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Quebec Women Take Action

For the week of Monday November 26, 2007

The Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste was founded on November 30, 1907. The event marked the beginning of women’s activism in French-speaking Quebec.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was concern about the effects of industrialization. The shift from rural to urban areas had caused poverty, crowded living conditions, poor hygiene and pollution. Infant mortality, for example, accounted for 12.6% to 17% of deaths in Quebec. Middle-class women throughout Canada hoped to overcome these problems through organized social work. Since women had traditionally been expected to remain in the home, they justified their new activities with maternalist ideology, the belief that they had an obligation to extend their nurturing, maternal qualities into the “public sphere.”

Members of the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean Baptiste circa 1925

Members of the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean Baptiste circa 1925
© Courtesy of National Theatre School.

 

The Catholic Church’s dominance in Quebec, however, limited women’s social work mostly to nuns. Furthermore, Quebec nationalists believed that the family and women’s presence in the home were essential to preserving French culture and Francophone women were discouraged from becoming involved in public life. As a result, most Quebec groups of laywomen were Anglophone and Protestant.

The Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste evolved from the women’s committee of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. In order to appease the Church and conservative political groups, the Fédération adopted Christian feminist ideology, which was prevalent in France.

The FNSJB’s social work was prolific. Along with its own committees, the Fédération co-ordinated approximately 20 affiliated groups in initiatives to combat poverty, infant and maternal mortality, alcoholism and prostitution. They also carried out programs to promote education, safety and improved working conditions for females.

In keeping with its maternalist agenda, the FNSJB made progress in the struggle for women’s rights. During this period, women in Quebec were subject to almost the same Civil Code that had existed in the 16th century. Under the law, they were treated as minors. They could not vote or access higher education. The Fédération and several other women’s groups under the leadership of Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie were able to convince the provincial government to create a commission on women’s rights. The Dorion Commission resulted in some reforms to the Civil Code, including giving married women the right to control their own salaries and wealth that they had possessed before marriage.

The FNSJB started to decline during the 1920s and ceased to exist in 1978. By carving out a place for French-Canadian women in social work and political activism, the organization played a significant role in the Quebec women’s movement. The founding of the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste is a National Historic Event and Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie is a National Historic Person.

For more information on the Quebec feminist movement, see the This Week in History story on Idola Saint-Jean, "A Fighter."

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