A Compelling History

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Review by Shannon Devine, Our Times, Feb/March 2013

FEMINISM À LA QUÉBÉCOISE — from the very title I was enthralled. Originally titled Le féminisme québécois raconté à Camille (Quebec Feminism As Told To Camille), the book is an entertaining and highly readable account of the feminist movement as described by acclaimed Quebec women’s historian Micheline Dumont. Originally published in French in 2008, the century-long chronicle was penned with the goal of explaining the rich history of the Quebec feminist movement to Dumont’s granddaughter Camille.

The book was carefully and lovingly translated by Nicole Kennedy, a feminist activist and organizer in her own right, and published in 2012 by the Feminist History Society.

Feminism à la Québécoise details the extensive and complex efforts of Quebec women, particularly Francophone women, from 1890 to 2012, to secure basic rights under the law and promote women’s equal position and status in Quebec society. It imbues the reader with a deep appreciation for the legacy of the women’s movement in Quebec and its astonishing impact on public and private life.

Each chapter opens with a description of the lives of young women of that era, an effective tool that Dumont uses to situate the women in the Quebec society of their time. The book begins in 1890:

Ernestine, Marie, Antoinette, Eugenenie and Imelda are all 17 years old. Almost all of them have been to school. Like all good French Canadian girls, they say their catechism and prayers every day. They far surpass their brothers in their knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic. . . But higher education is out of the question for them. University is prohibited, unless, of course, they were Anglophone, rich and Protestant.

As a reader, I was immensely touched by the courage, determination and audacity of women activists throughout the ages. From the late 19th century, Quebec women had to work hard to shake off the chokehold of the Catholic Church, which governed their every move. The dictates of the church shaped the lives of women and girls to the point that they could not even go to school past a certain age. Secondary schooling simply did not exist for Catholic Francophone young women. Dumont has meticulously documented it all.

Some of the earliest fights taken on by the women’s movement in Quebec were not aimed overtly at improving women’s position. Even the most mili- tant of women were careful not to be labelled “feminist,” because it could compromise one’s ability to work within the system for change, and draw severe suspicion and reprimand from authori- ties. Women campaigned for temper- ance, public bathhouses, green spaces, kindergartens, medical services for childbirth, and of course, women’s suffrage. Quebec women had lost the right to vote in 1834, only to fully regain it more than a century later, in 1940. Theological arguments were made to counter feminist demands, calling such ideas as women’s suffrage and rights under the law “against the family” and “Protestant” in origin.

Early women’s actions were tied up in social welfare projects. In fact, the Fédération Nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a committee of society matrons, had as its motto “justice through charity.” Much of Quebec’s vibrant not-for-profit sector owes its existence to women’s organizations and collectives, particularly the radical ones of the 1970s. Cells of the Front de libération des femmes du Québec were among the first to set up rape crisis centres, cooperative child care, women’s shelters and many other institutions that continue to thrive in the province.

Dumont highlights that the women’s movement in Quebec, at every stage in its history, found advocates among female (and some male) journalists, who were essential in raising issues of concern on the front pages of the newspapers, the radio and even on television. It may seem unimaginable now, but, for decades, feminist issues enjoyed much main- stream media support. Feminists also made their own media, with magazines like Le coin de feu (1893), and a plethora of publications throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, like then feminist-leaning Châtelaine (1960) Québécoises Debuttes! (1972), Les Folles Alliées (early 1980s) and numerous others. There were also great waves of cultural production on a grand scale: successful theatre troupes, art shows, films, poetry readings and the establishment of feminist publishing houses, such as les éditions du remue- ménage, which published the French version of this book.

One the most compelling elements of this history was the relationship between feminism and Quebec sovereignty. The Front de libération des femmes du Québec, one of the radical groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was formed out of a frustration with flagrant inequality within other progressive groups, particularly within the larger sovereigntist movement. Its motto was “Pas de libération des femmes sans libération du Québec, pas de libération du Québec sans libération des femmes.” The FLFQ was closely tied to the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). The FLFQ shook up Quebec society, likening marriage to modern-day slavery due to a grossly unbalanced distribution of labour, protesting (and changing) the prohibi- tion on women serving as jurors, and the exclusion of women from local taverns. The many renditions of Fédér- ation des femmes du Québec, founded in 1960 and still in existence today, is also well-documented — its path from a centrist institution to a more activist, on-the-ground feminist organization.

Dumont’s history of Quebec feminism is honest and not without dark spots, like when known feminist film- maker Lise Payette made a documentary called Disparaitre (Disappearing) about Quebec’s declining birthrate and the “menace” posed by the increasing number of immigrants to Quebec. It caused members of the Immigrant Women’s Centre to boycott an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, where Payette was the keynote speaker. Dumont also describes how some feminists bristled in 1999 when the Montreal-based sex- workers’ rights group joined the Fédération des femmes du Québec. As in every other case, she recounts fairly the arguments on each side.

Fittingly, Dumont ends the book with this scenario:

Young women in 2012 — their names are Catherine, Stephanie, Jessica, Audrey, Alexandra, Emilie, Vanessa, Melanie, Sabrina. They are 17 years old. Almost all of them went to daycare. . . . Most plan to go to university. They’re dreaming of holding all kinds of jobs in the future. Nothing is off limits. . . . Do they understand that it took the energy of thousands of women, during more than a century, to create the society we live in today? They ought to know that feminism is the political movement that generated the most profound and momentous changes in our society.

With great flair and affection, Dumont has demonstrated why Camille and the rest of us should appreciate the incredible efforts of our foremothers, in Quebec and right across the country.

Shannon Devine is communications director for the Canadian Auto Workers union. She lived in Quebec for seven years before moving to Toronto for work.

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