A Farm & Family — The Lives of Women in Lower Canada

This is a painting by Helen Galloway McNicoll circa 1907. It is oil on canvas and shows a girl with a tin bucket walking in a meadow with a few chickens nearby.

In the early 1800s, only a few major cities existed in Canada—Montreal, Quebec City, and Trois Rivières. Beyond these places, the land was spotted with small, rural towns. As populations rose, small “urban villages” began to grow. Although the upper-class elite often dictated a town’s growth and progression, the region’s livelihood and economy was almost exclusively shaped by the efforts of working class farmers. Agriculture and family-life were very interwoven during this time; both women and men worked tirelessly to sustain themselves and their community.

Keeping with the norm of other Western cultures at the time, Lower Canada was patriarchal. Although this meant that women had few natural rights, they occasionally had opportunities to assert themselves in society. In some cases, if a woman’s husband died, she could inherit his business—like an inn or tavern.  However, most women remained as the primary caretaker for their family and farm.

Black and white photo taken by Samuel McLaughlin, titled "Winter Scene in Canada" taken in 1859.  It features a woman standing close to a horse next to a house in the winter.

McLaughlin, Samuel. “Winter Scene In Canada.” Library and Archives Canada, Quebec, 1859,

Due to the ambiguity of some laws, occasionally there were women in Lower Canada who were able to vote. The passing of the Constitutional Act of 1791 allowed any landowner the right to vote without the distinction of gender. When the chance arose that a woman happened to own land, they could use this loophole. In 1849, however, the government altered the law to include gender as a distinguishing point. It wasn’t until 1892 that the Premier of Quebec, Charles E. Boucher de Boucherville, passed legislation that allowed single and landowning women the right to vote—sadly this didn’t include the ability to run for office. In 1940 women in Quebec finally gained these rights in full.

The lives of women were difficult on many fronts during this time, and childbirth was no different. Many of the challenges they faced were similar to women today, but the risks were higher. They feared for both their child’s life as well as their own. Miscarriages, still-births, and the mother’s mortality were very common concerns.

A black and white wood print made by Gustave-Joseph Witkowski 1887.  Image depicts a birthing scene.  The woman giving birth is sitting being braced by three others with the midwife helping the birth.
“American Pioneer Birth Scene.” Histoire Des Accouchements Chez Tous Les Peuples, by Gustave-Joseph Witkowski, G. Steinheil, 1887

Few records exist which detail the experiences of women during pregnancy from this time, but the writings that have been found reveal descriptions of fear and exhaustion. A woman would normally be surrounded by female relatives and midwives instead of her husband. Apparently husbands began to be present for childbirth sometime in the 1830s, but ultimately sources indicate that it was still the decision of the wife about who would be in attendance.

Although much of the daily life for women in Lower Canada in the 1800s is somewhat recognizable to us, it was clearly much more restricted than the lives we lead now. It was a life of labor with little freedoms in return. Through hard work and dedication, the women of this time helped to create the sturdy foundation and culture that their descendants have built upon ever since. After years of fighting for equal rights and asserting their importance, it is clear to see why we have the dedicated and strong women in Franco-American culture that we do today.

Thanks for Reading!

This post was written by Erin Best. It was produced by Rhumb Line Maps and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program in January 2021. We would like to give a special thanks to the Bicentennial Grant that made this possible.

Title Image Citation:

McNicoll, Helen Galloway. The Little Worker. c1907, Musée des beaux-arts de l’Ontario, Toronto, Ontario.


Writer — Erin Best
Editor — Emily Meader & Ben Meader
Media Sources — Internet Archive, Library and Archives Canada, WikiMedia
Further Reading
Lower Canada:
Greer, Allan. The Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Bumsted, J. M. The Peoples of Canada: a Pre-Confederation History. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Noël Françoise. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870: a View from Diaries and Family Correspondence. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.
Female Rights:
“Right of Quebec Women to Vote and Stand for Office.” Élections Québec, www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/english/provincial/voting/right-to-vote-of-quebec-women.php.
“10.7 Gender Roles.” Canadian History: Pre-Confederation, by John Douglas Belshaw, BCcampus, BC Open Textbook Project, 2017. https://opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/chapter/10-7-gender-roles/

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