The 2018 Fête de la Nouvelle France was another wonderful celebration of the history of Quebec. Despite the heat and the oppressive humidity, costumed women commemorated the role of the Filles du Roi in founding the colony. The author Sergine Desjardins gave a most stimulating talk on these courageous women and on the life of her ancestor, Marie Major, a fille du roi. My mini-conferences ensured that Jeanne Chevalier was also recognized!
All of these events reminded me that my interest in the role of women in history began many, many years ago, in what seems like another life, when I was a graduate student of modern European history. My particular interest at the time was pre-revolutionary Russia but I remember writing – because I still have the original (unpublished) version — a paper on women in medieval Russia. Was it perhaps then, nearly fifty years ago, that I became fascinated with women in history?
Now, some five decades later, after a variety of different careers, I am again writing about women in history. This time, however, it has been more personal. My initial research into the lives of my eighth great grandparents uncovered an interesting fact. Over the years, much had been written about Robert Levesque (and the other “founding fathers” of Quebec) but little had been written about his wife, Jeanne (or the other “founding mothers” of Quebec), even though without Jeanne, the thousands of Levesques in the United States and Canada would not exist. As an unabashed feminist, I decided I needed to render justice to Jeanne. Jeanne was an incredible woman, as were most of the other Filles du Roi. I decided to write her history to keep it alive for generations to come and to share it with all her descendants and those of the other Filles du Roi, in order to give her (and the other women of New France) a voice and the recognition they deserve.
The years spent researching Jeanne’s life and my experiences at the Fête de la Nouvelle France have also caused me to reflect not only on the discipline of history, but also on the place of women in history. Historians Laurel Ulrich and Jill Lepore have described the challenges around writing about women in history. In “Good Wives,” Ulrich’s story about the lives of women in Northern New England from 1650-1750, she wrote: “History is not just the result of major political, economic and social events led by the great men of the past. It’s also the result of the everyday work, of ordinary men and women, particularly women. But it’s those bits and pieces that are so hard to find.” In the New Yorker article “The Prodigal Daughter” (2013/07/08), Lepore wrote, “History’s written from what can be found; what isn’t saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by earth…. “
So much of the work of women involves the bits and pieces of life, the stuff that cannot or has not been easily found. Quebec historians and writers, from what I can tell, are doing more research and writing about women. It is they who are keeping the legacy of the Filles du Roi alive. Some of their interest may be catching on here in France. In the past few years, there have been celebrations and new plaques in honor of the Filles du Roi in Dieppe, Rouen, Paris, and La Rochelle. There are also memorials to other women, including Marie Rollet as well as the nuns who left Dieppe in 1639 to found the Hotel Dieu in Quebec City.
In writing about the life of my ancestor for Jeanne, I hope that my book accomplishes two goals: The first, of course, is to give Jeanne the recognition she deserves, even though I have only found bits and pieces and thus have only been able to write about the traces of her life. The second goal is to inspire readers to do the tough research and write about all those other women whom history has forgotten. Given some of the feedback I have received on my book to date and my experiences in Quebec this summer, there are signs that this might indeed be happening.