Women in New France

In New France parental permission to marry was required for minors, but the age of majority was twenty five, thus people couldn’t engage before this age without parental consent.

Even when young men and women were of majority age marriage that was not approved by the parents was at least frowned upon. The role of women in the family was simple: she had to subordinate her wishes to the imperatives of family life.

The colony’s life was built on the French law, and this law was based on a paternal and authoritarian ideology I which women had to act as subordinates of their fathers and husbands. In every marriage the male head exercised legal powers over the family, and his wife and children were to respect his authority.

Only adult women outside marriage, usually spinsters or widows, had little autonomy. The man was permitted to punish his wife physically. But the man was to provide for his family, and if a battered wife proved that her live was in danger, she had the right to be granted separation. Men also managed their wives’ estate (generally, the rule was the same for any country), but in New France man couldn’t mortgage or alienate property that his wife ha brought into marriage or that she inherited without her permission.

We know that occasionally, married women filed file for a separation of estates on ground that their husbands were mismanaging their affairs, because of alcoholism (rather frequently) or beating. But divorce was prohibited by church, thus couple were always considered married even though they lived apart.

Despite all the restrictions, some women used their legal rights to manage properties, to run businesses or to decide inheritances. Some of them became famous throughout Canada as businesswomen.

For example, Mme Marie-Clarllotte Denys de la Ronde, widow of the lieutenant governor of Montreal, Claude de Ramezay, took over her husband’s business after he had died in 1724. She reorganized his sawmill and produced planks for the local market and for export. She also became an important landowner, had a brickyard, a tile factory and a tannery. Her daughter Louis helped her to run business. Other widow operated small businesses such a tavern or a shop. In 1751, of twenty-three people fined for operating a tavern without a licence in Quebec City, six were widows. Many other widows had to take boarders or became domestic servants.

Many times, they hired their children out as servants.

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