Working Women in New France
Ages 11-14

MysteryQuest 18

Working Women in New France

Author: Catherine Duquette

Editor: Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 11-14

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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. Some twenty witnesses filed before the judge, all of them convinced that the slave of the widow Francheville was guilty, yet not one of them saw her set the fire.

Imagine you are Amélie, a young girl living in New France just at the time when Angélique was accused of starting the fire that burnt Montreal. It is the spring of 1734, and Amélie is looking forward to the arrival of her favorite cousin Rose, who will be arriving in New France. Rose is hoping to find work in Montreal to help her family and has written to ask Amélie what jobs might suit her interests, talents, and experience. Amélie’s task is to use her knowledge of her 12-year-old cousin Rose and find out what kind of work would be most suitable for her.

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Your task in this Mystery Quest is to take on the persona of Amélie, a young girl living in Montreal, the largest city in New France, in 1734. Amélie needs to decide what kind of work would best suit her young cousin Rose when she arrives from France.

In order to complete your task, you will need to identify possible jobs for your cousin. You will begin by establishing the jobs that are available for women in Montreal and the kinds of tasks involved in each job. Using your knowledge of your cousin’s interests and talents, as well as your knowledge of the work available, you will apply the criteria provided to assess the suitability of five common jobs in New France. Based on your assessment, you will write a convincing letter to your cousin explaining your recommendation for the most appropriate job she should undertake when she moves to Montreal.

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STEP 1: Establish jobs available to women in New France

You are to begin by thinking of the types of work that women might have done over two hundred and fifty years ago in New France. Take a few minutes to write down possible jobs available for women at this time in history. Once you have thought of possible jobs, read the briefing sheet European Women in New France to learn more about the kinds of work available to women in New France. The briefing sheet will give you a broad understanding of how women lived and what role they played in society. Now review the list you prepared. Were the jobs you previously listed mentioned in the article? Are some available jobs surprising?

STEP 2: Learn more about each job

Now that you have a general idea of the jobs a woman in New France might do, it will be helpful to learn more about the tasks involved in five common types of work that women performed:

  • businesswoman (owner of shop, innkeeper, seamstress);
  • nun;
  • servant/maid;
  • mistress of a large household;
  • slave.

You can find specific information about each of these jobs in the “Primary documents” section of Evidence in the Case. These documents, organized according to each job, will help you find the following information:

  • what is involved in the job;
  • the required aptitudes or skills;
  • the working and living conditions.

Record the information you find about each job on the chart Learning About the Jobs.

In completing this chart, you will have to think of the specific tasks involved in a job, what a person would have to know in order to do those tasks, and where the job might be done. This may require that you infer (make informed guesses) based on the information provided. For example, people who owned slaves kept the slaves in their houses. We can infer that the slaves probably received some food and lodging from their owners, but they would not have lived nearly as well as their owners did. As for the job of broom-maker, when we think about what a broom would look like in the 1700s, we can infer that perhaps the tasks involved in making a broom would include gathering fine twigs, preparing a handle, and fastening the twigs to the handle. We don’t know the working or living conditions, but we can infer that since this was probably not a well-paying job, the broom maker likely made the brooms in her own home, which was probably not very luxurious.

STEP 3: Learn about Rose’s qualities

Once you have read the documents in Evidence in the Case and completed the chart Learning About the Jobs, you are to consider which one job is most suitable for your cousin, Rose. To do that you must learn more about Rose’s background and skills. Read the description of Rose found in Learning About Rose.

Step 4: Apply the criteria

Now that you have an idea of what Rose might be able to do, you must look to find the most suitable job for her. If the job is the right one, Rose will possess the necessary skills, it will match her personal goals, and the living/working conditions will be satisfactory to her.

The chart Reviewing Each Occupation will help you assess each job option. The left-hand column lists the five jobs you are considering. The other three columns list the criteria for an appropriate job:

  • Rose possesses the necessary skills;
  • the job matches her personal goals;
  • the job provides satisfactory living/working conditions.

Refer back to the information you recorded earlier on your chart, Learning About the Jobs. Use the new chart Reviewing Each Occupation to indicate on the scale from “4” (Completely met) to “0” (Not met at all) how each job fulfills each of these criteria. For example, does Rose completely possess the necessary skills to be a businesswoman (4), or does she not have these skills at all (0), or perhaps she has them just a little bit (1). Circle the number that best fits your decision. After you have made your assessment, record the evidence you used in your decision. Remember, you may have to make inferences (conclusions based on evidence) from what you know about Rose’s life in France and the way of life and available jobs in New France.

STEP 5: Write your letter

Now that you have assessed each of the jobs, it is time to write the letter to Rose. Taking on the persona of Amélie, write a letter to your cousin explaining what job she should look for when she arrives in New France. Your letter should have three parts:

  1. indicate the one job you think she is best suited for;
  2. write a description of the job (what will she do, where will she work);
  3. convince your cousin using the three criteria as the basis for your reasoning.

You must convince your cousin that the type of work you are proposing is the best type for her. To do so, you must explain how your choice matches the criteria for an appropriate job. Provide information about Rose and about the job you have selected to show why that job is most suitable for your cousin.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence and Conclusions may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant information from the documents about each job and assess how acceptable each job would suit Rose’s skills and interests.

The evaluation rubric Assessing a Persuasive Presentation may be used to assess how well you were able to write a realistic letter to your cousin and support your recommended job with evidence from the documents you have read.

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Assume the role of Rose
Once you have written your letter, exchange it with another person. Take on the role of Rose answering her cousin. Tell her if she has convinced you or not, giving examples to support your opinion.

Compare how times have changed
In this MysteryQuest, you have taken on the role of Amélie, a young girl living in New France in 1734. Let us return to the present. Would your letter be much different if instead of writing in the context of 1734, you were writing to a French cousin in 2006? What type of work would you advise her to take? Would you use the same criteria?

Advise a male about his options
You now have a better idea of the work opportunities for women in New France. What about men? Suppose that instead of writing to Rose, Amélie was writing to her cousin, Nicolas. Using the documents available in Society, follow the steps explained in this MysteryQuest to determine what work would have been available and most suitable for a young man in New France.

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Briefing Sheet: European Women in New France

Activity Sheet: Learning About the Jobs

Briefing Sheet: Learning About Rose

Activity Sheet: Reviewing Each Occupation

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Primary documents

Businesswomen (owners of shops, innkeepers, seamstresses)

Élisabeth Rocbert de la Morandière (dite Madame Bégon), Letter on the situation of women in Montréal and Québec City

Juridiction royale de Montréal, Declaration by Marie-Madeleine Emond, February 12, 1698

Juridiction royale de Montréal, Declaration by Madeleine Arrivé, February 19, 1716

Juridiction royale de Montréal, Declaration by Marie-Anne Lafayette, June 15, 1727

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

Juridiction royale de Montréal, Notes for Geneviève and Madeleine Gatien, laundresses, May 10, 1734

Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, Oath by midwives, 1703


“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

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


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

Juridiction royale de Montréal, Information from Marie-Charlotte Saint-Julien, Marie-Anne Chotard and Catherine Charbonneau, May 9, 1734 (only chapters 2 and 3)

Juridiction royale de Montréal, Order for a release from prison, February 25, 1722

Mistress of a large household

“The women of Montréal”, September 20, 1749, in Travels of Pehr Kalm in Canada, Pehr Kalm (Montréal: Pierre Tisseyre, 1977), p. 440-443


Request by M. Ruette d’Auteuil to have black slaves brought to Canada, 1689 (chapter 345v only)