First published in The Feminist Times

Seneca Falls, 150 Years Later--A Reading

By Rhea Cote Robbins, Charleston Correctional Facility, Charleston, Maine

 In July 1998, the nation will celebrate the 150th anniversary of an event which changed the world--the first Women's Rights Convention was held at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848.  At that time, women were not allowed the freedoms assigned to men in the eyes of the law, the church or the government.  Women could not vote, hold office, attend college or earn a living.  If married, they could not make legal contracts, divorce an abusive husband, or  gain custody of their children.
 Then, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a Seneca Falls housewife and mother of  three sons, sat down with a small group of Quaker and abolitionist women, and decided that these wrongs should be made into rights.  They called for a Convention, open to the public, to be held in Seneca Falls at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, July 19th and 20th, 1848.  There they presented a Declaration of Sentiments, based on the language and content of the Declaration of Independence.  Stating that all men and women are created equal, they demanded equal rights for women, including--a radical idea--the right to vote.  Over 300 people attended the Convention; the document was ratified and was signed by 68 women and 32 men.   Seventy-two years later the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.  Women had the vote and other rights granted to them.
 On April 15th, 1998, at Charleston Correctional Facility seven women reenacted the Seneca Falls Convention commemorating the 150th anniversary observation of this momentous event in the history of the United States.  The event was attended by inmates and staff.  The women read, "Seneca Falls 1848: All Man and Women Are Created Equal," a dramatization by Elizabeth C. Shultis.  As part of the Seneca Falls Maine celebration, the women at Charleston Correctional Facility are taking part in the yearlong statewide observance of the 150th anniversary through the readings of the dramatization.
 Readings will be taking place in several other educational institutions throughout the state of Maine, and there will be a gathering of those who have taken part in the readings sometime in the summer of 1998.  The women who read took the parts of historic figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Stanton, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann McClintock, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Frederick Douglass and many others.  Brochures of the Women's Rights National Historical Park in New York were distributed as well as other materials pertaining to the event.  Cake was served and a discussion followed the reading on the rights of women, the history that had never been taught, now learned, as well as many other points that the reading made evident.  As a follow-up activity, and as a way to participate in the Seneca Falls Maine event, the women wrote about their experience, their impressions and their own views on women's rights which follow below, and will be sent to be read at the Seneca Falls Maine summer gathering.  For more information on the Seneca Falls Maine events, or for copies of the dramatization, contact Margaret Muir at Freeport High School.
 Also planned for the end of May is a reading of the "Somebody Else Was Us," the story of the beginning of Spruce Run as an organization and shelter for battered women written by Celeste Deroche and the Feminist Oral History Project out of the Women in the Curriculum department at the University of Maine.

* Mary:  As 1998 is the year to celebrate and acknowledge 150 years of the Women's  Right's Movement, I would like to share my feelings with your readers regarding a wondrous experience I had "reading" a reenactment of  Seneca Falls--Women's Suffrage Movement of 1848.   I have always felt strongly about the disparity of being a woman living in a "man"s world" in the 20th century.  I have always been drawn to history, and have known about the inequality between the sexes, and in my small sphere of influence have done what I could to bridge the inequity to our mothers, daughters, aunts, and to all females in our society.
 Taking part in the reading of Seneca Falls Movement reminded me that in the grind of daily living,  I have taken women's issues for granted.  Perhaps I could have done more  as a member in a woman's political group--one more voice for the cause.  But nothing and no one can take away my fierce desire to see fairness, justice, and decency dominate this world at last.  I do not believe that I will see dramatic changes in my generation's collective consciousness, but I have hopes for my children's era.  I have attempted to raise my three sons to understand and appreciate the unique differences of females as well as the profound sameness we all share as part of the human race.
 With my husband's help, I have tried to instill in my sons minds and hearts the ideals of fairness, equality, honesty and justice for all.   I have made it clear that there is no such thing as "woman's job," nor "woman's place," and by doing many jobs in the home as well as outside the home, that they associate with their father's, "manly thing."  I am heartened to say that my husband tries very hard not to discriminate in any way  against the sexes, especially in front of our children.  At the same time, he is not ashamed or shy about washing dishes, cooking our meals,  doing laundry, ironing clothes and he vacuums beautifully.   With my husband and I as role models, and if all families could teach their sons and daughters that they are equals, is there any question that the 21st century would be a better world to live in.  --Mary as Elizabeth Cady Stanton

*Bridget:  I must confess that I was not fully aware of the depth and breadth of the history of the women's rights movement.  One always thinks of particular women associated with the suffrage fight, however, it is easy to overlook the fact that such a large part of their lives was dedicated to the struggle for equality.  I am impressed anew at the vision, awareness, tenacity, and passion with which they fought.
 Reading the dramatization of the Seneca Falls Convention gave me a feeling of support, of not being alone, of shared feelings reaching across the years.  I am grateful for the courage shown there.
 What would the men and women of Seneca Falls say to us today?  I think they would fee as we do.  They would feel awed by the fire that has grown from their spark. They would feel pride for those who continue to fight for an end to oppression everywhere.  They would see that the road ahead is very long and very wide.  They would see that there is room for all to travel forward, side-by-side.  --Bridget Mailey

*Gail:  As a reader of the Seneca Falls Convention I found myself in the midst of a very oppressed group of women who were strong minded and strong willed.  Therefore, the women's movement was formed.  As this was read, my feelings and emotions ran high, from anger to compassion, dread, fear, hope, then elation.  The women of this movement far exceeded the boundaries of their day.
 In looking at my situation today, and reflecting on those who started the movement--Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Jane Hunt, their oppression they felt is not unlike mine, whereas, I am incarcerated in a state that is far behind the times, and in a prison that has only dealt with men.  Therefore, my needs as a woman are often unmet and unwarranted.  When I see men still having the options that I am denied.  I still feel much frustration because of my situation, although I take it as a learning experience and this reading has brought to light many memories of my own childhood and the difference in my family between the boys and girls.  My mother, coming from "the old country of Italy," thought it was her "duty" to serve her husband and her sons, which she did.  At the same time, instilling in us girls that "men" needed to be cared for.  Not a bad thing for the men in my life.  I now have two sons of my own.  However, my husband and I share the household duties.  The plus of being strong minded myself.
 The women that founded this movement were forced to live in a society that men made and ruled.  With no regard to their welfare or feelings.
 It is so fantastic to see the progress we've made as women with so much more we have to look forward to because a handful of women 150 years ago had enough courage to pursue the matter.  I am proud to be a woman and will always strive for the continuation for rights and a proper place in society.
 Even in my situation at the moment I find solace and a connection with the women of Seneca Falls.  We most definitely "Have Come A Long Ways." --Gail

*Rachel:  March being Women's History Month, we began celebrating women.  The play "Seneca Falls" was suggested to us.  A few female inmates here at Charleston Correctional Facility read it, and were overwhelmed to learn how oppressed women were in 1848.  Studying this further, I had a rude awakening to learn that even in 1969 in some countries women still couldn't vote.  I found that to be incredible!
 I am a thirty-six year old woman and have taken my voting rights for granted until now.  They mean so much more to me now, and so does being a woman.  I found myself full of emotion, a little of which was anger.  My anger subsided to the pride I felt for what we women have accomplished getting to where we are today, and for what women have done throughout our history.
 Reflecting on my life, I am fortunate to have been taught, raised and to have experience equality in most aspects.  However, I do see in my mother's generation that it was pretty much a man's world.  She patiently and lovingly cared for her mother after a stroke had left her mom paralyzed.  When her mother passed away, she went on to marry and raise four children.  Being a mother and a wife was a full time job; without any government benefits or support for all her efforts.  She is now receiving on hundred and thirty-four dollars a month at the golden age of seventy for a lifetime of dedicated and hard work.  It is still a man's world, but we women are and can make a difference.  --Rachel

*Doris:  As part of the audience of the Seneca Falls reading at C.C.F., I found it to be educational as well as fantastic.
 As a 53 year old woman, I guess I took it all for granted about Women's Rights.  After listening to the reading, I was appalled at what the women and young girls had to go through before the movement.
 After listening to the reading, I wonder if men still think they are still the "number one" gender.  I believe they do.  A lot of men still think they have to dominate.  if they don't get their own way they pout, and make a big scene to get what they want.  The male gender is still favored.
 For instance, here at C.C.F., the men have 3 hours of recreation; the women have 2 hours.  The men eat first; the women eat last.  The men can be on the Fire Department, whereas, the women cannot.  The men have three places to go for Work Release with 14 months left of their sentence.  The women have one place to go for Work Release with 8 months of their sentence left.  These are just a few examples of how the men are favored.
 Growing up on a dairy farm with three sisters, it was taken for granted we all pulled our weight.  As a result, we were all treated the same.  Supper time we all discussed the events of the day, and if there was a big decision to make, it was done as a family.  Not by just the men.  We all had a voice in it.  My husband and I have brought up our children the same way.  The "man of the house" does not make the decision by himself.  We are all equal--as it should be!
 If these women did not stand up for what they believed in back in 1848, who knows what life would be like today for us women.  Now we have the right to vote, work in places where only men were allowed before, join the armed forces, go to college.  I can still remember the days the men had to pay a pole tax.  When some of these rights for women came about, it didn't take long for that law to be done with!
 To the Ladies of Seneca Falls, I applaud you!  --Doris

Christina's World

By Rhea J. Côté Robbins, Brewer, Maine

I went to visit the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, depicted in Christina's World, with my husband. There is a guest book which asks you why you came. I wrote because my maman had been there before me. My maman, a deep in the culture Franco-American woman, adored the painting Christina's World. In the early 70s I decided one Christmas that I was going to buy her the picture. I searched all the furniture stores in Waterville, and then finally in one store's gift department, I found a large 3' x 4' framed print of Christina's World. I brought it home and gave it to my maman immediately. I could not believe my good fortune in finding just exactly what I was looking for. I wondered, when visiting the house in Cushing, where would a Franco-American woman far removed from the culture of the art world get the idea of wanting to possess the painting.

My maman had been obsessed with the whole story which the painting invites. She visited the Olson House before it became a museum. She and my father took a ride to find the house. When she got there, I remember my maman's disappointment about the ordinariness of the old house. I'm not sure what she had expected, but still she had made a pilgrimage to her sacred site.

Where did my maman get the notion of her private cult and pilgrimage for Christina's World? This was not a Franco-American woman's usual stance. Decorations in the house were mostly family photos, religious artifacts, or art bought at the grocery store during one of their sales campaigns or the man praying over his bread in a green shirt which she had purchased with her Top Value stamps. That one was hung in the dining room. Christina's World was hung over the couch in the living room just behind where she sat. Where my father liked to have her sit, with him, to keep him company nights as they watched TV. She was always hand sewing, knitting or crocheting. Habits of the hands which were taught to never be idle since when she, her maman and sisters would sit at night and knit.

I think my maman recognized in Christina women's struggles to make it in this world. No matter what happened, if you had to get there you could always crawl. Or, you could even choose to crawl. She was a strong metaphor of the challenges, the daily things to overcome, for my maman. I never thought about it much when my maman was alive what the painting might represent to her, but it has occurred to me lately that the crippledness of Christina is something she felt close to. There was a recognition in the art work for maman of herself on the grass. A re-peopling of the painting with her own image. An association of like spirits struggling with questions unanswered or unanswerable. Bruised and wounded finding solace in the silence of a painting speaking volumes of meaning.

Held under its spell, not knowing its full text, not like I do now, I can understand that Christina represented the determination of fighting back for maman. Christina, with difficult ease, was able to attain what it is she wanted or needed. The intersection of a common life with the art world in Christina's case was also the case for my maman. Her common life explained in a painting that she loved.

When I visited the Olson House, I was haunted not only by Christina's presence, but by my maman's whose spirit of life was there as well. She too had walked on this land around the house before me. Why would you want to go to Christina's house? She had her own world, for one thing. What more could a woman want? The renown of Christina through the painting attests to that possession of her world as a spiritual and sacred space for me because my maman had been there before and found explanation for herself in that space. She possessed the painting, the expression and the view of the actual place. She left her small, but complex, Franco-American neighborhood to travel clear across the state to find the place where Christina's world was in reality. I went because maman had gone. I went to find my maman's spirit, except I did not realize I would find it until I had arrived.

The Reading Of Marge Piercy's City of Darkness, City of Light From the Perspective of a Franco-American Woman

By Rhea J. Côté Robbins, Brewer, Maine

One can lay claims for oneself in the work of the Franco-American culture. But the fact of the matter is, in the women's area the bulk of knowledge remains largely unknown and uncovered. And if known, unbroadcast. The harvest is great and the workers are few. And in the area of women's studies, few and far between.

The whisper of women's lives in comparison to the shout! of their cultural male counterparts is often drowned out and unheard in relation to the histories of wars and warriors or traitors, the building of wars and roads, the work necessary and giant, or so history tells us. Women's lives have moved at a different pace and tempo. Taking the time to look at their lives means slowing down and focusing on the size of women's lives.

I am currently reading Marge Piercy's, City of Darkness, City of Light and to my own amazement, I find the large part women played in the Revolution on their own behalf as well as for the good of the people in general. I have read many books about the French Revolution before, but never from the women's perspective. Learning one's own history, going back and re-informing the self in the formation of your cultural group can be challenging, but rewarding. One thing leads to another. On the beautiful NET, internet, I want to find pages about the French Revolution. I stumbled upon a group of pages that publish facsimiles of the pamphlets from the Revolution. Again, I am amazed. History as it has never been told to me. Looking further I see a translation of, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, written by Olympe de Gouges, a character in Piercy's book. I must know more.

I find a timeline on the French Revolution, and on August 26, 1789 the National Assembly of France approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen . Citoyen, in French. Not citoyenne inclusive. So, de Gouges and citizeness Fontenay with the support of Marquis de Condorcet, in September 1791, modeled the women's rights declaration after the men's. "The men of the French Revolution forcibly suppressed the claim of the women to the rights of men, but in so doing so condemned their own principle..." (Catholic Encyclopedia, Electronic version, 1997 ).

 The French Canadians and the Franco-Americans, immigration to the North American continent was pre-French Revolution. Historically, we are a peasant people with artisans and other classes of society represented. Of those who immigrated, women came as well. What were the New France people thinking while the Revolution was taking place on the other side of the ocean? Since many of the French had immigrated in the 1600s, were there still family ties or had all ties been severed? What were the women of that era like in New France? I cannot answer these questions, but ones which Piercy's book has prompted for me. I have begun to look to see what I can find as evidence of the women's lives in that time frame in New France. Which, since La Conqu*te of the French by the British in 1760, New France was a conquered people. (1763, Le Grand D*rangement for the Acadians).

So many unanswered questions, and yet the Catholic Encyclopedia states: "After this the natural basis of society and the natural position of woman and the family were shaken to such extent by the French Revolution that the germ of the modern woman's suffrage movement is to be sought was no longer the family or the social principle that was regarded as the basis of the state, but the individual or the ego." As a Franco-American woman, I now need to know more. I need to understand the reasons why women fared as they did in this long history of the French people in attaining rights for women. I read with excitement today probably as much as the women of the French Revolution must of read The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen I am excited by Marge Piercy's, City of Darkness, City of Light from the perspective of a Franco-American woman. I am hungry for the details that she feeds in her prose. The untold story of the Revolution's women. Lines in the book strike me with a force of purpose these women served in the Revolution. To riot for bread and the justice of the prices of this staple was women's work. The men expected the women to take to the streets when the price of bread became the cause of starvation. In the midst of turmoil and setting to right the wrongs of the aristocrats and the royalty, these women made history. As a Franco-American woman I have come to a different, deeper understanding of the history of the French Revolution through Piercy's book. I have become more curious about my own historical women this side of the ocean in the same years and what were they thinking and doing. As part of the archeology of the Franco-American women and their stories, the recovery and foregrounding of their views, I want the whole story.

Franco-American Women's Studies

By Rhea J. Côté Robbins, Brewer, Maine

How does an organization like the Franco-American Women's Institute get at the definition of Franco-American femmes on this North American continent when for centuries there has been an atmosphere of silencing and misunderstanding.

 Historically, the layers of oppression for the French language/cultural conquered people have been: 1.) the men and women of the French Canadian (on Canadian soil), and here in the U.S., the Franco-Americans, cultural group facing off against the age-old oppressor--the dominant, English speaking culture. Historical reference points--La Conquête in Québec, 1760 and Le Grand Dérangement in New Brunswick, 1763 as well as assimilationist policies in the U.S. 2.) Looking under the microscope of social interaction, the men of the culture act as agents of oppression for the women of the culture as well.

But, the women of the culture knew, that in order for the cultural group to survive, it was crucial that they work with the men in survival tactics as a way in which to combat assimilation. The Franco-Americans are billed historically as the most unassimilable cultural grouping. That is said from the dominant culture's historical point of view. Underground, in the Franco-American culture, cheers of victory are heard round the New World. The Franco-Americans are also known as the Quiet Presence, there is even a book about them with that title. I have a poster in my room of wisdoms and one of the quotes say: "Silence is also speech." Sometimes silence is the only dignified answer one can give to grave insults and injuries. Nothing more can be said. The oppressors are not even worth responding to any longer. Stubborn is a definition I hear generations deep French descendants use to describe their ancestry. I was told this by a woman of the Acadian culture recently. She talked as if it was news from yesterday's paper. Because for the Acadian cultural group, it is. It is still news that they resisted. In silence and stubbornness.

I'm interested in the women's silences, what it meant, and for the women, how things have changed. While silence has served its purpose over the years, in refusing to answer a badly phrased request, as was in the case of assimilationists demands of the French on this continent, it is time to re-examine the conditions of the women's lives and tell their stories. Historically looking back, the danger is to measure history's events by the standards of today. For the women's movement or studies to look at the pronatalist policy which ensured the survival of the French culture on this continent as a tool of complete oppression for the French women is only partly a truth. As difficult as it was to have so many children, as was preached by the males of the French culture, the fact of the matter was, it worked. And it was the women who did achieve this victory, and they did it with woman's best tool of defenseÑtheir wombs. Ask Poland's Jews of today what they would think or feel about an influx of a new Jewish population into their country's culture?

In the case of the French, due to the 1670 and 1890 France instituted and Canadian laws of rewarding families with 10 and 12 living children with money and land, these laws ensured a population too large to be over-governed by the English conquerors.

The standards of measuring women's lives need to be adjusted to capture accurately their contributions and their choices made for survival of the group. Modern Franco-American women researching their ancestors come to value the contributions these women made in sacrifice to the culture.

How do the Franco-American women get around the silences imposed on their lives today which reflect a past of deep and integrated loyalty to the cultural collectivity as well as an unquestioned obedience to their male compatriots? Deep religious fervor transferred to the secular life. Women as secondary. Women as the backbone and the support of the family and community. Women as ethical arbiter in the exchanges. Women as moral code. Women as silent sufferer. Women as camp cook. Women as bearer and continuance of the cultural passing on of the torch.

It is an honest challenge which the Franco-American women of the Franco-American Women's Institute face. But I'm wondering who will hear us and take us seriously? Some in FAWI, not many, have a Ph.D. Some have their Masters degree. Others, have their undergraduate degrees. Still more are attaining their course work. Who will listen to community women develop research, make presentations, develop programming, write and publish books and more than that on the Franco-American women's culture and lives? Who will have the nerve to take us serious without patronization or an expectation of worship in exchange for providing spaces of voicings? Who will see to it that we have equal funding with the cultural, privileged males? Who will not sexually harass or frustrate the women doing the work with the excuse to hide behind that that is the way of the cultureÑ"all the sexual teasing" as a mark of perpetuating oppressions? Who will be larger than taking sides in the "gender" perpetuation of status quo privileging the cultural, dominant male point of view? Which cultural women will realize and value Franco-American women's studies as a viable area to pursue? How many Franco-American women will self-empower? Who will have the presence of mind to listen to us, to hear who we are as we go along on this journey of self-discovery as we move deeper into the women's experience historically? It will take time, respect, money, resources and freedom to examine and express.

We cannot be dictated to. Or designed to fit the male cultural mold and model. Or fashioned to enhance the cultural male historical perspective. We cannot, nor will we any longer accept the standard of self-effacement at the expense of ensuring only one half of the story told. We need to get at the oppressions and devise a definition for ourselves as to who we are and who we were. We cannot be expected to fit the women's studies, current fashion, opinion either ["See Minority Women of North America: A Comparison of Franch-Canadian and Afro-American Women," Jill M. Bystydzienski, American Review of Canadian Studies, 1985, XV, 4]. We must devise a women's studies, advocacy role for ourselves in conjunction with the larger picture. Our French women's history on this continent is a unique one, and one which deserves its own place in the academy and in the community.

We know that. But who else knows that?

Franco-American Women's Institute, 641 South Main St., Brewer, Maine 04412-2516 or

Visit our web pages at:

Who Owns a Culture's Expression of Itself?

By Rhea J. Côté Robbins, Brewer, Maine

Who own a culture's expression of itself. No one person, nor no one organization. There are no copyrights to be had on a culture's expression of itself. But those who wish to express a culture, every single person, has a piece of the expression. No one organization has the whole story. It takes many views to make up the landscape of a collectivity. Cultural groups work out of the principle of the collectivity. In the collectivity, there are the individuals in the whole, but the whole is the organizing and guiding principle of a cultural grouping.

 It is important that women speak and express their cultural sense of selves for themselves. It is important that that expression be free and freeing. Not one which first pays homage to the male of the culture, and then attends to her own needs. Neither one where the woman's voice or expression is sponsored by the males of the culture. A woman's voice which comes out of herself.

Franco-American women have been silent and silenced, sometimes self-silencing. Historically, the collectivity, the "extended family," has been the guiding principle of the women's lives. Keeping the family secrets. Oh, there have been a few renegades who tell the woman's side of the story. Some is written in French and some is written in English.

And it gets even more complicated if you bring in the issue of class which exists everywhere, and is not exempt from being present in the culture. None of us operate out of a vacuum. Our particular view is colored by what experiences we have gone through, who the people are that are present and in abstentia in our lives, what future hopes and dreams we hold for ourselves. Class is a part of the tint which colors the vacuum. Women of the same culture who are of different classes may have very little in common. It's a natural fact. And then again, class differences can be bridged. With careful planning and crafting of a design that incorporates equalities. Community Franco-American women and women who subscribe to other definitions of themselves, often job related, such as business women or academics, can be brought together and dialogue about the conditions of being Franco-American and female in a world which often overlooks the finer points of life. The Franco-American Women's Institute has helped to make it happen.

Can someone fall in love, again, with their culture? I guess that is the basic reason for the passion felt towards wanting an expression just for women only. It only makes sense. The cornerstone rejected, in this case, was myself in the process of attaining adulthood in an environment which reflected itself to me as the hip, cool, dominant 60's. Wow. I'm impressed. What a bunch of foolishness the 60s looked like in my house on Water St. in Waterville. 'down the plains,'" and last house on the right, just before the men's softball field. Our next-door neighbors, Mme. et M. Boucher. Fresh from Canada. Her with her perpetual bra or slip strap slipping, bending waist down, like the front lawn ornaments, butt to the wind, in her jardins, day in and day out....Her perpetual question: "Tu veux des concombres? J'avais des belles." "Non, merci," was my reply. Maman thought we shouldn't be beggars when we had some perfectly good cocombres growing right at home. Mémère lived next door. M'tante Daisy across the field. Kit and Darrell with their six boys nearby. Mr. Lachance, who always ate his desert before his meal, was found dead at the foot of the stairs in his house. Mrs. Thompson, doesn't sound French, but is VERY French, I found her again recently after 30 years or more since she had moved away from Waterville at Maison Marcotte in Lewiston. She remembered me in my youth and that I used to be a blond. "What happened to your hair?" she asked as I stepped into the time tunnel to talk to her. It's 1997, but you'd never know it in the collectivity. Time warp. That's what being cultural and in love with it is about. I do love this culture of mine. I used to hate it and I thought it hated me because of what happened to me because as they used to say/ask: "You must be French?" Today I would reply: "You must be a genius to recognize that."

 Does the Franco-American woman's expression make sense to anyone but herself? I hope so. I hope that the community storytelling ritual is still alive, well and kicking. It is. But we need to blow off the dust, the deep patina of modern society, that illusion which encrusts our sensibilities, and get at the basics. And we do it naturally every day. Every day we tell story of our self, and we express who it is we are. Women throughout the culture, either run away and hidden, or living it out en plein l'aire, sometimes the fesses en l'aire like Mrs. Boucher in our jardins, we tell story. It's who we are. Sometimes the "old standbys" as my maman used to call the things you can count on, and she wasn't talking the cheap seats on the plane, are the best in the long run.

If you ever wanted to know what the Franco-American Women's Institute is about, it is a place where, as they say in Québec, je me souviens, I remember myself, but we are MUCH, much more than just a memory. We are the collectors of women's lives, in story, song, poetry, academia, community, prayer and praise. We are the one for today, and for the future of us as well.

Franco-American Women's Institute, 641 South Main St., Brewer, Maine 04412-2516 or

Visit our web pages at:

The Franco-American Women's Voices

By/Par Rhea J. Côté Robbins, Brewer, Maine, February/March 1997

The State of Maine and the Franco-Americans. How did we get to be here? Between the years of 1820 and 1920 one million Québécois emigrated to the États-Unis, mostly to the Northeast to live and work. Many came to work in the mills and on the farms as wives, mamans, mém&eagraveres, sisters, aunts and daughters. A part of Maine's heritage is formed by the legacy of these French speaking, living, cultural mondes. We are the decendants of these women. This is a column to introduce you to who we are today and how our culture has evolved. Franco-Americans comprise a large percentage of Maine's population and proudly, whether poor or rich, we live on, know ourselves to be of French heritage and live a diverse definition of what it means to be female and FrancoøAmerican in the state of Maine.

 Below are quotes taken from community women and members of the Franco-American Women's Institute, FAWI, an organization that exists to raise the visibility of Franco-American women throughout the state as well as being a collection agency to archive Franco-American women's contributions to their families, communities and the state. Question: If there was something of who you are as a Franco-American woman, Québécois, Acadian, Métis or Mixed Blood, that you would pass on to the coming generation, what would that be? What would you pass on of your culture, family values, language, "home" knowledge?. What do we want to see live and prosper and not just be a museum piece.

 Katie Bossé:

 We need to accept ourselves as what we are. I am half French and half Scottish so I am told. Once in an argument with my father he said there was "Indian" in the family and another time his sister (my aunt) said that Uncle Bill looked like an Indian. What am I supposed to think. That the family has always been so bigoted towards the Penobscots in Old Town and I believe they have denied part of their heritage as well as put some of it down. Also, this same aunt took all the old family photos and burned them. You can imagine how some of us feel. She said she did it because she did not want anyone to make fun of how they were dressed. My aunt is a nice person, but somewhere she was made to feel shame. In addition to this some of my cousins make fun of their French selves in deprecating humor. So how are we supposed to feel good about ourselves if we feel shamed? I guess what I am saying is that truly it makes no difference what any of us are, but that whatever we are we should be proud of it and respect the sameness and differences in others.

 I am most concerned about what kind of person I am than where I come from. At the same time I do like holding on to a few things from my parents but need to let go of other things as well. I prefer to "borrow" what is good from all cultures and get rid of the detrimental stuff. I guess my neighborhood is the world. I prefer not to limit myself. If I could I'd visit other galaxies. I am not a parent therefore I cannot pass a thing on to that next generation. I have nieces and nephews, and friends who have children. I am the perpetual aunt. In all cases I try to share my love of them and all. In my contact with anyone I would like to leave them with a smile or better with a belly laugh

 Amy Bouchard Morin:

 I would say that for me the three most important things to pass on would be the family closeness, the needlework skills that maman taught me, and the language. The skills with needles that maman taught me I am already trying to pass on to my grandchildren. Knitting, crocheting, and sewing are very fulfilling and I can picture myself doing just as maman does in my old age, sitting in my "place" always with some project in my hands. As far as language goes, I am trying to teach my grandchildren French. I do take the guilt of not teaching my children, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grevious fault! My oldest son learned because he was curious as to what we were saying, my daughter took two years of French in high school and can understand if we don't speak too fast, but would never dare to try and speak (she says) and my youngest had no interest whatsoever in learning the language. But I am working on my grandchildren!

 Rhea Côté Robbins:

 You can live a whole lifetime absent from the sounds of French. Your maman's voice silenced now, eternally absent, orphans the tongue, la langue. It does not matter if I cannot speak French at this point of my life to recreate the sounds myself. Not like my maman did anyway. I can always learn French. The sounds of French evoke spirits of presence commonplace and taken for granted in my past daily surroundings. The sounds silenced lose that haunting quality of creating poignant, common events which make up who I am. (Words like fouilleuse, tenante, flatter spark flames at their very sound. Flames that light fires of re-knowing the self in a different way.) A snatch of conversation passing someone speaking French in a store crashes the flimsy screen which separates living en anglais or la vie en fran*ais. I heard my maman's voice speak to me in French every day. The world in Waterville, besides lived in technicolor, was also in French. Those sounds are my knowing who or what I am.

 Lucille Gosselin:

 The family traditions, the reunions, the get-togethers which make a close-knit family which is important for the coming generations, to feel connected to their heritage. The language and the music and the stories should not be forgotten as they are integral part of our heritage. Lewiston was a close-knit community and church family that gave us a sense of belonging and great support. Today the language is still kept and the connection to the Catholic Church is very strong even though the neighborhood, le petit Canada, has become less a symbol of unity in physical presence and is more a unifying force which shaped past generations. Just being able to speak French and being accepted for who you are as a Franco-American woman is like a freedom of being which I have not experienced for a long time. Since my youth. The Franco-American Women's Institute is a place where you can be yourself without apology or explanation.

 Lanette Landry Petrie:

 What came naturally as I raised my children was the love and importance of family, Catholic faith, hospitality, music, and taking care of our own. Without these, our small community of Bradley would not have survived. What wasn't as natural was the respect and pride in being Franco. As my own awareness was being raised in my mid-life years, I made a concerted effort to pass those things to my children and grandchild. There were things that I also made a concerted effort to lose. Among them were the dysfunction that happens around poverty and alcoholism as well as the awful guilt and lack of self-esteem. Not having the French language to pass on is a major loss.

 Yvonne Mazerolle:

 Hey Tenante! What would I want others to know? How M*m*re Michaud was eternal strength and alive with humor. How that family on my mother's side showed love, warmth, and humor. They sang. Christmas just filled m*m*re's house with the family gathering and eating and drinking. No "wierd" stuff like arguments and fights breaking out. She was a midwife. My mother tells me that I am alot like her in strength and character. I would also like the future to know that the Mazerolle family were one of the first to settle in up North. Exactly!!! The sounds touch deep into the soul. When I went to FAWI for the first time and whenever I hear a French accent or someone speaking the language. It feels good to my ears and brain. So soothing and relaxing. I feel my soul rejoice and come alive and yet settle right back into it like settling into warm comforting arms. Frusteuse was the word (pardon spelling) used to indicate fuilleuse as well. I heard it sooo often.

 Barbara Ouellette Ouellette:

 I guess what I can pass on from my Franco heritage in the culture would be the foodÑcorton, and salmon pie. In the family it would be the closeness we share and how we are still all in the Old Town area. The traditions of Christmas that my mother created for us, fudge, warm cooking smells eminating from the kitchen on Christmas Eve, and the family gathering together and sharing their lives. My needlework passed down to me from my M*m*re. As I work on this quilt with my Maman I am discovering just how much like my M*m*re that I am. All the unfinished projects that I have in my house, that I will complete eventually. My Memere died with several uncompleted projects, but my Maman said that she was always working on something. I am the same way, I cannot sit unless I have a needle in my hand, and then I am happy.

 Deborah Ouellette Small:

 The most important aspect of ethnicity is my faith in the Catholic Church. Even though I don't comfortably accept the male hierarchy decisions on certain things such as birth control, the absence of women priest, etc. . . what I do love about the Church is the rituals that have been passed down from generation to generation and now are recognized as tradition. Also, the simple presence of God in our life is more exposed in the teachings of the Church through the homilies. Big stuff and powerful. The second important element of being French is the closeness and the importance of family. Getting back to the presence of God in our life.. When I lved in Fort Kent I felt that the clock was turned back in time. I was a little girl again where my space was once occupied with French words floating in the air like dust. I took it for granted that it would always be a part of me even though I didn't speak it. When I hear French, I feel so warm and secure. Thanks to all of my Franco women friends, in your own special way you are awakening my French self in me.

 Arlene Pelletier Keaton Luzzi:

 Keep the oral tradition alive, tell the stories! Gather as often as you can and continue passing down the stories of relationships, yours, mine or others! When you cannot accurately remember the story or their words, someone will help fill in the gaps. Later, when you cannot remember, someone will give birth and let the story live on. Whether it's French or English or even a mix - share the story! Listen, laugh, cry and embrace the words that continue to give life.

 Bridget Robbins:

 I've been thinking about the difference between rural and urban ethnicity. The urban, New York City, environment allows for a culture to sustain and maintain their ethnicity. And then too, generationally, wow, um, It's a question of why there is a resurgence of Latino/Latina culture and not others for the younger people? Numbers and demographics play into it. But, definitely the urban culture allows for more expression of ethnicity.

 Ethel Shorette Hill:

 I would love to ensure that the family values piece would carry forward in a world that presently seems filled with turmoil and who knows what the future holds. The magic of the Christmas holiday with lots of family, fudge, popcorn balls, drinks, laughter and church. The tight knit families with everyone living close to one another and taking care of one another. Caring and sharing, love, laughter!

 The Franco-Ameican Women's Institute meets twice a month on Thursdays in Bangor at Borders Book Store. We hope to begin other chapters throughout the state.

To Hyphenate or not to Hyphenate: The Postcolonialism of Franco-American Writing

By Rhea Côté Robbins, Brewer, Maine, April 1997

Whether one is a hyphenated American or not, only one group of people can claim to be the one, true Americans, Turtle Islanders. The rest of us come from someplace else. Generationally, speaking.

I was invited to respond to the hyphen in Franco-American in this article. The suggested model for the examination of the hyphen is based on a philosophy espoused by Bharati Mukherjee, a writer, who came to America from India and fully embraces her new geography as the definer of self. I met and participated in a workshop at the University of Southern Maine led by Mukherjee and her husband, Clark Blaise. Blaise is of Franco-American extraction. He has written a book entitled, I Had A Father, in which he claims that his father denied his heritage. Blaise has also written a monograph, The Border As Fiction. As part of the workshop, we were presented with a set of questions that we discussed in small groups.

In re-reading my notes that were inspired by the discussion I find myself focusing on the hyphen looking back in time to the Franco and forward to the American, but still sitting on the border of self, the hyphenÑall three of whom I do not consider a fiction.

Question 1: (in the workshop): When (where) did you become conscious that you were or were not an American? What experiences led you to an awareness of such an identity? If you had the experience of feeling different, what distinguished you from Americans?

Question 2: To what extent is American identity based on birthplace, cultural heritage, and/or citizenship? Is it something fixed, a set standard to which we must conform? Who created this standard? Can it be changed or modified over time? If so, how? By means of assimilation, naturalization, marriage, and/or self creation?

To Question 1, I would answer I have always been conscious I was not an American. Born in Maine, I called myself French. But, around the age of 13 or so I realized that neither Canada nor France would own me as a citizen. Here I was still French just the same. What did that mean?

To Question 2, I answer we cannot deny the ancestors. No matter what. And why should we? Recently I attended another presentation and I heard for the first time realistically for myself that I am of Franco AND American extraction. Born French on American soil. A hyphen is a big deal. I happen to think they speak volumes. Of truth. For many Americans of many types of heritage and extraction. Bravo!

From the workshop my notes read: "Our doubts become our passions and our passions become our work." Either Clark or Bharati said that. Where did I get the doubt? For me, the hyphen is my doubt, therefore my passion, and i.e., my work. Which is writing the Franco-American woman's experience in creative nonfiction in a book entitled, Wednesday's Child, (desperately seeking publisher) and recovering, foregrounding and establishing the tradition of a Franco-American women's literature. Plus working with community Franco-American women, Québécois, Acadian, Métis and Mixed Blood, in developing an archive of contributions Franco-American women have made in their emigration experience.

To know one's history helps. To know one's literary history helps even more. That is where the border as fiction comes in, both literally and figuratively. Women writers of the French extraction have crossed borders in their writings back and forth since they immigrated to the American, Canada and the U.S., continent. Some wrote in French and some wrote in English. To them, and to readers, and to hopeful writers and researchers such as myself, their writings established their identity and the identity of the French woman on North American soil. In the beginning, England, Spain, France and more were colonizers and "discoverers" of the New World. High stakes bingo wars in Europe determined the fates of the colonizers. France did not win the megabucks. To say the least. So the French immigrants became the colonized of the English in Canada. The French even got themselves an English royalty in the draw. There on in, the French language was a colonized language and the French people were a colonized people. To this day. That is what the Quebec Referendum is about. Uncolonization. From the time of the Conquest, to now, the writings of the French Americans have been a postcolonial affair.

What does that mean to one who is of tenth generation French heritage still claiming to be French? What of the others who have written of their Frenchness, their French Canadianess, their Franco-Americanness? Their writings are of a cultural group dominated by another. The knowledge of one's literature helps explain and inform the individual to tell the myths which fuel the culture. Without myths, a culture loses a piece of itself. The ember of remembrance is alive, but someone, somewhere possesses the power to ignite the flame of self-knowledge. In my studies, establishing the Franco-American women's writings as post-colonial alongside other colonized and dominated cultures has the power to undo the domination.

I say this because I am a hyphenated, cultural woman and Franco comes first and then American. I am American because of the geography I was born on and I am Franco because my ancestry is of French extraction. I am of a colonized peoples because the English won the war. Way back then and history plays itself out in the quotidienne. Skin tone is not a qualifier in colonizing. White Western Other in places such as Canada and the U.S. have a history unknown to a large extent in the academy and in the community. The unknown not represented by a hyphen, but more like a gap in the mainstream knowledge bank.

Diversity is in the U.S. And it is here to stay. Of the 1 million emigrants which left Quebec and moved to the U.S. to work, there are an estimated 5 to 7 million descendants. I think they deserve a recognized body of literature, especially the women. And that it be incorporated in the school curriculums. Alongside other ethnicities' body of literature. Exploding the canon...hyphennationizations flying around all over the place. Recognized. Received. Beinvenued.

Franco-American Women's Studies: A Privilege Shared

By Rhea J. Côté Robbins, Brewer, Maine, May 1997

Franco-American women of today and the future. Who are these women? What have been their formation experiences? What can they hope for themselves and for their culture to be carried forward like a balance account running in the black towards the upcoming millennium? How can the Franco-American women become a part of the Women's Studies focus of this state and elsewhere? How can the privileges of creating scholarship on Franco-American women be a shared experience? In the introduction to their book Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction, Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs write: "The task we set for ourselves in embarking on this volume was to introduce and explore the rich tradition of women's experimental fiction in this century. This work, archaeological and compensatory, is in line with one of the important and active projects of feminist literary criticism, the recovery and foregrounding of women writers."

 Recovery and foregrounding of women writers. How about, the recovery and foregrounding of womens voices in a cultural milieu such as Franco-American? That is what the latest movement in the Franco-American women's consciousness is about in the work of the Franco-American Women's Institute.

 We are a group of Franco-American women daring to focus on ourselves. There are, and have been, plenty of Franco-American women who have accomplished much in service to the culture in general. We are the Franco-American woman who values her life and her female predecessors' lives enough to want to create scholarship exclusive for them. Where does a group of Franco-American women go to achieve such goals for themselves? Franco-American women in the Institute are determined to recover and foreground our mémère's, our maman's, m'tante's, soeur's histoires, and to reclaim our own myth making.

 In culture making there is the ingredient called dominant, in it exists the cultural "other" such as the Franco-American women, assimilating, not assimilating, practicing pieces of their culture in the modern version from memory or rituals of the past. Living out the cultural other in the dominant is called the "residual" out of which is formed the emergent, instituting new practices, new meaning, new relationships, new ritual.

 The Franco-American Women's Institute participates in the dominant culture, practices the residual of the culture, formations from the past, and then also is in the process of creating a new and emergent identity. An identity which has the woman in the spotlight. What has her life been like all of these silenced years? What has she been thinking? What has she been doing? This identity viewed not from the suggestion of a general cultural lens, but from one which we fashion ourselves. Out of our own stories. In September of this year, at the University of Southern Maine there will be a national conference funded by the National Science Foundation entitled: Inclusive and Interdisciplinary: Building the New Curriculum and twelve Franco-American women of the Franco-American Women's Institute will be there offering varied views of what it means to be Franco-American and woman, femme in the Northeast. Building the new curriculum.

 We are in the process of building a knowledge of our recovered, foregrounded, and futured learning which has been long overdue in the focus of women's studies in the Northeast. As a land bridge culture, the Franco-American women compare with the Hispanic/Latinas/Chicanas of the Southwest. We too have had many border crossings in our existences. We have been pioneering women in a North/South crossing. The mills and farms of New England were fed by the labors of the ethnicities, one of which have been the Franco-Americans. Our women possess a literary tradition as well as an oral tradition and many rituals of culture. As Franco-American women of the 21st century, our work is one of valuing those traditions.

 All the hard work of our predecessors will be a kept record, added to the projects and processes on which the Franco-American Women's Institute will be focusing. This one's for you, pour les femmes française.

Rhea J. Côté Robbins is Director of The Franco-American Women's Institute.

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