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The Good Word of Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie

For the week of Monday October 13, 2014

On October 19, 1867, Marie Gérin-Lajoie (née Lacoste) was born in Montréal, Quebec. She would become a women’s rights activist who helped redefine the legal status of women in Quebec.

Her husband Henri Gérin-Lajoie was supportive of her social activism
© BAnQ, Centre d’archives de Montréal/ Collection Institut Notre-Dame du Bon-Conseil de Montréal/ P783, S2, SS9

At a time when women were not yet accepted in French Canadian universities, Marie Gérin-Lajoie educated herself in the legal libraries of her father and later her husband, Henri Gérin-Lajoie. She used this understanding of law to advocate for women’s right to attend universities and work in professions, and to educate the women around her.

In 1907, Gérin-Lajoie co-founded, with Caroline Dessaules-Béique, the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste (FNSJB), uniting women’s groups to work towards common goals, including charitable causes and women’s rights, such as the right to enter universities and professions. Serving as its president from 1913 to 1933, she also created its journal, La Bonne Parole, and published a Treatise on Everyday Law. In this, she explained how the law negatively affected the lives of women, denying them the right to own property or earn wages, and how everyday women could effect change.

While most women could vote in federal elections as of 1918, women could not yet vote in Quebec’s provincial elections. Like many early feminists, Gérin-Lajoie believed that women were the caretakers and moral champions of the family, and that these roles should be extended to all of society. Voting would allow women to fight social problems such as alcoholism and infant mortality. However, the International Union of Catholic Women’s Leagues in Rome decided that women’s suffrage was a local matter and most bishops in Quebec were against women’s suffrage. This forced Gérin-Lajoie and the highly religious FNSJB to abandon that campaign in 1922. Thankfully, other women continued the fight and women were finally given the right to vote in Quebec in 1940.

Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie
©BAnQ, Centre d'archives de Montréal/ Collection Institut Notre-Dame du Bon-Conseil de Montréal/ Larose/ P783, S2, SS9

Gérin-Lajoie’s greatest cause was reforming Quebec’s Civil Code, which treated married women like minors. In 1929, along with other women’s groups, she presented her views to the Dorion Commission (a commission looking into the status of women’s civil rights in Quebec), arguing that married women should have more control over their wages and property. Thanks to all the women who testified before the commission, married women could now be legal guardians, collect their own salaries, and purchase whatever they wanted with their hard-earned money!

As a champion of women’s rights in Quebec, Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie has been designated a National Historic Person.

To learn more about the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste National Historic Event, please see Quebec Women Take Action, or read more about women’s rights in the This Week in History archives: What do you mean “old maid from McGill”?, A Fighter, A Pioneer of Women’s University Education and The Canadian Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

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