Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

Women Before the Courts

[ Traîneau, Scène d'hiver du village de Fortierville, date inconnue., Inconnu, Album-souvenir 100e anniversaire de la paroisse Sainte-Philomène de Fortierville, 1882-1982  ]By Carolyne Blanchard

Each person's experience before the courts is different. Today people who must face the courts can receive advice from experts in order to prepare themselves well for this unusual experience. At the beginning of the twentieth century, on the other hand, the situation was very different. People who had to stand trial were much less informed than today and everything rested in the hands of their lawyer, when they had one. Women in this situation were all the more vulnerable since they didn't enjoy the same rights and privileges as men.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Quebec women had a legal status inferior to that of men. This inequality was inscribed in the law. In the former French colony, after the conquest of 1763, British authorities applied their Common Law. But they also decided to keep the Coutume de Paris (Custom of Paris), already well in place and established in the mores of the population. For women who married, the Coutume de Paris meant the loss of their rights. They had to ask their husbands' permission to sign a contract, to sell products at the market, to buy, etc. In 1866, a new Civil Code was adopted, one of the effects of which was to perpetrate the state of inequality of married women. Outside of the private family sphere, a wife had practically no rights nor power, in either legal or political matters. In fact, the status of wives resembled that of minors, of children.

What about criminal justice? In Quebec as elsewhere, women committed fewer violent crimes than men. When they did commit them, it was considered an anomaly. Women were not supposed to act like certain men. They were to be gentle. In the logic of "separate spheres," their role was to be the queens of the home and the guardians of morality. When the crimes of women were directed at children (infanticide, ill treatment), it was even more incomprehensible. Women, according to traditional standards, were to be the protectors of children. They were to give them security and comfort, not to be their tormentors.

Before the courts, verdicts were pronounced according to the gender of the accused and the plaintiff. There was a big difference in the experience of men and women before the courts. This difference could be either positive or negative for women, according to the circumstances. In some cases, the courts showed surprising clemency toward violent female criminals, judging perhaps that women found themselves in vulnerable situations more often than men and that they were confronted with problems that men didn't have. On the other hand, women could also be judged more severely than men, because they were generally subject to stricter moral rules.


Backhouse, Constance. Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth-Century Canada. Toronto, Published for Osgoode Society, Women’s Press, 1991, 467 pages.

Bradbury, Bettina. «Devenir majeure. La lente conquête des droits», Cap-aux-Diamants. No. 21, printemps 1990, pp. 35-38.

Cliche, Marie-Aimée. «L’infanticide dans la région de Québec (1660-1969)», Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française. Vol. 44, No. 1, été 1990, pp. 31-59.

Collectif Clio. L’Histoire des femmes au Québec depuis quatre siècles. Montréal, Le Jour éditeur, 1992 (1982), 646 pages.

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