1. French women were vastly outnumbered by French men in New France, which meant women of all races and classes were afforded legal and social privileges they would not have had in traditional French society.
2. The labor and collaboration of Native women was critical to the survival of New France.
3. The Catholic Church played a significant role in the colonization of the Native people who inhabited the territory claimed as New France.
4. The legal status of enslaved black women evolved over the course of the early colonial period.
Women in the French Colonies, 1624-1715
The French colonies of North America were considerably less sophisticated than those of the English, Spanish, and Dutch in the 1500s and 1600s.
The kings of France wanted a colonial presence in North America to keep up with their European rivals, but they devoted fewer resources to developing and populating their holdings there, devoting their attention to the more profitable sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The French government limited the number of citizens who were allowed to migrate to the colonies, and most of those who immigrated went to the Caribbean, with the result that the vast territory of New France, which began as small settlements along the St. Lawrence River before expanding south along the Mississippi River and west along the Great Lakes, was always sparsely populated, and the survival of the colony depended on close cooperation with the Native communities who already inhabited the land.
Because New France was so underdeveloped, it attracted very few French women and families. The majority of the population were unmarried traders and soldiers who moved there to make their fortunes before returning to France. But despite being vastly outnumbered, women of all races and social classes were critical to the foundation and the growth of New France. It was Native women who developed the agricultural crops and techniques that allowed Native and colonial communities to feed themselves. Enslaved black women bore the weight of the empire’s preoccupation with profiting from the slave trade, and openly fought against the confines of enslavement. Ursuline nuns migrated from France to work at the front lines of the mission to convert Native communities to Catholicism, and it was a young Mohawk woman who showed the colony how powerful the amalgamation of European and Native cultures could be. When the king of France realized his colony could not survive without the ability to reproduce itself, the Filles du Roi answered his call; one woman born in Quebec was so successful she earned a place in the French aristocracy.
Section Essential Questions
1. What were the rights and responsibilities of women in colonial French society?
2. How did race, class, and social differences affect the lives of the women in New France?
3. How did women contribute to the establishment of new societies in the New World?
4. What gender specific challenges did women face in the French colonies?