The Status of Women in New France
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-18


In the spring of 1734, a fire occurred in Montréal that destroyed a hospital and 45 houses on rue Saint-Paul. Criminal proceedings were soon underway against Marie-Josèphe, dite Angélique, a Black slave, and her White lover, Claude Thibault. The latter fled, leaving Angélique on her own to prove her innocence.

Twenty witnesses filed before the judge, many of them women. Ultimately, Angélique was found guilty based on one late and mysterious statement by a five-year-old girl. Forced to confess her crime under torture, Angélique was publicly executed on June 21, 1734.

Did you know that slavery and state-authorized torture were part of Canada’s early history? These are not the topics that traditionally find their way into Canadian high school textbooks. New France is presented typically as the story of exploration and trade, of coureurs de bois and furs, of the seigneurial system and royal governors. Women enter only in the margins of history; we may learn that the filles du roi were sent out to New France, but we know little of the fabric of their lives. Why do we know so little about the lives of women in the past?

Fortunately, fragments of this story are accessible in primary documents from the period — the testimony in the trial of Angélique, colonial correspondence, personal diaries, and letters. These documents open windows into an important, yet neglected aspect of life in New France: What was life like for women in eighteenth century Quebec?

The Task

In this MysteryQuest, you will develop a profile of the social and political status of various groups of women in New France. You will first learn about the general conditions during the first half of the eighteenth century. Next, you will analyse eight primary documents to learn about the different roles of women and the social values reflected in these roles. Your task will be to identify relevant facts provided in the documents and to draw inferences about the conditions experienced by various women during this period. You will then use this information to compare these women’s quality of life and social position. Your final task is to rank order the eight women or groups of women according to their relative status in this colonial society.

continue investigation …

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Original post by Mr. D. Sader

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