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  • A Brief History of Women in Quebec by Denyse Baillargeon
  • Cheryl Gosselin
Denyse Baillargeon. A Brief History of Women in Quebec. Trans. W. Donald Wilson. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. xii, 272. $24.99

Denyse Baillargeon delivers a multi-faceted and detailed narrative of the history of Quebec women from the time the French settled the St. Lawrence River valley in the seventeenth century to the twenty-first century. Baillargeon’s scholarly insights into the past allow her to show that the determining factor shaping many areas of women’s lives was a “diversity of circumstances.” This diversity of circumstances becomes the key framework for the understanding of women’s complex historical experiences. Each of the eight chapters corresponds to a specific historical period, although this periodization is fluid, that defines the most salient conditions shaping women’s lives during these moments in time. The conditions include demographic factors, women’s domestic labour and workforce participation, education, access to professions, and the impact of culture and gender, religion, and government policies on private and public lives, as well as feminist activism. Throughout the book, the author is sensitive to articulate an inclusive history of the identities of Quebec women from French and English linguistic backgrounds and from different social classes, religions, and ethnic, racial, and Aboriginal origins.

The first chapter opens with the daily labour activities of Aboriginal women before contact with the French. While gender relations followed more or less rigid sex lines, Baillargeon points to anthropological and archaeological findings that reveal the relative independence and autonomy enjoyed by females in their societies. With European contact the [End Page 435] status of Aboriginal women changed, resulting in negative impacts on their social roles, but overall their position did not become devalued until industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century. During this time the French regime is often known as a golden age for European women, but not all enjoyed this era in the same way, and whatever opportunities women had were tempered by their subjection to male domination.

Chapter two explores the lives of women during the early years of British colonial rule (1780–1840) and the arrival of English-speaking Loyalists settlers, which altered the demographic makeup of Quebec as well as the political structures of Lower Canada. Against the backdrop of pre-industrial society, the author highlights women’s working and family lives across linguistic, class, and immigrant groups. During this period a double network of social service and charity groups, run by French Catholic nuns and anglophone Protestant women, was developed to help the neediest members of the population. The 1840s mark a decisive point in women’s political representation owing to the rise of a wealthy liberal bourgeois sentiment among men that strongly challenged women’s participation in political citizenship. The culmination of this struggle was a law enacted in 1849 abolishing female suffrage and the introduction of a strident male definition of citizenship.

Chapters three and four feature the impact of industrialization and urbanization on women’s lives. During these two periods (1840–80 and 1880–1920) these processes had profound effects on class and gender relations. As more and more unmarried women were pulled into the labour market, the ideology of separate spheres became firmly entrenched, establishing the association between women and the domestic realm and leaving the market economy a male prerogative. Although these upheavals were uneven across class, linguistic, and regional lines, they nonetheless sparked the feminist movement, which became an important force in the campaign for female suffrage.

Chapter five is devoted to the interwar years (1920–40), when new models of womanhood emerged along with increased agitation by women’s political groups for the right to vote, as well as a decrease in fertility rates and growing state intervention in women’s lives. Chapter six becomes a prelude to the feminist revolution of the 1960s. The period between 1940 and 1965 saw society-wide transformations affecting women’s private and public lives. The entry of married women into the labour market and female activism surrounding their social and legal status are key markers of this era. The period covered in the seventh chapter (1966–89) highlights the demands for...


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pp. 435-437
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