HOME HEARTSTRING 11: MATRIARCHY

I’ve heard Europeans talk with great disdain about American movies that present the matriarchal duo in which both spouses love the same woman.

If you share this comment with members of the white Anglo-Saxon protestant community they’re likely to tell you it was American Jews (those showbiz moguls!) who put women on a pedestal first. No one seems willing to take the blame for this trend.

The Jesuits of New France didn’t believe their eyes when they discovered the Iroquois were a matriarchal society.

Political scientist Philippe Garigue conceded that, “Quebec women play a more active role than men in the extended family. And since they already wield their influence as wives and mothers, this role gives them greater power within and ensures continuity of the family unit. Male and female interviewees both stated that women are the ones who act as a liaison between the various levels in their family.”

“They are strong women who are often better educated than men. They all trump men in the smarts department, which is why they are generally more intelligent than their husbands,” wrote historian Louis Franquet. He added, “Women oversee the number of births in order to control blood relations issues as much as the number of mouths they have to feed.”

“Another area where the intelligence of Canadian women shines is in their practicality and their knack for business. They really do descend from Norman women, whom we know are very capable (and somewhat ruthless) when it comes to money issues and challenging legal matters,” wrote French historian Georges Vattier. “Countrymen never undertake or agree to anything important without getting their wives’ advice and blessing first. A lot of women married to traders oversee their husbands’ affairs.”

So Quebec women are not exactly the good little housewives we like to think they are. There is a somewhat outdated notion that every Friday night after their weekly drinking session at the local tavern, Quebec men set their wages on the kitchen table (minus what they need to smoke, get to work and buy a few odds and ends) for their wives to take over. According to a survey conducted in 1974, close to 75% of the family income is managed by the wife even with both spouses working outside the home.

Our popular proverbs say a lot about our matriarchal tendencies like Parole de femme, parole de Dieu (a woman’s word is God’s word).

I counted hundreds of family units among the blacks of Ocho Rios in Jamaica that didn’t include a single man. These families consisted of great-grandmothers, grandmothers, daughters and young children. Black slaves working on plantations, Jews attacked during pogroms and Quebecers making a living in factories are one and the same: somewhat diminished men.

Matriarchy is characteristic of societies that are in minority.

By definition, the breadwinner in the typical Quebec family (usually a lowly factory worker) is an unstable and vulnerable man. He is an outsider because he must leave his home on a daily basis to make a living, spending more time with bosses and foremen than with his family. Quebec men are extremely vulnerable when it comes to their self-esteem, feeling like half a man if and when they lose an inch of their pride. Legend has it that in such cases, the other half was taken over by their priest, the confessor and confidant of every Quebec woman, a man who wasn’t afraid of English Canadians.

Joe Tremblay broached this touchy subject with his wife Fernande.


“Don’t even try to argue about this with me, Fernande. Your mother used to yell at your father to smoke his cigars outside. And he always hurried up and did as he was told…with his tail tucked between his legs.” Fernande interrupts. “He smoked too much and died of lung cancer. My mother warned him it would happen. Why are you badmouthing her?”

“Come on! I’m not saying your mother was a bad person. She was a good cook and she always kept her house clean. But do you remember when she started backing me into a corner to find out if we’d be married in the spring or the fall? She wouldn’t let up. I didn’t ask your father for your hand in marriage. I asked your mother!” Fernande interrupts again. “You went to Quebec City with my father three times. And even though it was just the guys, you never brought up the question of marriage. We kept waiting for you to get around to it. Someone had to take care of business.”

“I’m not saying she was wrong, Fernande. That’s not what I meant. Don’t be mad at me. Loosen up and laugh a little! You have such a pretty smile.”


In Le comportement du consommateur (Consumer Behaviour), professor Georges-M. Hénault defines the role of each member of the Quebec family.


“The father, who used to be the patriarch and the one running the farm, is now confined to being the one who brings home the bacon to support his family. Ambitions have changed. Instead of having moral and religious influence over his family, a father now settles for simpler pleasures such as the ones he gets from social interactions and spending time with his friends. English speakers are happy interacting with people from their workplace while French Canadians prefer to mingle with a wide variety of people. The mother used to help around the farm and educate the children, but today she has more and more responsibility within the family since she’s increasingly in charge of finances and looks after the children. It seems French-Canadian families are evolving from a rural patriarchal society to a matriarchal society, having gone from intro- to extra-determination and feeling the influence of the media that have put Quebec women in a North American context that is matriarchal.”


Louise Larochelle gave us an update on this Heartstring in her front-page article in La Presse on July 25, 1977. “There are two things minister of financial institutions, Lise Payette, and I don’t agree on,” said Quebec finance minister, Jacques Parizeau, in a slightly mocking tone. “The first is private clubs and the second is parliamentarianism. I’m open to having a woman as prime minister of Quebec someday, and I’m willing to declare women should earn twice as much as men do if it means we finally have social peace, but I want us to be able to keep our private clubs private without it causing a big fuss.”

Even though Quebec women have built up the nerve to start drinking in taverns, they still don’t have access to private clubs, those other taverns for wealthy businessmen.

Women are instinctively introverted, which means they are conservative and like to stockpile. On the other hand, men are extroverted and like to spend because money burns a hole in their pocket.

I say instinctively introverted based on what I’ve seen by observing my two Bouviers des Flandres dogs, Zut and Bof. Without going into zoo-psychological detail, I’ve noticed that when we’re at home, female dog Zut takes the lead on everything. She barks at delivery men, sniffs visitors, buries and digs up bones, and sometimes even corrects the behaviour of the big male dog, who’s quite subdued in this environment. But when we’re out for a walk, Zut stays within inches of me while Bof seizes the opportunity to run 200 feet ahead of us with his snout to the ground. He investigates everything that moves, challenging dogs, cats, skunks and passersby. His territory is our neighbourhood and the great outdoors.

If Zut and Bof are equals in the eyes of a dog-loving God, the fact remains they are still what God made them, and that is two very different beings.

As introverts, Quebec women hold the purse strings and save as much as they can. In 1974, they were the sole decision makers when it came to 73% of the purchases of goods and services needed to ensure the smooth running of their family unit. They also took part in 21% of the communal decisions made with their husbands and children. That left the head of the family the power to decide how to spend a whopping 6% of his pay (which is $12 if he makes $200 a week) on his favourite brand of beer, his cigarettes (if he doesn’t have any coupons), gas for the car (if the gas station isn’t selling collectible tableware that week) and other manly knickknacks.

The longer lifespan of women will make it so that the respectable old ladies we meet while on vacation in beautiful resorts hold 75% of the world’s fortunes. Quebec men live an average of 68 years while Quebec women typically make it to 74. Not only do Quebec women live longer, the gap keeps getting wider, too.

In his 1744 diary, Father Charlevoix admitted that Canadian women have the ability to manage the biggest of business ventures. Since we’ve already been warned by past authors, let’s not make the mistake of underestimating Quebec women as entrepreneurs!

Dulac Enterprises, the chip company in the Beauce region, was founded by a Quebec woman who could really run things on the straight and narrow. She didn’t have a daughter to take over from her – only sons – so the business was sold. Another way of seeing it is that the business wasn’t introverted.

The Steinberg family – which is Jewish and so a minority – is a great example of a matriarchy. As most of us know, the supermarket empire was founded by Mrs. Ida Steinberg. The maternal son who took over the presidency from her had five daughters and not a single son. It’s as if a mystical force was trying to protect the clan. So is it safe to assume a woman will once again rule the Steinberg empire in the future?

As it stands, behind every major Quebec entrepreneur there really is a woman. Take the “12 Men of the Month” crowned by Commerce magazine every year during their gala, for example. You won’t be surprised to learn these 12 supermen are joined by their wives (who are dressed to the nines, of course) on stage so the audience can pay formal tribute to the supportive spouses. (That’s always what they say on such occasions.) But get this: when I was invited on stage the guy to my left was on his third marriage and the one to my right was a hard-core bachelor who brought his cousin along! But that didn’t matter, because the tradition was safe.

Women also rule Quebec through our premiers. Does anyone still doubt that? We all know about Corinne Lesage, our Parliamentary Corinne, and the just-as-powerful Queen Johnson, Gabrielle Bertrand and Madame Bourassa. But there was no such Madame Duplessis!

A lot of National Assembly members have openly admitted they would never have been elected – or been able to hold on to their riding staff – if it were not for their supportive wives (who are always very present during election campaigns).

A female elected official always seems to be lugging her bored husband along, sitting through official ceremonies and attending the women’s activities during conventions.

It’s safe to say that it’s a very bad idea for Quebec marketers to forget about the strong woman mentioned in the Bible. And most of them don’t. Too bad we can’t say the same for politicians.

We’ll see how these coolheaded women manage to have a warm heart when we focus on Heartstring 34 (Sensuality).

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.