New History of Quebec Feminism

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The following article by Shari Graydon appeared in the Sherbrooke Record in December, 2012.

Even before Pauline Marois was elected Premier of her province, she and Quebec Solidaire’s Francoise David made history earlier this year as the first two female candidates facing each other in a Quebec election leadership debate. Afterwards, pundits expressed surprise at how effective David was, considering her relative inexperience.

But – as a new book about the history of Quebec woman makes clear – David has been debating issues for decades. The recently elected MNA is just one of dozens of equally under-appreciated but inspirational Quebec women whose advocacy activities are profiled and celebrated in the English translation of Feminism à la Québécoise, by Micheline Dumont.

A respected scholar who specializes in the history of women in Quebec, Dumont wanted to acquaint her granddaughter’s generation with the impact that feminists had on shaping the province. To that end, she abandoned academic language and moved the footnotes to the back. Reviewers have noted that the result is a book that chronicles the history of women’s activism in a lively and accessible way.

The vignette-like chapters explore everything from the feminist campaign for voting rights, women’s role in the war, and the development of the Federation des Femmes, to consciousness raising about domestic violence, tensions during the 1980 Referendum, and the organization of the World March of Women.

The personality-filled historical snapshots are offset by brief accounts of the realities faced by young women at various times. Dumont describes the “narrow, protected and tightly monitored world” of the 1890s, in which most girls were expected to leave school by 14, marry early, and have many children. In the 1940s, girls were often servants to their brothers, told “you don’t need a degree to change diapers”, and automatically dismissed from jobs once they married.

But the power of the book comes from the profiles of the women in every generation who – driven by a vision of a more equitable future – refused to be constrained by the rigidity of their times, and lobbied and agitated for change.

Feminism à la Québécoise was published by the Feminist History Society earlier this year, just a few months before Quebec’s most recent election. Although the book doesn’t feature Pauline Marois’ triumph in becoming the first female premier of Quebec, it does provide a complex and fascinating look into the women’s movement that made her historic achievement possible.

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