble with a name that took up two columns in the phonebook at home.  Slippers were always pishoux, my grandmother was always Mé-mère, and dinner was always supper.  And it vaguely bothered me when people did not understand what I had said or asked for explanation of a term.  I didn’t want to be an oddity, another tourist attraction, and the more my peers made me into one, the more I resisted and reclaimed what I knew as my own.  They were invading my world, and I protected it fiercely. 

Gradually, however, my identity lost that one-dimensionality.  As the lines of my culture and identity continued to move closer together, my world was enveloped in shades of gray.  Sometime during the summer between my first and second years of college, after returning to the community in which I was raised, I realized that I lived in two seemingly mutually exclusive worlds: Lewiston, with its skyline dominated by the elegant steeples of St. Peters’ and Paul’s Cathedral and other Catholic churches, its parochial schools equal in number and quality to the local public schools, and its Frenglish sliding off the tongues of my grandparents and their friends at Dunkin’ Donuts; and the world of my “mini-ivy” college, where, surrounded by Saab-driving classmates who had spent their Spring Breaks skiing in Aspen and who preferred Indian and Thai food to meat and potatoes, I had quickly grown tired of having to explain what a mé-mère  is.  In fact, I felt downright silly when I said things in Frenglish and found more straightforward ways of expressing myself, even though they didn’t quite get at what I meant.  After all, try as I might, I could only ward off the pesky mosquitos (or bibbits) for so long.  Being so great in number, they hardly felt the effect of my defenses, but I wearied of the effort of constantly flailing my arms and swatting my own skin.  Sometimes, and these have been the hardest moments, I wished I was less French and more, well, American.  Why did my parents send me to parochial school when I could hav attended a progressive public school and taken fun advanced math or history courses instead of eight years of Religion classes?  Why should I have to bow to pressures to get a job (usually as a file clerk) during my summers when my classmates were driving cross-country on stipends from their parents and taking unpaid internships in exciting cities?[3]  How was I ever going to become a professor (a goal of mine at one point) if my students and colleagues couldn’t pronounce my name?  This paper emerged at the intersection of the lines of culture and identity, when I became most aware of what I was quietly being asked to give up, at a time when I felt most adamant about not conceding it.

Today, as a third-generation Franco-American woman, I grapple with the implications of belonging to the group, and my feelings are never consistent.  It makes me proud when I hear French spoken in my hometown; it makes me embarrassed when I’m standing with (Anglo) friends and we hear older people still struggling with English.  I feel emotionally connected to all things Québecois, yet I still feel like a tourist when I visit Québec City.  I am grateful for the wonderful, close-knit family who love and nurture me; I am resentful of the pressures to live close to home.  And as my exposure to the non-Franco world grows, so do my aspirations.  My worldview expands, and I find more and more that new visions are in tension with the old.  I struggle to reconcile these competing desires and come to terms with the difficulties of clinging to one’s roots in a world that insists that my generation must appreciate our heritage (as described by the rhetoric of multiculturalism), but without getting bogged down in the “old ways.”  American culture teaches my generation that we must go whatever distance (geographical, financial, or otherwise) necessary to get an education, regardless of cultural or economic restraints.  We must take that job in the city even if it only allows us to see the family once a month.  We must marry well, which really means marry up and out of the class into which you were born.  We should expand our intellectual horizons by throwing ourselves into new religions, new political ideologies, new social movements, many of which undermine the very foundations of the belief systems in which I was raised. 

            So things have gotten much more complicated.  The lines are drifting apart.

I find that lately, I have a more difficult time defending that which I find to be restrictive on many of my personal choices.  Until recently, until I was immersed in cultures so unlike the one I knew (first during my four years at a private, liberal arts college, and then a year living and working in the southeastern United States), I could not name the internal and external struggles, and so could not think about them seriously.  I think that given the opportunity, I would write a completely different paper today, with a different focus, using different language.  In addition to the first- and second-generation of Franco-American women, I would look at the state of my own generation, particularly in Maine, and examine the ways we are dealing with on-going pressures to assimilate, with the impending loss of our grandparents and their experiential knowledge from those first years in New England, their language, their songs, their foods, their traditions.  I would study the Catholic school systems in New England, learn what they are doing in response to a fading cultural base.  I would look at our modern identity crisis, at what it means to be Franco in a multiculturalized world.  I would research the move for sovereignty in Québec and explore connections to and possible trickle-down effects on Franco populations in Maine.  I would delve in the Franco-American Women’s Institute, conduct personal interviews, visit archives and old mills, locate more rings of cultural activism... 

But none of those directions would be possible without this work as a stepping stone.  Without it, my mind would not have the tools nor the intellectual grounding to articulate these questions.  I do think this paper is important for reasons that I’ve previously stated, and because it represents a stage of development in an enormously complex and dynamic relationship between a third-generation Franco woman and her culture.  It symbolizes the strength of the connection I had with to the culture at a relatively early age, and reminds me that I never want to lose that. 

Regardless of the distance separating the two lines, there’s always a healthy tension between them, such that they can never fully escape each other.  Their pull on each other is too great.  They depend on each other for existence. 



"'It Was Not a Life of Roses': Franco-American Women,

from Quebec to New England"[4]

            From 1866-1915, approximately 25 million people made their way to America, the Promised Land.  They came from all corners of the globe, from Europe, Asia, South America, and North America, and from all walks of life.  Some hoped to strike out and find adventure and riches in the land where the streets were rumored to be paved with gold, while others came in the more modest hopes of establishing a more stable life for themselves and their families.  Whether driven out of their homelands by cultural, political or social oppression, or attracted to the United States because of its promises of wealth and security—or some combination of these—people all came looking to live their own version of the American Dream. 

            Much emphasis has been placed on the significance of European and, to a lesser extent, Asian immigration, and the ways in which ethnic groups from these areas constructed what was to become a new America.  Smaller immigrants groups are often discounted in the generalized summaries that categorize American history book interpretations of immigration.   Because of their relatively small numbers and their concentrations in sparsely populated regions of the country, French-Canadians in particular seem to have fallen between the proverbial cracks of United States history.  Their omission comes at a great cost to them, to the residents of the regions they settled, and to the United States as a whole; although today’s French-Canadians occupy a proportionately small region in the United States, they have played a complex and powerful part in shaping New England culture. 

            This study focuses on the immigration of French-speaking Canadians from Québec Province, although other French-Canadians, such as the Acadians from the Maritime region, also migrated in significant numbers to the U.S. over the course of the Québecois immigration.[5]  In this paper, the term “French-Canadians” strictly refers to those from Québec.  Likewise, this paper names those French-Canadians who moved to the United States, “Franco-Americans.”  In other words, “French-Canadians” indicates the broader group living in Québec, and “Franco-Americans,” or simply “Francos,” represents the portion of that group that immigrated to the United States, and for the purposes of this paper, to New England.



            To more fully understanding the nature of Franco women’s roles and the extent to which these changed (or did not change) during and after immigration to New England, we must first consider French-Canadian women’s roles in Québec.  A distinct social hierarchy existed in French Canada, stratifications that were later replicated in the United States.  At the top of this hierarchy was the cure, or pastor, and his family and social contacts.  The farm-owners were socially situated below the cure and other figures of religious authority, and after them came the “non-farmers (bankers, day-workers, artisans of various types, etc.) with prestige according to their wealth.”[6]  Although few sources articulate women’s position in this chain of command, it can be safely presumed, judging from the kind of the work in which they engaged, that they held little public power.  Rather, their spheres of influence were in the home, shaping for them more subtle—yet undeniably important—roles. 

            The intersections of the Catholic Church, the family, and the French language, the three underpinnings of French-Canadian culture, provided a somewhat narrow definition of women’s roles and shaped the ways in which females were socialized from birth throughout womanhood.  Simply, women were to be mothers and act as the “queens of the household.”[7]  Central to the delineation of women’s roles was the Catholic Church, which adhered to the Biblical belief that women’s sole purpose is to populate the earth in order to further the Kingdom of God.  Motherhood, according to the Church, was the only way to redeem women’s inherently flawed and inferior character, a belief derived from Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden: “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and was in sin.  Yet women will be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness with modesty.”[8]  Moreover, the Church prescribed particular ways of rearing children and behaving as a wife, and the family seems to have become a religious unit in and of itself, a module of faith and discipline that could serve as example of family members’ devotion to God as they attempted to spread the Gospel.  With its historical roots in the Bible and its daily reinforcement by Church leaders and community members, Catholicism served as an explicit justification for women’s primary function as childbearers and their place in domesticity. 

The French language, a means for the Québecois to distinguish and validate their culture as separate from that of anglicized Canada, was the thread that connected religion, motherhood, and domesticity; it ran through songs, stories, masses, and other cultural texts, many of which fell into women’s dominion.  Women, as we will see, were at the heart of the movement to disseminate the language among children, ensuring its proliferation and continuation.  Blending  traditional Quebecois religion, gendered domesticity, and language preservation, women in French Canada were more than “queens of the household;” they were the very glue that held the Québecois culture intact, particularly during times of Anglo attack or assimilative efforts.

 Good Catholic Mothers, Wives, and Daughters

Supported by the state and the essentialist attitudes that prevailed in Québec, the Church shaped nearly all aspects of motherhood, from determining it to be women’s predestined role to outlining for French-Canadian women the appropriate ways of raising their children.  Given how closely the state and the Church were aligned, women in Québec led lives with little room for deviation.  As girls, they were trained for a life of mothering in schools that the Church itself sanctioned as “wisely progressive.”[9]  Although some women went on to nearby boarding schools after their graduation from grade school, religious influence still pervaded their experiences, for nuns were the only teachers there.  If the family did not wish or was not able to finance further education for a daughter, she would train for a life of housekeeping alongside her mother.  Another option was commencing the religious training to become a nun, a role lauded for reasons to be discussed.  Most women married at 14 or 15 years old, and often bore ten or more children, due in large part to the Catholic belief that childbearing was a God-given mission for women.  Children were also economically important as potential hands to work on the farm, and high rates of infant mortality necessitated many pregnancies to ensure a suitable number of survivors to staff a farm. Those girls who “did not marry or enter religious life” still held major responsibilities, as “they often became the backbone of the home, caring for the young children or elderly parents and making enormous contributions to everyone’s welfare on the farm.”[10] 

Rigid protocol existed for courtship, dating and marriage in French Canada.  Like many children in various cultures, French-Canadian girls played games about their marriage destinies, suggesting the early stages at which women began to absorb cultural pressures.  A Québecois girl “might pull petals from a daisy, saying: ‘Religieuse-vieille file-manee’ [nun, old woman, _________________], study the letter an apple peel cut in one piece forms when tossed behind her back, or look for a reflection in a moonlit pond.”[11]  Compounding pressure for an early marriage, the cure often restricted the social interaction between males and females.[12]  On special holidays and often during ordinary time, for instance, he banned “all kinds of mixed dances and even refused absolution to any person who confessed having engaged in this activity.”[13]  Significantly, women were often held culpable for the sin of mixed dancing, and “it was considered morally objectionable for a woman to allow herself to be held by the waist” (emphasis added).[14]  During courtship, women were quite passive; men visited them at their homes with gifts and tokens of affection, and marriage proposals—always by the boy—had to be approved by the girl’s father before being offered to her.  Thus, with respect to courtship and pre-marital relations, French-Canadian women seem to have been bound by paradox.  They were taught to aspire to marriage from youth, but were simultaneously told that good girls did not pursue men in any way, that if they were morally upright and effective at keeping house, love and marriage would come to them.

Housekeeping, another major component of women’s roles in French-Canadian culture, went hand-in-hand with the notion that women’s obligations were primarily to their husbands and children.  The condition of the home was evidence of a woman’s dedication to her family; cleanliness and order were proof of her love for them.  By extension, the state of the home was a reflection of her devotion to God.  Domestic tasks included:                                                                                                                                                                i                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

preparing meals from scratch; washing, drying, and storing dishes and kitchen utensils…keeping everything in order; mending clothes; caring for small children…washing and ironing clothes once a week; baking bread twice a month; heavy wash[ing] twice a year, in the spring and in the fall; cleaning the entire house from top to bottom and making soap from rendered beef fat in the spring; planting, weeding, and harvesting garden vegetables and herbs in the warm months; canning in the fall; spinning wool thread, weaving cloth, fashioning clothes, knitting woolen mittens, scarves, stockings, and toques [woolen caps]; [and] hooking rugs and making quilts,


all activities that needed to be completed on time, lest the family economy flounder.[15]  Women knitted to produce most of the family’s clothing and relied on pre-manufactured materials to compensate for a lack of time or supplies.  They were also responsible for preparing food not only on a day to day basis, but also for the various holidays that French-Canadians celebrated, from New Year’s Day, the biggest celebration of the year, to Christmas.  Each holiday had specific foods associated with it, such as the “pork terrine (cretons), beef, chicken, or veal ragout (ragout aux boulettes or boules), roast beef, pork-and-spice pies (tourtieres), fritters (croccignoles or croquignoles), and raisin and sugar pies” served during Christmastime.[16]  Recipes were handed down through generations of women and varied among families and regions.  As young girls took on more responsibilities in the home in preparation for maintaining their own households, they too learned the ways of the French-Canadian woman.

Ostensibly, a Québecois woman’s role was to produce children—and many of them.  The emphasis on childbearing, first established by religious beliefs, had been backed by the policies of the Canadian government itself, which, in the mid-17th century, had supported importing women from France to increase the population of the new French colonies in Québec.  From 1665 to 1673, the Canadian government brought over 1,100 women from France, 900 of whom were unmarried orphans.[17]  Additionally, according to some sources, “ ‘ladies of the night’ were ‘persuaded’ to relocate to New France [Québec].  Few historians elaborate on this point, however.”[18]  To encourage couples to procreate, the government offered men incentives to find and impregnate wives and, more explicitly, imposed penalties for failing to do so in allotted amount of time.  Men received stipends for marrying before their sixteenth birthdays and for having more than ten children, while hunting and fishing licenses were revoked when they took too long to get married.  Fathers were even fined if their children were not married off by the appropriate age.  The partnership between Church and state had far-reaching implications, and by the end of the 17th century, these state-sponsored maneuvers had achieved their desired outcomes: the population of Canada quadrupled between 1666 and 1698.

            Related to their roles as vessels of reproduction, women in French Canada were not to desire sex for their own personal pleasure; intercourse’s ultimate aim was to produce more Catholic farmers, which the Québecois believed to be their God-appointed roles in life.  Since French-Canadians believed that they were God’s chosen people, sex’s spiritual function superceded its carnal qualities.  Through intercourse and childbearing, Québecois were fulfilling a heavenly mission by creating individuals to spread God’s Word.  As a result of the Church’s insistence that sex remained a sacred interaction between man, woman, and God, the result of sex—childbirth—was treated quietly and gravely.  Much myth and folklore shrouded the mystery of childbirth, including ways to determine the sex of the child.  In the absence of doctors, midwives aided women in childbirth.  There was little formal post-natal care available, which was likely linked to a high infant mortality rate.  And as Madeleine Giguere[19] points out, the all-too-common loss of a child greatly contributed to the complexities of motherhood for French-Canadians: “The French women lost many children, which was an emotional burden.  The number of women lost in childbirth those days was also high.”[20]  Complicated by both spiritual prescriptions and pragmatic difficulties, motherhood was a demanding—yet obligatory— role.  Women stood at the crossroads of history, religious ideology, and government policy, which collectively delineated physically and emotionally challenging roles for them, and mothers in particular.

A French-Canadian woman’s relationship to her children did not end at their birth.  On the contrary, in addition to fulfilling religious expectations by bearing children, women were to indoctrinate the children with the values and traditions of Québecois life.  Motherhood also connected religion to patriotism, although it was an ideological rather than a physical manifestation of nationalism; as Madame Dandurand explained about the French-Canadian woman in 1900, “her country does not ask of her brilliant action, nevertheless the beginnings of our history show that she knows how to perform noble tasks…in more peaceful times, courage has never failed her in the accomplishment of her patriotic role as chief partner in the work of expansion of the French Canadian nation.”[21]  In other words, giving birth and raising her children demonstrated a Québecois woman’s loyalty to both God and country. 

In addition to the restrictions on the kind of support a woman was thought capable of providing to her country, there were also limitations on a mother’s ability to shape her children’s (particularly her sons’) constitutions.  She was not expected (nor deemed able) to influence her children’s intellect, for her capacity to maintain her own intellect was thought to be inferior to men’s ability to do so.  Even Dandurand, echoing her peers, implies that women had no small part in securing national prosperity, but undercuts their contributions by suggesting them to be less than “brilliant,” at best.  For instance, as her children’s first point of contact, a Quebecois woman could teach them the French language (a role significant in and of itself), but common beliefs and practices held that only a father could instill the more sophisticated knowledge of les principes immuables de la verité (fundamental truths), a skill that was considered a gift from God.[22]  A mother’s terrain was limited to her child’s heart, the emotional sanctum reserved for female suasion, as Madame Dandurand explains: “Her sweetness, like oil, softens manners.  Her uprightness, her native purity, have their unconscious influence…She transmits from generation to generation, by example and heredity, unaffected goodness.”[23]  On a more practical level, women also taught their children nursery rhymes, games, and learning songs, and supervised their children’s play at all times.  In this way, women combined their influence on a child’s character with their responsibilities as cultural disseminators. 

Women in Education

The compliance with which women did or did not accept their prescribed roles is not well chronicled.  Taking into account the rigidity of the organization of the family and the interconnectedness of the Church with social, cultural, and political institutions in Québec, we can safely assume that severe ramifications awaited those who might have dared to defy it.  Even if French-Canadian women were opposed to remaining in the home and bearing so many children, the mandates of their faith forbade them to oppose their husbands.  A man’s role in the family was analogous to that of the cure in the community, at the top of the social hierarchy.  Husbands and fathers based their authority in their responsibilities on the farm, where they handled business details and much of the hard labor.  In their economic and functionary capacities, men moved in much more public spheres than women did in French Canada, solidifying the male role as unquestioned head of the family and farm.  The familial patriarch was the ultimate authority in the home, and a challenge to a husband’s power was tantamount to a challenge to God Himself.  With their political, social, and personal experiences so entrenched in religion, it seems easy to understand why “women viewed frequent childbearing not as a burden but as their lot.”[24]

            Because of the conflation of women’s gender roles, familial obligations, and religious precepts, there existed spiritual and practical penalties for women who transgressed or failed at any of their delineated roles.  On the one hand, a “woman might attain moral heights and merits superior to those of all men except priests” if “she accepted all its [motherhood’s] responsibilities and accomplished all its duties.”  Failure to fulfill this ideal, however, would bring on “heavier penalties than a man would [incur] because she sinned against ‘sa vraie grandeur: la maternite sans tache’” (her true glory: motherhood without blemish, or perfect motherhood).[25]  In the public imaginary, women without religious affiliations seem to have dwelled in one of two extremes: holy housewifery, or failures of morality and domesticity.  Where were the women who dwelled in the middle, somewhere between the pinnacle of faith and the abyss of failure?  It seems that there was no room for a middle-ground, an overlapping of these two mutually exclusive realms.  This disparity illustrates the high risks that defined the lives and choices of mothers and wives, and suggests the gravity of not attending to feminine duties. 

The results of women’s transgression of social norms are evidenced by a trend that emerged by the late 19th century in French Canada, which saw women enter the teaching profession in high numbers, perhaps one of the first major movements of French-Canadian women out of the domestic sphere.  Men had begun to move up and out of teaching; they taught at increasingly higher grade levels (jobs which paid more than the lower grades, where women would fill the gaps in staff), secured administrative positions in schools, or left the profession all together.[26]  The women who took their places taught for less than half of male teachers’ salaries.  Moreover, the new schoolmarms were ridiculed and scorned, presumably for their decreased potential to marry, a result of their employment outside the home. 

Lay schoolteachers were also treated poorly because of the French-Canadian attitude toward education: many considered schooling a luxury and unnecessary to the functions of daily farm life.  Children were needed on the farm as helping hands, and “absenteeism at school was high during planting and harvesting season.”  In fact, “a large number of pupils were allowed and even encouraged by their parents to drop out after four or five years.”[27]  Teaching positions held real value, however, for instructors played an important role in creating, reproducing, and disseminating French culture.  Not only did they inculcate the values of the Church in their pupils, but they also worked to insure the mastery of the language and the continuation of the games, rhymes, and stories that had been passed on through generations.  The tensions that surfaced when women entered the teaching profession were largely a product of broad French-Canadian resistance to the upheaval of gender roles, and today, hundreds of years later, may be interpreted as an early (albeit backhanded) public recognition of French-Canadian women’s very real power in their culture.

French-Canadian Women as Nuns

            Although the intellectualism of education did not appeal to French-Canadians because of its irrelevance to the realities of farm life, schools were valued for their capacity to perpetuate the ideals articulated by the Church, and those that were set up in Québec were profoundly shaped by the precepts of Roman Catholicism.  In 1840, after decades of instability following the (Protestant) British conquest, a resurgence of Catholicism swept through eastern Canada.  As much a religious awakening as a unifying movement to preserve French-Canadians’ cultural identity, the revival was largely orchestrated by the Bishop of Montreal from 1840 to 1876, His Excellency Ignace Bourget.  Bourget’s position near the top of the Church hierarchy, coupled with his understanding of the Church as the backbone of all social institutions in Canada, made him a powerful leader of the movement.  During this period, “the Church was a pervasive presence, for it was to be found everywhere in the interior as well as the exterior life of the community.”[28]  It emphasized works of charity and education, taking a more active, public stance in Québecois life.  The ubiquitous nature of the Church was instigated by the urgency of its purpose: the salvation of Christian souls from eternal damnation.  First and foremost, the educational system was an extension of the Church, designed to “preserve the faith of the rising generations, in order to ensure the eternal salvation of each one.  And the enormous resources of society were mobilized in that direction following the dogmatic will of the hierarchy, according to which the child should come out of the Catholic school with ‘the Gospel in his blood.’”[29]  Again, the interconnectedness of Church and schools, two major institutions in French Canada, points to the power of the women who took on positions in education, and may explain the potential for a strong backlash against that power.

            Charged with the important responsibility of raising children in the tenets of Catholicism, it is no surprise that the nuns who staffed these schools are given the most attention in historical accounts of women in Québecois life, in which they are glorified because of their devotion to God and awarded the status of “honorary males.”  Their standing as such was also bolstered by their chastity and their (presumed) lack of sex drive, both of which were mandated by the Church.  Sisters also retained the qualities of the archetypal French-Canadian woman, altruistic, humble, and faithful to God.  Thus, the Church’s model for instilling religion through education and its standards of asexual womanhood converged in these women.  Nuns were the quintessential Catholic mothers—not biologically, but ideologically.  Virtuous, nurturing, and dedicated to God in their life’s work of teaching children and bettering society, they were to be “true Mothers, as much for the soul as for the body.”[30]  Yet “the multitude of mothers [with no religious titles] for whom there is so much eloquent praise remains nameless.”[31]  The ordinary French-Canadian women who worked in the home, keeping the family fed and clothed while simultaneously reaffirming French-Canadian/Catholic traditions and ideologies, were not nearly as exalted as their religious counterparts.  Women of the cloth and domestic mothers probably fulfilled comparable roles, but nuns, who had official religious titles, were revered as the quintessential women, highlighting the importance and prestige of religious affiliation in French-Canadian life, as well as the value that the Québecois attached to women’s sexual virginity, and, to some extent, their asexuality.

            Since there was neither a traditional family nor a physical home for them to keep, nuns fulfilled the duties of womanhood through their divine works.  Social communities became their own modified domestic spheres, and they fulfilled the duties of womanhood through their charity.  Those nuns who taught school also used their profession as a way of manifesting Québecois motherhood.  As teachers, Sisters were to profess their love for their students while emanating a spirit of selflessness and servitude, modeled after Jesus Christ Himself.  Marie Rivier, found of the order of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary who are known for their active roles as teachers in parochial schools in New England, encapsulated this rationale.  She wrote, “I find no greater joy on earth than that of working to do good for and to be useful to one’s neighbor!”[32]  This model was a standard for the nuns themselves as well as for the students, particularly the girls, they taught.

In sum, women in Québecois society seemed to occupy two major roles: the charitable, pseudo-male religious devotee, or the self-sacrificing mother and wife.  These roles had more than practical implications; symbolically, the women who fulfilled these cultural expectations negated their true identities, since they were widely associated with maleness and/or gave themselves up to the needs of the greater good.  Specifically, “as religious figures who have rendered themselves asexual by rejecting relationships with men, [French-Canadian nuns] are almost invariably characterized as possessing ‘male’ virtues and attributes.  As lay women, the Québecois embody the myth of the French-Canadian mother—devoted, humble, generous, and pious—virtually to the point of self-immolation.”[33]  The valorization of the perceived maleness of nuns underscores the patriarchal structure of French-Canadian society and illustrates that regardless of the respect accorded to Sisters (particularly in comparison to lay teachers or women who worked in the home), women were still secondary to men, who, even as lay members of the faith community, took precedence over French women of the Sisterhood.  That is not to say, however, that the influence of French-Canadian religious women (or women in general) was unsubstantial or unimportant.  Rather their perceived power was, in truth, far less than their actual social and cultural power, which was not fully manifested until the French-Canadian immigration to the United States.



            The primary period of French-Canadian immigration stretched from the middle of the 19th century through the start of the 20th century (1860s-1920) and corresponded with the large waves of European immigration—up to 1,285, 000 Europeans in one year alone[34]—to the United States during that same time.  Immigration records suggest a pattern of peaks and valleys in French-Canadian immigration: “the total migration from Canada increased sixfold to 101,020 from 1865 to 1869; doubled again to 198,693 from 1870 to 1874…and reached a peak of 454,460 from 1880 to 1884, which was not surpassed until 1920.”[35]  During a second major wave of immigration, between 1923 and 1929, Canada had been traumatized by post-war depression and America harbored Canadians fleeing their country even as it found itself in the midst of its own economic turbulence.[36]

            Estimates of the 1890 census, the first ever to include Franco-Americans, place the French Canadian population in the United States at 537,000, with approximately 332,000 of these located in New England.  Based on these figures, Franco-Americans comprised upwards of 7 percent of New England’s population just before the turn of the century, with Rhode Island and New Hampshire having the highest concentrations.[37]  This represents a dramatic jump from 1850, when fewer than 20,000 people emigrated from Canada to New England.  The spike in immigration is largely attributable to the rise in industry and manufacturing in New England following the Civil War.  Little to no industry existed in Canada, and the manufacturing boom in New England not only produced jobs that needed to be filled, but it also offered a fast-paced and modernized lifestyle that was an alluring change from the lives they had known in agrarian Canada.

            Precise numbers and statistics of French-Canadian immigration are difficult to obtain partly due to the transient nature of the Canadians’ stays in the United States.  Most of those who migrated to the States did so with the intention of returning to their points of origin.  They hoped to strike it rich and then go home to share their newly acquired wealth with their families, and many did just that.  Single men in French Canada were among the first Québecois to leave Canada for the United States.  In the beginning, many would spend their winters in the New England mills and their summers on Québec farms, hoping to make quick monetary gains from the combination of the two ventures.  Gradually, entire families and companies ventured into New England, and they were typically followed by other families from the neighborhood or town, forming the extended communities that characterized early Franco settlement in the United States. 

Fearing cultural (and perhaps even literal) extinction, the Québecois government responded to the declining numbers in the province.  It recognized French-Canadians’ minority status in Canada, which by then had been Anglicized by the British.  In an attempt to discourage further emigration and draw back those who had already left, Québec initiated a repatriation movement in 1875, and “fully half the French Canadians who had emigrated to New England before 1900 subsequently returned to Québec.”[38]  Offered free land and affordable transportation back to Canada, and reminded of their duty to take pride in their Québecois culture (an obligation, the government claimed, that could only be fulfilled in the homeland), many French immigrants left New England during this period.  But the flow of the Québecois out of the province and into the northern U.S. had already begun.  While it could be slowed and perhaps even temporarily reversed, the trend was impossible to stop.  In fact, several processes had been put in motion long before the Québecois themselves ever contemplated setting foot on American soil, setting the stage for the mass emigration. 

            French-Canadians shared many of the same motivations as a number of other groups who entered the United States around the turn of the century.  The Québecois responded to a series of pushes and pulls that combined to urge them out of Canada and into the United States, similar to the patterns of emigration that typically shape the exodus of a people from their native country.  Among the most powerful of these forces was the depletion of farmland in Québec, which had become unsuitable for growing wheat, the principal crop of Canada.  Conditions were aggravated by persistent pests and blights.  Struggles with the land were exacerbated by an apparent lack of effective agricultural knowledge and technique.  Farmers adhered to traditional French-Canadian farming methods and resisted modernization, leaving few options for drawing life from the soil.  The physical and ideological resistance of the land and the Québecois, respectively, combined to yield a 70 percent drop in wheat production between 1827 and 1844.[39] 

            Alone, these circumstances might not have been sufficient to force substantial numbers of Québecois out, for French-Canadians subscribed to the notion of la vocation de la terre, “the idea that Canadians were destined by God to be farmers.”[40]  This ideology probably worked to lower the number of French-Canadian emigrants, since “any mass defection in this regard was more than betrayal;”[41] in other words, even in the face of dire conditions, most farmers would choose to persist in their trade in the name of God.  However, the adverse natural environment was matched by an unprecedented population boom, making the land virtually unlivable.  From 1759, the year of the British conquest of what was then New France, to 1851, “the French-Canadian population…increased to nearly 670,000.”[42]  The already insufficient land could not support such growth, and with “taxes and parish charges press[ing] heavily on”[43] them, French-Canadians had little choice other than to leave.  This seems to be one of the few occasions in French-Canadian history when their religion was overruled, and notably, it was only because of a distinct need for physical survival. 

            The resolution of the boundary dispute between Canada and Maine along the St. John and St. Francis rivers in 1842 also spurred French-Canadian immigration, as the southern half of the Canadian settlement of Madawaska, located at the northernmost tip of Maine, became part of the state.  This change sparked a dispersion of families throughout northern Maine and encouraged those Canadians who already had relatives in America to join them.  Technological innovations made the railroad a reliable form of transportation and facilitated the movement of French-Canadians to Maine, making them the only group to have traveled to the United States so extensively by rail during their immigration.[44]  Highlighting these attractions were the immigrants’ own correspondences to family and friends, containing word of the new prosperity to be had aux Êtats-Unis.  Indeed, wages in the States were higher than most had ever received in Canada, which enabled them to avoid the cycle of debt that had trapped many in Québec.  Visits to Canada were especially shining moments, for they allowed the Francos to showcase the material benefits of life in America, from the latest fashions in clothes to jewelry and other trinkets.  These visits and communications were often just as effective at enticing the Québecois to America as the overt recruitment of French-Canadians by New England mill owners, whose offers of employment in a steadily growing industry also appealed to those considering a move to the States.



            After their immigration to the United States, French-Canadians experienced drastic changes in some areas of their lives, while other aspects remained relatively unaffected.  In New England, Franco-American men retained their roles as primary earners.  Those males who were heads of their respective families or single men over twenty years old were employed at foundries and shoe factories and in machine manufacturing.  They also found work as day laborers and construction workers.[45]  Young men often worked alongside their fathers in similar industries.  Thus, while Québecois men continued to be breadwinners, their work took on a different form than the farm labor they had known in Canada.  The primary difference in Franco-American women’s lives seems to have been a greater incidence of, and indeed a growing need for, women who left the domestic sphere to enter the workforce.  From childhood through old age, French women had been tied to the farm in Canada; for them, work outside the home had consisted of piecework, mainly sewing clothes.  The Canadian women who immigrated to the United States, however, forged new ground in the mills of New England, taking leave (albeit often temporarily) from the domesticity that had defined them in Québec.

            Only a limited proportion of the women who immigrated to the United States from Québec had an entree into the workforce, and for those who did enter mill life, the choice seems to have been made for them—by their Papas and their economic situations. 

As discussed, Canadian immigration to the United States was predicated upon a collective urge to make great sums of money in a short amount of time, and with this motivation shaping their lives in America, families often sent all available hands out of the home to find work in developing industries, providing a doorway for some women to work outside the home.  However, the Church encouraged married women, especially those with children, to stay home to maintain the household and care for the children unless cases of extreme financial desperation arose.  Under these restrictions, families discovered that the prime candidate for work in the New England mills was the adolescent Franco-American girl, old enough to be working, but not yet old enough for marriage.  In 1878, for example, nearly 76% of the workers in the Holyoke [Massachusetts] spinning mills were under twenty years old; 57.2% were girls.[46]  Overall, between 1865 and 1900, 78% of Franco-American women in New England were employed in the mills, the majority of that percentage being under twenty years old.[47] 

************ It should be noted, then, that the term “woman” is misleading when used to describe the Franco-American workforce in the mills of New England, since may of the females who participated in mill life were still children.  But Franco children were not unique in their situations as wage-earners, since “at the turn of the century, nearly one-fifth of all American children between the ages of ten and sixteen were employed in various commercial enterprises.”[48]  Indeed, as Yves Roby points out, “what is astonishing was not that [Franco-American] children worked, since that was a necessity in working-class families, but the scope of the phenomenon.”[49]  A number of Franco-Americans sent even their youngest children to labor, some as young as seven years old.[50]  A report from the Connecticut Bureau of Labor Statistics articulates a seemingly common understanding of the family as an economic unit among Franco-American communities: “The French-Canadian, in a great many instances regards his children as a means of adding to the earning capacity of the family, and, in making arrangements for work, he urges, and even insists upon the employment of the family as a whole, down to the very youngest children who can be of any possible service.”[51]  Falsifying birth certificates was one way of cheating the child labor laws, as Franco-American Cora Pellerin relates: “When I was eleven, my father had a birth certificate made for me in the same of my Sister Cora, who died as a baby, because you couldn’t go to work [legally] unless you were fourteen.”[52]  Like many immigrant working class groups, French-Canadians, despite their claims to the contrary, manipulated existing labor regulations to ensure their children’s contributions to the family economy, and girls, who were the majority of mill children, often were endangered by the deleterious working conditions.  No one seemed to protest much.  Families welcomed the extra income and the mill owners welcoming the extra, easily managed hands.  In addition, the higher wages—much more than their families could ever hope for in Canada—were quite sufficient to retain the young workforce.


Franco-American and Female: Franco Women Enter the Mills   

            Prior to the Civil War, the mills had been staffed by young New England farm girls, many of whom viewed the big city mills as a diversion from the drudgery of rural domesticity.  However, when life in the city lost its excitement—and unsafe working conditions outweighed the benefits of the mills—New Englanders turned away from these jobs.  The Irish replaced them, working for less than the Yankees and tolerating often unjust labor practices for an opportunity to live the American Dream.  Likewise, French-Canadians stepped in for the Irish for similar reasons, taking whatever work was offered to them with relatively little complaint,[53] all for the potential of achieving wealth and stability in a modernizing world.  Evidence suggests that some heads of the mills, perhaps Franco-Americans themselves, actively recruited works from Canada; in such cases, families and sometimes whole parishes made the journey south together.  French-Canadians were also brought in to lower wages and diffuse strikes, inciting hostility and bitterness toward them from the groups they were to replace, particularly the Irish.[54]

            Cotton, wool, and paper were the most popular mills products, and entire communities, sprang up around these enterprises.  As time progressed and mill work became more specialized and sophisticated, many cities became associated with specific types of industry.  In Maine, cotton cloth was the primary product of manufacturing centers like Lewiston and Biddeford, whereas Dexter and Vassalboro produced mainly wool.  Paper mills, which grew significantly during the late nineteenth century in New England, were central to the economy of Westbrook and offered higher wages than the textile mills.  To this day, cities that were centered around mill industry at the turn of the century remain the most heavily populated by Franco-Americans in the state, and even in all New England.

            Although Franco-Americans, and women in particular, were a large presence in the New England mill workforce, the cyclical nature of work in the mills made the Francos’ place in the New England workforce precarious.  Both men and women could expect to be unemployed for periods of up to four months at a time during any given year.  At home, women picked up the slack; the income accrued by non-traditional workers, such as women and children, often kept afloat those Franco-American families whose patriarchs had lost their jobs.  In 1870, for instance, 95% of employed Franco-American men in Lowell, Massachusetts, a booming mill town and a Franco-American enclave, were considered working class,[55] and these men, if married, were making more money than their wives and children.  The salaries of these men alone were usually insufficient to avoid poverty, and many families depended heavily on the supplementary incomes of women and children to keep from falling into desperate economic situations.  The high numbers of working-class Franco families in Lowell and other mill towns would suggest that the income that women and children brought in was not supplementary (i.e., secondary), but a necessary, if not primary, source of income.

            Textile mills, developing at unprecedented rates in New England during the latter half of the 19th century, served as a main attraction for Franco women, who were valued as workers for their docile and hardworking natures, as well as for their skills in weaving.  Regardless of where they settled, as James P. Allen explains, “the importance of the textile industry as a whole in providing employment to the French-Canadian immigrants is clear from the fact that in 1890 over 30 per cent of Maine’s employed Canadian-born French males and 84 per cent of employed Canadian-born French females worked in such mills.”[56]  Women also worked in silk manufacturing and in hat, sweater, and shoe shops.  In most locales, including Massachusetts mill towns like Lawrence, Lowell, New Bedford, and Fall River, women outnumbered men in the mills two to one.  Long hours in the mills required unmarried women workers to live in nearby dormitories where, in keeping with the Church mandates and the strict rules that governed parochial schools, “severe discipline and austere morality prevailed.”[57]  In some areas, single Franco women who worked in the mills comprised the bulk of the population, earning such places the nickname of “She Towns.”[58]  It appears that single Franco women lived in such boarding houses, whereas married women lived at home and commuted to the mills, probably in order for them to perform their domestic duties and maintain a clearer connection to the home and family.  Women in the mills, although they achieved independence from domesticity through industry, could not establish economic autonomy, for almost all their earnings went back to the immediate family to help earn the quick fortune that many Francos hoped to accumulate before returning to Canada.  An estimated 95% of unmarried daughters’ income went directly to their fathers, who spent or saved the money accordingly to achieve this goal.[59] 


Mill Life for the Franco-American Women

            Characteristic of mill workers, Franco-American women kept long hours, as testimony from these women supports.  A typical day began at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., with an hour break for lunch (and sometimes dinner, depending on the length of the workday), during which many women went home to tend to chores.  Some worked as long as twelve-hour days, and Saturdays were usually part of the workweek.  Work was repetitive, fast-paced, and involved heavy machinery; the rooms in which they worked were poorly lit, poorly ventilated, and so noisy that women often had to communicate with one another using hand signals.  Such conditions, in conjunction with the absence of a union, made illness and injury—ranging from pneumonia to loss of hearing to maiming— common.  Because of the high proportion of children in the mills, many of these injuries befell Franco-American workers at a very young age.   Moreover, although many women were employed full-time at the mills, piecework performed at home was still an integral part of their responsibilities. 

In spite of the harsh working environment of the mills, many Franco-American women express fondness for the time they spent there, citing the pleasure and the camaraderie that underpinned their experiences.  Perhaps the simplest explanation for the enjoyment they found in the mills is articulated by Virginia Erskine, a former New England mill worker: “When you work twelve hours a day, you have to find pleasure in work.  There’s nowhere else to find it.”[60]  And Franco women did just that, particularly during the hour-long breaks they received for meals when those who could sing would entertain them.  Women also shared stories and crocheted during these respites from work.  Furthermore, compared to farm life, life in the mills seemed adventurous and lax, and most women gladly took it up.  The friendships formed in these shared experiences lasted many Franco-American women a lifetime, and their shared experiences helped to strengthen the foundations upon which the preservation of their French heritage was already beginning to be built. 

Changing Social Standards for Franco Women

            As opposed to the Québecois practice of marrying during one’s mid-teens, French women in New England sometimes delayed marriage until their twenties, perhaps because of their enjoyment of life in the mills and boarding houses or because of their families’ need to retain them as additional sources of income.  Nevertheless, a single woman’s life was unstable because of the lack of securities in the workplace, and so the majority of Franco women eventually married.  A Franco-American woman usually worked until her first pregnancy, when she left the mills to care for the child.  Some Franco-American men shared the responsibilities of childcare with their wives, and it was not uncommon for husbands and wives to work opposite shifts to reduce childcare expenses while maintaining their income.  This strategy maximized their economic potential and ensured that their children would be reared in an environment governed by French-Canadian values systems.

            Those women outside industry contributed in their own right to their families through their domestic undertakings, since French women took on responsibilities in New England that they had not known in Canada.  Related to the strong Franco-American desire to bring in revenue as quickly as possible, French-Canadian feminine domesticity in the United States centered around maximizing the economic potential of the home, more so than in Canada, where women’s principal roles had been based on nurturing children in French-Canadian traditions and religion.  In the U.S., Franco women’s roles became more practical.  Extended family living under one roof was not unusual, as the mills tended to hire families simultaneously into their operations, and some resourceful Francos made a business of taking in family members and charging them the fees of regular boarders.  A constant flow of people in and our of the house multiplied the normal tasks of a Franco wife and mother.  “Doing child-care or laundry, [or] serving hot meals at noon to employees from the mills close by”[61] also provided ways for women in the home to contribute to the ever-elusive nest egg that Francos hoped would bring them back to their homeland.  A married woman’s domestic responsibilities also increased dramatically when her husband fell into unemployment, which could last for periods of up to several months.  The first step for her was to head to the mill to fill in the gaps in the family’s income.  At home, “she cut medical care, put greater intervals between meals with meat, mended the children’s clothing again and again… [and] invited her husband, worried and irritable over lack of work, to cut down on his drinking.”[62]  Overall, in good times and bad, Franco women engaged in budgeting and bargaining to make ends meet. 

Provided that they maintained their domestic femininity, it was acceptable for women to leave the home once the children were old enough to work, in order to increase the family’s earnings.  This standard distanced women from the processes of childbearing and childrearing, in spite of the Church’s insistence that they remain vigilant of such obligations.  French-Canadian women in New England continued to have many children, up to twelve or fourteen.  But they endured a higher infant mortality rate, due to the poor sanitary conditions in which they lived and worked.  In Lewiston, Maine, for example, one family lost twelve out of sixteen children, an alarming number, perhaps because of “the water [from the canal across from their home]…or a malnutrition situation.”[63]  In Lowell, Massachusetts, the mortality rate in 1880 was up to 47 per thousand, with children under five years old comprising half of these deaths.[64]  According to Madeleine Giguere, with losses such as these, French parents in particular “didn’t let themselves get attached to a child until maybe it was eight or 10.  They couldn’t, knowing they might lose a child any day.”[65]  Although such a high degree of emotional detachment is questionable, it is certain that strenuous conditions such as these greatly complicated French women’s experiences in the United States. 

Thus, in addition to their newly defined economic roles in the United States, Franco-American women were still very much involved in maintaining the home and family.  In New England, however, Franco women encountered more difficulties in meeting the expectations of cleanliness set forth for them in Canada.  Almost all Franco-Americans, especially those who worked in mills and other labor-intensive industries, were concentrated in pockets of urban centers, where they often lived in decrepit, insect-infected tenements that bred disease.  The apartments, sometimes dubbed worker-houses, were not all that different from the mills: they were “too small, badly lit, poorly ventilated, and dirty; most of them…were without bathrooms and had toilets only on the first floor.”[66]  While taking on the challenges of maintaining the cleanliness that had characterized their Québecois homes, women also found themselves combating disease that ran rampant year-round. 

Physically tending to her immediate family was not enough; a Franco mother also exhibited concern for “the whole ensemble of worker-houses and the network of relatives and friends.  She was at the heart of the solidarity which developed in the Little Canadas, the name that outsiders, such as the Irish, gave to local Franco-American clusters of tenements, a term eventually adopted by the Franco community itself.”[67]  She enforced discipline not only in her family but also throughout her neighborhood in le petit Canada, “a function humorously referred to in Franco-American slang of the day as that of a policeman.”[68]  Franco women’s roles both in and out of their own households were not unrecognized.  In 1891, author Edouard Hamon observed that “owing to these women, to these truly Christian mothers, the law of God reigns in the whole block with an authority which contrasts singularly with what one sees elsewhere under analogous conditions.”[69]  Such recognition, however, is underscored by its implication that Franco women’s worth was circumscribed by the parameters of the community and their effectiveness at upholding religious ideals.  Hamon’s tribute to Franco women’s contributions also compares the Franco community to other, probably recently immigrated, groups, suggesting that the sole value of Franco women lay in their ability to raise up the entire group, to make them morally and culturally superior to competing groups.  There is a note of pride in Hamon’s commentary, though, that might allude to women’s perceived significance in bringing together God, culture, and community, a role that took on increasing importance in the face of mounting threats from the “outside.”

Franco Women as a Means of Survivance 

            Throughout New England, Franco-Americans encountered hostility from a number of ethnic groups, mostly from the Irish-American population.  Although both the Francos and Irish-Americans were Catholic, “their differences in religious customs, parochial habits, and temperament, as well as language, were so great [and so divisive] that one Franco-American priest wondered whether God was going to separate them in heaven.”[70]  The Irish scoffed at the newly arrived Franco-American for their ineptness with English and their insistence on retaining the French language, as well as their adherence to their traditional ways.  The Irish were bitter at the Franco use of Irish churches, not to mention their ability and willingness to work for less pay.  Francos were also thought to “lack ambition and to be priest ridden or turned inward”[71] and were resented because of their resistance to settling permanently in the United States.

Hostilities came not only from the Irish, but also from New Englanders themselves.  In 1881, Commissioner Caroll D. Wright of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor dubbed Franco-Americans “a horde of industrial invaders” who “do not come to make a home among us, to dwell with us as citizens, and so become a part of us; but their purpose is merely to sojourn a few years as aliens, touching us only at a single point, that of work, and, when they have gathered out of us what will satisfy their ends, to get them away to whence they came, and bestow it there.”[72]  Wright’s official report represented the general anti-Franco sentiment of New Englanders at the turn of the 20th century.  The Franco-American community in New England also battled an organized movement to keep the region “Protestant and American,” led by the Reverend Calvin E. Amaron, a pastor of French Protestants in Lowell, Massachusetts.  In all of New England, Amaron was perhaps the most vocal opponent of Francos, penning books such as The Evangelization of the French-Canadians (1885) and Your Heritage: or New England Threatened (1891).[73]  These largely unsuccessful efforts to undermine the Franco community only banded them closer together.

            In subtle and overt ways, women spearheaded the movement to defend and transmit French-Canadian culture, a process they called la Survivance, or survival.  While Franco mothers retained their housework duties and encountered new challenges to fulfilling them, they also kept up the responsibilities that had been tied to motherhood in French Canada.  As resistance to French culture rose, mothers’ primary role of socializing their children took on an even greater importance.  Women were the first line of cultural defense in staving off assimilation attempts, for they interacted with their children on a day-to-day basis long before they were exposed to non-Franco culture and society.  In America, women remained their children’s first teachers of French language and the precepts of the Roman Catholic Church, both foundations of Québecois culture.  Domesticity, however, was not entirely compatible with participation in the workforce, and French women who moved in both spheres did so under the watchful eye of the Church. 

Industrialized (and increasingly feminized) public spheres held the potential for the destruction of Catholicism, since in Franco-American culture, the disruption of gender roles meant the upheaval of religious standards.  Those women who deviated from their designated roles, according to Franco ideologies, went against the will of God Himself.  Thus, as the threats from without intensified, the Church issued calls from within to reinforce women’s domestic duties.  While there existed other opportunities for Franco women to work outside the home (at the mills and schools), Church doctrine stated that only in the home could lay women truly actualize Christianity and fulfill God’s plan.  To enforce this belief in the conventional place of women in marriage and in the home, the Church refused to grant divorce, and dubbed those women whose husbands left, widows.[74]  Giving voice to the underpinnings of Church doctrine, Monsigneur William Stang of Fall River proclaimed that “a married woman, by solemn contract entered into with her husband in the presence of God, has taken upon herself the duties of wife, mother, and housekeeper.  That contract may not be broken, even by her own choice.  The natural law requires a mother to give all her care and her time to her children and her home.  Violation of this law would ruin domestic life and ultimately undermine the foundations of society.”[75]  Under the edicts of their faith, then, even working women could not abandon their domestic identities: they served in both the mills and in their homes, accommodating the new demands of American life while upholding traditional French-Canadian ideals of femininity.

Daily and annual customs, most of which were orchestrated by women, took on an even greater importance than they had in French Canada, since it was widely believed that the breakdown of the patriarchal familial structure and roles that characterized social order would lead to the decay of the only way of life French-Canadians had known—indeed, their very identity.  Franco women worked diligently to ensure that this cultural collapse did not occur.  With such pressures from the Church, many Franco women carried on duties both in and outside the home.  Madeleine Giguere, a noted Franco-American scholar specializing in French women’s experiences in New England, explains, “Of course, they still had their responsibilities at home.  [For instance,] the mills operated on New Year’s Day, which is a very big celebration for the French.  So there were times when women would have holiday breakfasts at 3 and 4 in the morning [after midnight mass] to mark the occasion, then go to work so they were there at 6 a.m.  You can imagine what time they had to wake up to get things ready.”[76]  In this way, Franco women in New England managed the now-pervasive second shift, juggling work in the home and in the mills.

            Women found some reprieve from childbearing, domesticity, and mill work in the many organizations created to united Franco-Americans in the face of growing hostilities from the Irish, and impending assimilation.  By 1900, over 400 Franco-American fraternal organizations had sprung up around the Church in New England.[77]  These parish groups “resembled one another, tending to give uniformity to parish life throughout New England and to produce institutionalized values…[They also] fostered a standard of behavior based on moral principles.”[78]  These societies provided a prime opportunity for Franco women to combine their roles, as the groups formed at the intersections of cultural preservation, public work, and social connectivity.  Importantly, women viewed their husbands’ involvement in these societies as a form of birth control, since the men could be counted on to stay out late at meetings.[79]  

As early as 1848 in New England, societies also emerged designed by Franco women and for Franco women.  Although most of the groups were ephemeral, the French women found unity and friendship in these organizations, such as the female branch of Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Springfield 1901).[80]  Other associations, nearly all of which had religious ties and involved local parishes, “engaged in cultural, educational, and social activities such as banquets, excursions to Canada, musicales, and naturalization programs.”[81]  The self-awareness with which groups such as these articulated their purposes speaks to the ways in which women understood and valued tradition, community, and their place in the greater scheme of American life.  Independent of female societies, cultural opportunities for Franco women included musical ensembles, theatrical groups, operettas, and pageants.

Franco-American Women in Education

            Franco-American women, then, were afforded many new experiences in the United States, many of which were brought on by the challenges of belonging to an unwelcome ethnic minority in 19th and 20th century New England.  From the mills to women’s societies, Franco women found themselves moving in decidedly more public spheres than had ever been accessible to them in Canada.  But in spite of these changes in Franco-American women’s lives, their roles in education remained fairly static, although education itself took on a greater significance in the United States that it had had in Québec.

            Francos quickly recognized that one way to ensure the preservation of their culture was through their educational system, which would have to continue, if not intensify, the plan to use parochial schooling to instill Church ideologies in Franco youth.  Because of the barrage of assaults on the Franco community in New England, the schools also took on a greater meaning.  According to Gerald Brault, the Franco-American schools “provided a common experience” for children and their families, “fostered similar attitudes” among them, and most important for the Church’s purposes, “promoted identical values” of self-discipline, piety, religious dedication and the importance of family.  As Franco-Americans searched for a way to defend their culture against constant attacks from the Anglo-Americans who derided them for a perceived lack of refinement, “school was a weapon of choice, since it could serve to show the Anglos that, because education was a priority for the immigrants, they were not the ignoramuses that they had been made out to be.”[82]  Thus, with their immigration to the United States, education moved from a secondary concern to the top of the cultural agenda.

            The first official Franco-American parochial school was erected in 1870 in Rutland, Vermont, at the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, and many followed, all with the same basic teaching philosophies and methodologies.  The Church worked quite deliberately to sustain the flow of Franco-American pupils into the parochial schools, and in 1875, the Vatican “condemned attendance at public schools,”[83] which, in public opinion, were inferior and lacking in the moral standards so central to the parochial school system.  Franco schools were founded on the “profound conviction that abandoning the French language was tantamount to hardening the Catholic faith,” a belief that was manifested in Francos’ refusal to conform to Anglo-Americans’ demands that Franco children study strictly English in school, and that all their classes be taught in English.  In fact, English was not taught in Franco-American parochial schools until as late as the 1950s when pressure to teach it yielded a school day that was half in French, and half in English, reflecting the link between the language and the faith. 

The schools were first staffed by lay women who had attended convent school in Québec, and eventually nuns took over most teaching positions.  These nuns were members of religious orders founded in Canada or in France, and it appears that their responsibilities and status were essentially unchanged in the passage from Québec to New England.  Most Franco teachers used a similar format for their classes, which included review, memorization, and firm discipline, all fostered by an atmosphere of competition among the children and systems of reward sand prizes for top students.  French-Canadian history, French language, and religion were emphasized throughout the curriculum, regardless of subject.  Good conduct was an integral part of a student’s performance in the classroom, and “the ideal student was the docile student.”[84]  Reinforced after French-Canadian immigration to America, the symbiotic relationship of the schools and the Church meant that nuns in the schools were still under the authority of the priests and parish officials who made decisions in the Church hierarchy.  Hence, women did not ostensibly gain prestige or power in the schools, but their cultural and social responsibilities as teachers and nuns, keepers of the French-Canadian language, religion, and social values, were heightened as tensions increased between cultural groups in New England.

            In spite of the strong emphasis on education and women’s growing significance in the schools, young Franco-American girls were not the beneficiaries of these developments.  For them, education often took a backseat to labor potential.  Many Franco-American girls did not graduate grade school, simply because of the pressures to contribute to the family income through their work in the mills, or to assist in taking care of the many children.  Elder children, especially females, often fulfilled these familial responsibilities.  As Madeleine Giguere explains, the French in New England “were mostly blue-collar workers, with those aspirations [particular to their economic class].  It was felt that high school education only was needed for a white collar job.  And they thought that education wasn’t for everyone, that some were just not destined to go to school.  That was a product of their heritage of the subsistence agriculture.”[85]  Some girls who worked at the mills took advantage of the opportunities offered by “adjunct schools” set up by the mills themselves, which taught them rudimentary English and the foundations of some subjects.  Those children who did attend school formally were most often boys in pursuit of a trade that would be, in Franco-American opinion, more practical than the intellectualism that a girl might receive from an outside education.



            Women in French Canada lived and toiled under the watchful eyes of the Catholic Church and its appendages, the government, their husbands, fathers, and the community itself.  In each of their archetypal roles—as wives, mothers, daughters, and women of the cloth—they faced very distinct guidelines for living, shaped by tradition and religion and enforced on a local and federal basis.  On the farms, women answered directly to their husbands and were responsible for bearing and raising children in order to fulfill His Will.  Housework was also part and parcel of bringing this Will to life.  As daughters, French-Canadian women were to adhere to the conventions of dating and marriage, and their fates were ultimately determined by the will of their fathers.  French-Canadian nuns were hardly exempt from the dictates of the patriarchal Church, although they were elevated in their religious status in comparison to the common French-Canadian wives and mothers.

            After the French-Canadian migration to New England, Franco-American women took on many new roles.  Nevertheless, much of the gendered structure of Québecois life persisted.  They participated in a new lifestyle in the mills of New England, but to some degree, they preserved traditional gender roles by taking on increased housework and childrearing duties at home, all in the name of God and the community.  As education gained importance, Franco-American women expanded their influence in schools; ultimately, however, young Franco women gained the least from these developments and for them, relatively little headway was made with respect to equal educational opportunities during the first decades of their settlement in America.

            Franco-American women in New England managed to successfully combine new responsibilities of the diaspora with the more traditional roles they had been assigned in French Canada, meeting (or working very hard to meet) expectations of both the old and new worlds.  Not only were they mothers, but they were also mill workers who divided their time between home and work.  While they were active in cultural societies and organizations, they also taught their children at home the ways of Québec.  Through their efforts in serving a “double duty,” working in both the public and private spheres, Franco-American women did much to protect their heritage in a society often inhospitable to such cultural preservation, a society that urged assimilation and scorned Franco-Americans for refusing to conform.  In this respect, their power more overtly revealed itself through the Quebecois migration to New England, and the effects of their influence have been far-reaching and long-lasting, as the many bilingual women who still bake meat pies at Christmas can attest. 

Today, we are faced with a similar internal and external struggle as they experienced: we must determine how much can we hold on to as the world keeps changing and marginalized identities are pushed even further to the outskirts of our national consciousness.  The language is fading, numbers of French Catholics are dwindling, and parochial school enrollments are dropping.  And in so many contexts, invisible forces are steamrolling ahead, diverting our attention precisely when it needs to be most focused if we wish to stake a serious claim to what is ours before it disappears forever.  Only diligence and a critical awareness of these forces and their targets will prevent us from taking up permanent residence in the dusty pages of historical archives.  Each of us has a contribution to make to keep our culture alive and vibrant, to continue authoring our stories.  As our mothers and grandmothers pass, then, we must reconcile the ever-increasing pressures to acquiesce to dominant American culture, with the great sacrifice and toil that our predecessors undertook to allow us to make these critical choices.  In shaping the cultural agenda in next decades, we must consider not only our own futures, but also the lives and labors of those before us.





[1] “Franco-Americans: Will They Survive?” Eve Gagné, I am Franco-American and Proud of It, ed. Rhea Côté Robbins, et al (1995) 15.

[2] The “quiet attack” of which I speak is difficult to describe; truly, it’s only comprehensible if you’ve lived through it.  No one has to say a thing for you to understand that your ways are different or wrong.  You just know it from your very first exposures to dominant culture.

[3] As most readers are well-aware, being Franco today usually means being part of a lower socioeconomic class.  Cultural identity, in this case as in so many others, is linked to power and privilege.  The pressures that have shaped my choices are a result of both class and culture, and I do not wish to—nor do I think I could—separate the two.  There’s also an amazing work ethic that characterizes Franco life, and I knew in my bones, without anyone every saying it, that I’d be a lazy slacker if I didn’t find paid work over the summer.

[4] Emma Tourangeau must be credited for her unknowing contribution to the title of the paper, “It Was Not a Life of Roses”: A Study of Franco-American Women in New England.  91 years old at the time of her interview published in Quiet Presence (Dyke Hendrickson, ed. [Portland: Guy Gannett Publishing Co., 1980] 117), Tourangeau was the oldest pensioner of S. D. Warren paper mill in Westbrook, Maine.  Her parents emigrated from Quebec to Maine during their childhoods, and she grew up in Westbrook during the early 20th century.  A testament to Franco women’s strength and endurance, she gives a vivid description of the difficulties of life in Maine for her family and other Franco-Americans, summarized by her declaration, “It was not a life of roses.  I’m telling you.  But we made it.”


[5] Interestingly, this fact also complicates the data sets with which I worked.  Many times, a distinction was not made between those who migrated from Quebec itself and those who migrated from the Maritime regions. 

[6] Gerard J. Brault, “New England French Culture,” A Franco-American Overview: New England, ed. Madeleine Giguere, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Lesley College, 1981) 3. 

[7] Gretchen Richter Bouliane, “Variations on a Theme: The Image of the Mother in Traditional French-Canadian History,” I am Franco-American and Proud of It, ed. Rhea Côté Robbins, et al (1995) 11.

[8] Bouliane 12.  It is unclear from this source whether these words are part of an official Church declaration or whether they are a Biblical interpretation.

[9] Bouliane 11.

[10] Gerard J. Brault, The French-Canadian Heritage in New England, (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986) 14.

[11] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 35.

[12] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 9.

[13] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 22.

[14] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 22.

[15] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 14.

[16] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 15.

[17] Dyke Hendrickson, ed., Quiet Presence, (Portland: Guy Gannett Publishing Co., 1980) 12.

[18] Hendrickson 12.

[19] Professor and scholar of Franco-American and French-Canadian women, and director of the Franco-American Heritage Collection at the University of Southern Maine (Lewiston-Auburn).

[20] Madeleine Giguere, “A Word About Strong Women,” Quiet Presence, ed. Dyke Hendrickson (Portland; Guy Gannett Publishing Co., 1980) 204.

[21] Madame Dandurand, “French Canadian Customs,”  Women of Canada (complied by the National Council of Women of Canada in 1900.  Reprinted in 1975 by the National Council of Women of Canada) 30.

[22] Bouliane 11.

[23] Dandurand 30.

[24] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 29.

[25] Bouliane 12.

[26] Alison Prentice, “The Feminization of Teaching,” eds. Susan Mann Trofimenkoff and Alison Prentice, The Neglected Majority: Essays in Canadian Women’s History (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1977) 50-51.

[27] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 33.

[28] Armand Chartier, “The Spiritual and Intellectual Foundations of the Schooling of Franco-Americans,” Claire Quintal, ed., Steeples and Smokestacks: A Collection of Essays on the Franco-American Experience in New England (Worcester: Institut francais: Assumption College, 1996) 236.

[29] Chartier 238.

[30] Chartier 255.

[31] Bouliane 10.

[32] Chartier 255.

[33] Bouliane 10.

[34] John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., The American Nation: A History of the United States, 10th ed. (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2000) 537. 

[35] Mason Wade, “French and French Canadians in the United States,” A Franco-American Overview: New England, ed. Madeleine Giguere, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Lesley College, 1981) 3.

[36] Stephen Thernstrom, ed., Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980) 388-401.

[37] William MacDonald, “The French-Canadians in New England,” A Franco-American Overview: New England, ed. Madeleine Giguere, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Lesley College, 1981) 4.

[38] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 82.

[39] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage...) 52.

[40] Gerard J. Brault, “New England French Culture,” A Franco-American Overview: New England, ed. Madeleine Giguere, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Lesley College, 1981) 3.

[41] Brault, (“New England French Culture”) 3.

[42] Brault, (French-Canadian Heritage…) 52.

[43] Macdonald 1.

[44] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 54.

[45] Yves Roby, “A Portrait of the Female Franco-American Worker (1865-1930),” Steeples and Smokestacks: A Collection of Essays on the Franco-American Experience in New England, ed. Claire Quintal (Worcester: Institute francais, Assumption College: 1996) 548.

[46] Roby 549.

[47] Roby 548.

[48] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 63.

[49] Roby 549.

[50] Iris Saunders Podea, “Quebec to <<Little Canada>>: The Coming of the French Canadians to New England in the Nineteenth Century,” A Franco-American Overview, ed. Madeleine Giguere, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Lesley College, 1981) 117.

[51] Podea 117.

[52] Roby 550.

[53] It is unclear to me whether this transition was one that the Irish welcomed or despised.  Much of my research suggests that the Irish harbored animosity toward the Francos for taking their jobs.  However, one would imagine that the Irish were able to find higher-paid and less strenuous jobs after moving out of the mills, the Francos having taken over their position at the bottom of the “ethnic food chain.”  Regardless, as discussed later, the Irish harbored ill will toward the Franco population for many other reasons.

[54] Brault (“New England French Culture”) 3.

[55] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 64.

[56] James P. Allen, “Franco-Americans in Maine: A Geographical Perspective,” A Franco-American Overview: New England.  Vol. 3.  Giguere, Madeleine, ed. (Cambridge: Lesley College, 1981) 88.

[57] Nicole Vaget, ed., Franco-American Viewpoints (Noveau Monde Press, 1988) 47.

[58] Vaget, ed. 47.

[59] Roby 549.

[60] Roby 551.

[61] Roby 556.

[62] Roby 557.

[63] Giguere (“A Word About…”) 205.

[64] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 60.

[65] Giguere (“A Word About…”) 205.

[66] Roby 558.

[67] Roby 558.

[68] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 61.

[69] Edouard Hamon, S.J., Les Canadiens-francais de la Nouvelle-Angleterre (Quebec City: N.S. Hardy, 1891) 16-17.  Quoted in Roby 555.

[70] Wade 41.

[71] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 67.

[72] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 67-68.

[73] Wade 43.

[74] Vaget, ed. 49.

[75] Roby 562.

[76] Giguere (“A Word About…”) 204.

[77] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 76.  For the figure of 400, see Franco-American Overview 32.

[78] In Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 78; he references J.K.L. Laflamme, David E. Lavigne, and J. Arthur Favreau, “French Catholics in the United States,” Catholic Encyclopedia 1909 ed. (reprinted in Franco-American Overview vol. 3: 23-35).

[79] Giguere (“A Word About…”) 207.

[80] According to Brault (French-Canadian Heritage… 77), the mission of the male version of this society, which began in Montreal in 1834, was to “promote solidarity among French Canadians [and later, Franco-Americans] and to provide a welfare fund that included sickness and death benefits.”


[82] Chartier 241.

[83] Chartier 239.

[84] Brault (French-Canadian Heritage…) 93.  Quoted from Mother Martin, Ursuline Method, 20-22, 24-25, 57, 309, 310, 313-14.

[85] Giguere (“A Word About…”) 208.

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Katherine Theriault is a native of Lewiston, Maine, Katherine attended a Holy Cross School and Lewiston High School before attending Colby College in Waterville.  She graduated in 2002 with a B.A. in American Studies and high honors.  Katherine taught 4th grade in Atlanta, Georgia, for a year before accepting a position at her alma mater, Colby College, where she currently works as the Assistant Director of the Farnham Writers' Center.  She loves spending time with family and friends, traveling, and being outdoors.