The Status of Women in New France
Ages 14-18

MysteryQuest 13

The Status of Women in New France

Author: Kathleen McConnachie

Editor: Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-18

Return to top of page

In the spring of 1734, a fire occurred in Montréal that destroyed a hospital and 45 houses on rue Saint-Paul. Criminal proceedings were soon underway against Marie-Josèphe, dite Angélique, a Black slave, and her White lover, Claude Thibault. The latter fled, leaving Angélique on her own to prove her innocence.

Twenty witnesses filed before the judge, many of them women. Ultimately, Angélique was found guilty based on one late and mysterious statement by a five-year-old girl. Forced to confess her crime under torture, Angélique was publicly executed on June 21, 1734.

Did you know that slavery and state-authorized torture were part of Canada’s early history? These are not the topics that traditionally find their way into Canadian high school textbooks. New France is presented typically as the story of exploration and trade, of coureurs de bois and furs, of the seigneurial system and royal governors. Women enter only in the margins of history; we may learn that the filles du roi were sent out to New France, but we know little of the fabric of their lives. Why do we know so little about the lives of women in the past?

Fortunately, fragments of this story are accessible in primary documents from the period — the testimony in the trial of Angélique, colonial correspondence, personal diaries, and letters. These documents open windows into an important, yet neglected aspect of life in New France: What was life like for women in eighteenth century Quebec?

Return to top of page

In this MysteryQuest, you will develop a profile of the social and political status of various groups of women in New France. You will first learn about the general conditions during the first half of the eighteenth century. Next, you will analyse eight primary documents to learn about the different roles of women and the social values reflected in these roles. Your task will be to identify relevant facts provided in the documents and to draw inferences about the conditions experienced by various women during this period. You will then use this information to compare these women’s quality of life and social position. Your final task is to rank order the eight women or groups of women according to their relative status in this colonial society.

Return to top of page

STEP 1: Learn about the historical context

Introduce yourself to Montréal in 1734 by reading Quebec Society 1700-1760. You can find out more about the city of Montréal during this historical period by reading two introductory materials found in the “Secondary documents” section of Evidence in the Case.

STEP 2: Examine the evidence

You are now ready to direct your attention specifically to the experience of women in this early period of Canada’s history. The eight documents you are about to examine are drawn primarily from people who lived in Montréal at this time, but references are also made to the lives of women living in Quebec City, the centre of government in the colony. Some of the sources are quite detailed; you will be able to gather a lot of information from them. Others are so short and lacking in detail that you may find it frustrating as you search for answers.

The key challenge here is to find out as much as you can about women’s lives. As you read each document, try to answer two questions:

  • What facts are provided in the document about women’s lives (occupation, living conditions, status)?
  • What can we infer from these facts about the quality of women’s lives and social attitudes towards women?

The second question asks you to infer or draw conclusions from the factual information provided. For example, if a document stated that someone was sentenced to ten years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, you might infer both that the person was probably very desperate to risk such a harsh punishment and that society was not very sympathetic to people who were poor or in need.

Record the relevant facts and inferences about conditions for women in the chart Gathering Information about Women’s Lives. The eight documents can be accessed in the “Primary documents” section of Evidence in the Case.

STEP 3: Ask questions of these women

When you have read the documents and completed the facts and inferences columns of Gathering Information about Women’s Lives, think about what the documents do not tell us about these women and their lives. What sections of the chart were difficult to complete? Why are the experiences of some women described or recorded more fully? What additional information would you want to have about the lives of these women?

Imagine that you have the ability to “time travel” and you could interview the women introduced in each of the documents. What one question would you pose to each of these women? Why do you think this question is meaningful? Record your questions in the right-hand column of the chart Gathering Information about Women’s Lives.

STEP 4: Assess the relative status

Using the information summarized on Gathering Information about Women’s Lives, consider how women’s lives differed because the society was stratified (arranged in a hierarchical way, based on power and social status). What kinds of women seem to have the best quality of life (living conditions, security, freedoms, health, family and community support, influence) and who seem to have the worst?

On the chart Ranking the Women, you will find the names of eight women or groups of women. Your task is to rank these women from 1st (highest status) to 8th (lowest status) in order of their quality of life and place in society. Make sure your rankings are based on evidence drawn from the documents.

Return to top of page

The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence and Conclusions may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant facts from the primary documents, draw plausible inferences about women’s conditions, and rank the relative status of various females within New France society.

Return to top of page

Examine additional documents
Locate additional documents in the Context section of the main website that provide further information about the lives of women in New France. The following sections will be particularly helpful:



Interview an historical figure
Based on your research, develop five or six powerful questions that you could use in an interview with one of the women introduced in the primary documents. Your questions should explore not just her private life experiences, but also illuminate the society she lived in and the public power structure that shaped her experience.

Compare the lives of men and women in New France
Prepare a report comparing life and conditions of free women, free men, and slaves in eighteenth century Montréal. Read the historical documents listed in the Society section at the link below to learn more about each group.

Return to top of page

Briefing Sheet: Quebec Society 1700-1760

Activity Sheet: Gathering Information About Women’s lives

Activity Sheet: Ranking the Women

Return to top of page

Secondary documents


Introduction: The Trial in Context

Primary documents

Miscellaneous documents

François Montmorency de Laval, Pastoral letter against the extravagance and vanity of women in the church,Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, 1887


Élisabeth Rocbert de la Morandière (dite Madame Bégon), Extract of letters regarding dances, December 27, 1748 / January 18, 1749 / February 25, 1749 / March 6, 1749

Court documents

Juridiction royale de Montréal, Deposition of Louise Chaudillon, April 24, 1734

Jugements et délibérations du Conseil supérieur, Sentence rendered against Marie-Anne Sigouin found guilty of infanticide, May 7, 1732

Colonial correspondence

Agathe de Saint-Père, Letter on the goods produced in Canada, October 13, 1705

Charles-René Gaudron de Chèvremont, Indenture of Angélique Vignaud to Sieur Mailhiot and his wife, December 15, 1736


“Entering Religion”, August 1, 1749, in Travels of Pehr Kalm in Canada, Pehr Kalm (Montréal: Pierre Tisseyre, 1977), p. 202

“Description of a convent of sisters in the city of Québec”, August 8, 1749, in Travels of Pehr Kalm in Canada, Pehr Kalm (Montréal: Pierre Tisseyre, 1977), p. 228-231