Quebec's working widows join the quiet revolution

By tradition and the Napoleonic Code, there are only three places where a Quebec woman belongs: the kitchen, the nursery, and church on Sunday. Note a handful of enterprising widows are leading them out to compete—mon Dieu! —with businessmen for money. It’s the quietest but in some ways the most revolutionary thing that’s happening inside the quiet revolution

ANNE MACDERMOT December 2 1961

Quebec's working widows join the quiet revolution

By tradition and the Napoleonic Code, there are only three places where a Quebec woman belongs: the kitchen, the nursery, and church on Sunday. Note a handful of enterprising widows are leading them out to compete—mon Dieu! —with businessmen for money. It’s the quietest but in some ways the most revolutionary thing that’s happening inside the quiet revolution

ANNE MACDERMOT December 2 1961

Quebec's working widows join the quiet revolution

By tradition and the Napoleonic Code, there are only three places where a Quebec woman belongs: the kitchen, the nursery, and church on Sunday. Note a handful of enterprising widows are leading them out to compete—mon Dieu! —with businessmen for money. It’s the quietest but in some ways the most revolutionary thing that’s happening inside the quiet revolution


“I HAVE SIx children and if I had my choice I would have them all home. They are my treasure. But this way I stand a better chance of bringing them up as Jacques wanted.” Mme Aurette L’Heureux, thirtyfour, lost her husband two years ago in a plane crash. Since then she has put her three oldest children in boarding school, employed a fulltime maid to help with the three young ones, and stepped into the job her husband left empty. Sitting behind her big desk in the downstairs office of their home in the north end of Montreal, she looked composed but not entirely at home. For her, home means the family upstairs. And yet it is for her children's sake that she finds herself a woman executive, head of the J. VV. L’Heureux insurance brokers firm.

Mme L’Heureux is one of the women of Quebec who, a generation ago, would never have considered going into business. Brought up and married under the Code Napoléon, Quebec women took it for granted that all decisions about property and business matters belonged to the men of the family.

Today, in a world where things are changing fast around them, more and more French-Canadian women find they are not only permitted but encouraged to enter the business world. When the world of Aurette L’Heureux crashed around her, therefore, she had a choice her mother would not have had. Still, it was not so easy to make.

Jacques L’Heureux was killed when the seaplane taking three companions fishing in northern Quebec crashed and burned just before touching the water. In Montreal, in the gray stone duplex which they had bought five years earlier, his wife’s first instinct was to sell out and look after her four-month-old twin girls and the other youngsters. It was an Oid family friend, their chartered accountant, Pierre Armand, who said to her: “You arc not going to sell. You have six children and you are going to bring them up as well as their father would have.”

After that, Mme L’Heureux says, she rented the top floor, organized the main floor for herself, the twins and four-year-old Jacques, and began keeping office hours downstairs. Callers arc received at the front door of the house, often by two little girls in pink corduroy overalls peeping around their nurse's knees. There is a formal waiting room off the front door, then a short w'alk through the house corridor to a flight of steps, just this side of a big sewing and playing room. At the foot of the steps is a bright office unit. Mme L’Heureux works in one of the glass-partitioned offices. Next door is an underwriter from a life insurance company. At the desk in the central space is Mme Brault, the secretary who was with the company when Jacques L’Heureux died.


“People ask me why I don’t get a manager,” says Mme L’Heureux. "But they don’t realize what a big slice it would be out of my income. 1 do have part-time salesmen. I cannot get tired. 1 must keep my health. But many of the calls I make myself.”

She said that when she started she sent cards to the 800 clients, advising them she would continue the business. Many replied; they said they were glad to see a woman going into the field and would support her. She is an insurance broker and her firm handles policies from twelve companies.

She did not find too much difficulty learning the office work. (She had worked in the accounting section for her husband and had learned a little about insurance at another company, before she was married.) “But to go out at eight o'clock at night and see someone I didn’t know and see from the look in their eyes. ‘She’s got six kids. How can she do it?’ My heart was beating so fast when I opened the door sometimes I couldn’t speak.” Mme L’Heureux’ eyes clouded. She is petite, with glinting auburn hair and looks a bit like a burnished sparrow.

She remembers her husband used to coax her to go out with him when he was making calls. “You’ve finished with the kids,” he used to say. “Take your knitting or your book and come with me. It’s lonely in the car.” Sometimes she would go, but would always wait outside. Jacques would say, “You should learn about these things, you never know, you might need to know them.” But



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When a widow took over , half the salesmen quit, But her firm is bigger now than it ever was

his wife, when the twins came, said, “There, God has shown he doesn't mean me to work in business.”

But she’s been in business for two years now, and feels the experiment has been successful, “if I can keep the business, I can make four times as much as if I went out and worked,” she says. In the second year the company climbed from $75.000 to $85,000 in premiums. At home all went well. She gets upstairs for lunch, closes the office at five and transfers phone calls upstairs. She can see the children whenever they need her (dark-eyed Jacques came running in from the back yard asking for a bulldozer automatique). She divides her life between upstairs and downstairs. The children seem to realize this, especially seven-year-old Bobby who has told his mother he is trying to get through school quickly so he can take over downstairs and she can stay upstairs. The older ones, at a convent on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, get home every second week end.

The priest, when he called, told Mme L'Heureux that she was right to plan for the children’s years ahead. She does not think her mother would have had the same approval had it all happened to her. In those days, when a husband died, the family would rally to look after the children but the mother would never consider working herself.

Women in Quebec still marry under the Canadian adaptation of the Code Napoléon, based on the old French civil law. But these days most of them attend a course, given by the church before they are married. which advises them to sec a notary if they want a marriage contract. This is the document, unique to Quebec, which gives a woman separation of property— control over her own possessions. Fnglish women have been much more aware of this clause and for generations most of them have signed it. There have also been changes in the Quebec law in recent years.

I hese make it easier for a woman who was married under the custom of community of property to be granted separation of property by the courts.

A married woman has only been able to become a “public trader,” meaning she could go into business, if she had her husband’s authorization. Lawyers will tell you there are no legal obstacles to a married woman’s working and of course none restricting working widows. But others say that the old-world laws have proved a psychologica! hurdle for women in Quebec. Although the laws gave protection they did not encourage women to understand commerce.

In the new Quebec, French-Canadian women are showing every day that they can and do understand the commercial world. One proof is the fast-growing number of women members in the Chambre de Commerce. Started originally by the French businessmen of Montreal, the big business organization now includes 250 femmes-membres, who pay fees at the men’s rate, have voting rights, and each year elect their own president to represent them on the central council.

Mme L’Heureux is one of many widows who went to the Chambre de Commerce for help. She enrolled in a course on public speaking. “It taught me how to meet people, be brave with them,” she says. She also met women with problems like her own. many of them chefs d'entreprise like herself. Most of them went to

the office of the Chambre de Commerce on St. James Street seeking advice. But one of them, a chic woman with snapping black eyes, Mme Yvette Rousseau, had other reasons. She went to make a sale.

Sitting in her green and pink satin living room on St. Joseph Boulevard. Mme Rousseau told how she came to he president of the firm called Artistic Decalcomania

“My husband died eight years ago, when he was forty, of a coronary thrombosis,” she said. “I went to visit him in the hospital where he was ill for a very short time. Mon mari said to me simply 'Go on in business.’ And I have kept my word.”

When they were old enough, she enrolled her four children in boarding school (they missed their father less and when they got home for week ends their mother could devote all her time to them) and spent her days learning the printing business.

"Many things happened to her,” says her foreman, who has been with the firm twenty-five years. "Half the salesmen left. They didn't want to work for a woman. We had a fire one Sunday morning, a three-alarm fire that took almost everything. But she has worked very hard and knows what is going on. We do silk screen printing for a lot of big firms in Montreal— ‘transfers’ 1 think you call it. You see our crests on big bakery and construction trucks, also government buildings. Business is very good today."

There are twenty-five on stall', about half of whom were with the original firm. Only the chief printer belongs to a union.

Since her entry into the business world, Mme Rousseau has become one of the most efficient committee women in Montreal.

"I went down to the Chambre de Commerce to see if they would buy some

décalcomanie,” she recalls. G. A. La Tour, the general manager, said, "Why don't you join?” That was in 1955 when FrenehCanadian business women were still a comparatively unknown breed.

Mme Rousseau found a busy office on the second floor, where the Women's Section was organizing committees to give instruction in civil law and to study the tourist trade in Montreal. She was soon involved in their activity and in I960 became president of the Conseil îles femmesmembres.

"Yes. the women are included in most of the Chambre's activities. We attend the T tiesday luncheons. Of course we don't enter into everything. When they plan a trip down a mine. well, with our high heels, it is out of the question. And for a beer and oyster party of course we would not dream to go."

While she was talking, Mme Rousseau's eldest daughter came home. Through school, she now had her first job. as secretary to a lawyer in City Hall. Blonde, pretty, she had the eager look of young French Canadians these days.

Her mother chatted about French Canadians in business. "In the past, we went in for the church. law. medicine. We thought the dollar was for the British and Americans. But now we are realizing we have the judgment and good ideas and we are going ahead ourselves. It comes slowly.” She speaks in a crisp, lilting way, quickly, with French gestures.

“It is better for a girl to work”

Confident, interested in her work and looking forward to giving a talk on French - Canadian women in business at the University of Montreal, she did not look like the uncertain woman of business she claims she was eight years ago. But then, she wonders if perhaps she wasn't one of the exceptions.

"I always liked to hear about business,” she says, "always had my ear to the men’s conversation in the living room. But no. my husband and I didn't discuss his business. He wanted to expand and go ahead. I was the one that didn't want to take any risks."

"It is education that is bringing women into affairs," says the lawyer who gives the course in civil law at the Chambre de Commerce.

"That and changes in the household," says another of the Chambre de Commerce officers. "Even in small towns there is less for the woman of the house to do. after the children are at school. Modern appliances cut down kitchen time. Pressure from the community tends to draw a woman oui of her home." It is part of a natural evolution that has caught on at last in Quebec.

It applies in till social groups. Young Mme Paul Tremblay says: “At home we learned how to prepare a nice table, what to wear in the afternoon or evening, about the maquillaje (make-up), about piano, singing, how to write a nice letter. My mother was not keen on sports. My father did not want me to learn to drive a car. He thought I should do volunteer work at the hospital.” But Mme Tremblay is head of personnel. Women's Division, at the big department store. Dupuis Frères, and says, "It is better for a girl to work."

I he head of a well-known Montreal business found the same thing twenty years ago. Mme André Vennat owns Raoul Vennat Enrg. on St. Denis Street, the store that supplies most of the Canadian-made hand - embroidered crests and insignia for army, navy and air-force units in Canada. Fifty years old, the store is a family business. When André Vennat was killed at Dieppe his widow and two sisters kept it on. “Better for morale,” says Mme

Vennat. She is a sweet-faced, hard-working woman who has one son in his second year of law at Laval University, and another working on La Presse.

Vennat Enrg. is one of those French stores with boxes of thread and skeins of wool, piled to the ceiling. If you ask for pink embroidery thread you are shown drawer after drawer with every shade from shell to fuchsia. There is petit point, product of an old skill that has crept back among young girls who pick up their needles while waiting for television programs to change. There are christening

robes in white tulle and, at the back, a roomful of girls bend over piles of gold bullion and argent thread to work the crests for the Medical Corps, the Calgary Highlanders, or Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal with whom André Vennat died.

These girls come in from the country and work for a wage that is comparable to factory pa> but the work has the advantage of regular hours the year round and apprenticeship at a trade the girls can use when they marry. Mme Vennat said she had about twenty employees on staff and about twenty-five more working from home.

Working in a woman's field, she felt she may have encountered fewer problems than other business women in Quebec. Also, she said, she lived in a European milieu. Her mother-in-law and fatherin-law were from France, and perhaps more broad-minded about women in business than the French-Canadian community at that time.

But she has seen much change since then. Although she speaks of the young widows with compassion she thinks their world is easier than it is for women of her generation, -k