French Colonial Women

Painting by Charles William Jefferys (1869–1951) depicting the arrival of filles du roi in Quebec in 1667

Representing diverse cultural traditions and social classes, women shaped life in Nouvelle-France.

Since few French women immigrated at first, France sent young single women, known as filles du roi (wards of the king) to America to encourage settlement, but even they were in short supply. Many French explorers, traders, and frontier officials instead married Native American women, who facilitated trading partnerships and political alliances by serving as translators and diplomats.

Compared with French women, Native women were relatively independent and influential. Various Native traditions allowed women to elect leaders, farm, and join their husbands on hunting trips. Women in both Iroquoian and Algonquian societies could choose marriage partners and divorce their husbands. The children of mixed indigenous and European ancestry were known as Métis.

Marriages in the Illinois Country took place according to French law, and children were baptized by the Catholic Church. Native American wives and Métis children were identified by officials as French and granted the same legal rights. There were Métis families in Kaskaskia involved in the fur trade along with upper class families such as that of Pierre Menard and John Edgar in which the women may have been French or socialized as French. Métis children of wealthy families could be sent to Catholic boarding schools in Quebec and Montreal. In 1639, the Ursuline Sisters founded the first school for girls in North America in Quebec City and later taught indigenous children in their native languages.

Some women were slaves. More than half of French slaves were Native Americans captured by Native allies. Native American slaves were known as panis, the French word for Pawnee, the national origin of most of the first captives sold to the French. Enslaved African American women from French possessions in the Caribbean worked in mines and as domestic servants in the homes of the wealthy in the Illinois Country. Panis more often served as domestic servants in frontier settlements and were sometimes married to French men. Treated little better than slaves and often suffering harsh treatment and abuse, young women from poor families might work as indentured servants for room and board and perhaps education.

French law limited the rights of women. A woman could not make contracts or transfer property without the consent of her father or husband. Most of the women in Nouvelle-France were lower class habitants who concentrated on homemaking, farming, and their husband’s business. However, in contrast with even more restrictive English law, French law awarded a widow half of her husband’s wealth and property. Women who married multiple times accumulated wealth. Upper class women with servants and nursemaids were freed from labor and a number were educated and literate.

Women cooked meals over a fire or hot coals, usually inside the home. Meat and vegetables were stewed in large caldrons suspended over a hearth fire, and bread was baked in a Dutch oven. American foods adopted by the colonists included corn, squash, and maple sugar. Old world livestock and poultry were supplemented by fish and wild animals.

Restrictions on commercial weaving did not prevent women from weaving some cloth at home and spinning wool and flax, though flax farming was prohibited in the Illinois Country. Young girls learned to sew and might also learn embroidery, quilting, beading, and lace making. Women had to master sewing in order to alter European garments, decorate clothing, and make undergarments, linens, and children’s clothing. Styles of dress blended European and Native American customs, such as shortened skirts and the finger-woven sash. Women dressed as fashionably as they could, especially for Sunday church services, where they could socialize as well as worship.