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Reviewed by:
  • Brève histoire des institutrices au Québec de la Nouvelle-France a nos jours
  • Jan Noel
Brève histoire des institutrices au Québec de la Nouvelle-France a nos jours. Andrée Dufour and Micheline Dumont. Montreal: Boréal, 2004. Pp. 220, $17.95

While some subscribers to The Canadian Historical Review may be guilty of writing voluminously about a micro-topic, Professors Dufour and Dumont undertook a small book about a large subject. Female schoolteachers in Quebec constitute a cast of thousands that influenced most of the population at an impressionable age. Covering four and a half centuries of francophone and anglophone teachers in some two hundred pages, the authors have produced a serviceable text that will appeal to those interested in the history of Quebec, education, and women. Schoolteachers themselves might prefer it to another coffee mug the next time a gift is in order, for here is stimulation of another kind. Concise longue durée history allows even the harried the pleasure of reflecting on the steps that led to today.

As the authors note, curriculum and teaching conditions say a great deal about changing times. According to their schema, teaching girls in New France was the preserve of nuns and arose for purposes of Christianization. This restriction was followed by new forms of teaching by both Protestant and Catholic laywomen stressing literacy and numeracy to meet the needs of industrialism. Later sections show the transition towards universal, standardized, and secularized schooling in the decades around the Second World War. Finally, feminism and the late twentieth century brought equitable treatment to female teachers, who had so long been under-trained, underpaid, and insecure. The schema sits somewhat uncomfortably at times; for example, educational historian Roger Magnuson found a few colonial laywomen teaching in the seventeenth century, and the supposition that schooling took a sharp turn in the British period as a result of exigencies of the Industrial Revolution runs up against the realities that industrialism touched few Quebeckers before 1850, and that Catholic nationalism from the 1840s posed a strong counterweight to any materialist agenda. [End Page 148]

Catholicism figures largely in any survey of teaching in Quebec. The book shows clearly how nuns quickly became the female elite of the profession, teaching at the higher levels, serving as administrators, and conducting normal schools while youthful lay recruits toiled away in the lower grades. Intriguing questions surface about how the legions of communally subsidized nuns affected the pay and status of lay teachers. A future researcher might make fuller comparative use of the literature on schoolteachers in Ontario and the Maritimes, and delve more deeply into the apparently earlier feminization of the profession in Lower Canada than in sister provinces.

All around the countryside, young women living alone in schoolhouses rose early to light the stove and sweep the room before their motley class arrived. They were highly disposable workers. Well into the twentieth century they needed only a grade 8 education (in contrast to male teachers, who were better educated and paid double). Fired at the end of each year, they were not rehired if they married. Yet an expanding school system created such demand that by the early twentieth century over two thousand teachers a year were being certified, mostly women who taught for about five years. Here, the authors show, was fertile ground for early feminism, beginning with National Council of Women support for Protestant teachers in the 1890s. Feminist syndicalist Laure Gaudreault rallied rural teachers in the depths of the Depression. With the labour-friendly encyclical Rerum Novarum softening the authorities a bit, at last they got a federation, $400 a year, and a little more security. The concept that only a man could earn a 'family wage' (even when females supported elderly parents) persisted into the 1950s.

Teachers have come a long way. The historical sections document the changes with apt statistics and frequent allusion to findings of other educational historians (unannotated, but appearing in the bibliography). The book's weakest chapter is 'L'institutrice d'aujourd'hui,' which overuses data from the mid-1980s. Needed are up-to-date statistics about how many women make it into...


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pp. 148-149
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