Gérin-Lajoie, Marie (1867–1945)

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Gérin-Lajoie, Marie (1867–1945)

Canadian educator and first Francophone champion of women's rights in Quebec. Name variations: Gerin-Lajoie. Pronunciation: Jay-REEN Laj-OO. Born Marie Lacoste on October 19, 1867, at Montreal, Quebec, Canada; died on November 1, 1945, in Montreal, Canada; first child of Sir Alexander Lacoste (a lawyer and politician) and Marie Louise Globensky; attended the Hochelaga Convent, Montreal; married Henri Gérin-Lajoie, in 1887; children: Marie Gérin-Lajoie (b. 1890, who founded the Congrégation de Notre Dame du Bon Conseil); Henri (b. 1892); Alexandre (b. 1893); Léon (b. 1895).

Canadian women granted the right to vote in Federal elections (1918); all women, except in Quebec, granted right to vote in provincial elections (1921); women admitted to the Canadian Senate (1929); start of World War II (1939); Quebec women given vote in provincial elections (1940).

Selected writings:

Traité de Droit Usuel (1902); La Femme et le Code civil (1929).

Born on October 19, 1867, in Montreal, in the province of Quebec, Canada, Marie Gérin-Lajoie came from one of the most distinguished French-Canadian families in the province which, in accordance with its prominent social position, occupied a large house on the Rue Saint-Hubert, then one of the elite districts of the city. Sir Alexander Lacoste, Marie's father, had been called to the bar in 1863 and quickly rose to become one of the most celebrated lawyers in the province. In 1882, he was appointed to the legislative council of Quebec and two years later was selected to sit as one of that province's representatives in the Senate (the senior chamber of the Canadian legislature). Although designated as speaker of the Senate in 1891, Sir Alexander did not hold that post for long. Later the same year, he resigned to take up a new post as chief justice of Quebec, a position which he held until his retirement in 1907.

Marie's mother (also called Marie) was the epitome of a strict Victorian matriarch. An austere and deeply religious woman, she sought to instill in her children a strong sense of self-control and restraint. This disciplinary regimen was to some extent mitigated by her husband's innate sense of good humor, and his constant encouragement to his children to read widely, discuss important issues of the day, and to engage in such activities as singing, dancing, and even amateur theatricals.

Like all female members of the Lacoste family, young Marie was sent as a boarding pupil to the highly prestigious Hochelaga Convent. There she proved to be a very unwilling student; the strict discipline imposed by the nuns was all too reminiscent of that of her mother. Marie constantly found herself in trouble with her teachers, and she responded by adopting an uncooperative and temperamental attitude. She refused all attempts by the nuns to make her handwriting neat and elegant; to the end of her life, her script was practically illegible.

Gérin-Lajoie hoped that her rebellious nature would encourage the authorities to dismiss her from the convent. This they refused to do, and, until approximately the age of 12, her unhappiness continued. For his part, Sir Alexander was well aware of his daughter's condition, but he urged her to persevere. Recognizing that his daughter possessed a genuine intellectual ability, he encouraged her to carry on her studies by herself. Sir Alexander permitted Marie free use of his extensive library, and soon she began to read widely in a variety of diverse fields such as philosophy, history, literature, and the natural sciences (specifically chemistry, physics, and astronomy). Marie was also interested in religious works, particularly those by Père Gratry, a French theologian who strongly opposed Pope Pius IX's proclamation on papal infallibility. Her main interest, however, lay in her father's judicial books, and, indeed, it was a study of the law that progressively became the main interest of her life. Through this study, she became aware of the many legal and social restrictions then placed on women in Quebec.

Gérin-Lajoie formally graduated from the Hochelaga Convent in 1882 when she was 15. After solemnly swearing never to send any of her own future daughters to boarding school, she made her first entry into Montreal society. For the next several years, Marie led an increasingly rich and varied social life. She attended all the most prominent parties and dances in town, and there she came into contact with representatives of all the most important families in Quebec.

Throughout this period, she did not neglect her program of private study. Increasingly drawn by the arguments of contemporary feminists, she came to believe that marriage was incompatible with her new ideals. Her father, though respectful of his daughter's beliefs, nevertheless persuaded her that a prominent marriage into the ranks of Quebec society would in fact help promote the principles which she now espoused. Accordingly, in 1887, she married Henri Gérin-Lajoie, an aspiring lawyer and son of one of Quebec's most famous authors and public servants. The couple were happy together and between 1890 and 1895 had four children. Their only daughter Marie later became an important social reformer in her own right, founding the Congrégation de Notre Dame du Bon Conseil, which operated social centers and schools for family and social education.

For the next few years, Gérin-Lajoie divided her time between raising her children and pursuing her own study of the law. In 1902, she published a brief manual on legal rights, the Traité de Droit Usuel, which eventually became widely distributed in schools and colleges throughout Quebec. It was also translated into English, an unusual distinction at this time given the intense cultural and linguistic jealousy that generally prevailed between the Francophone and Anglophone communities in the province. Marie was greatly helped and encouraged in the preparation of this manuscript by Mother Saint-Anaclet , a nun in the Order of the Sisters of Notre-Dame.

At the turn of the century, the two main feminist organizations in Quebec were the National Council of Women (NCW) and the Montreal Local Council of Women (MCCW). Originally, both were comprised of almost entirely of English-speaking Anglophones who, though mainly of middle-class origin, espoused a radical and militant form of feminism. Gradually, however, a number of Francophones, including Marie, joined the MCCW where they rapidly learned the methods and structures of action proposed by their English colleagues. Despite this, however, the principal concern of French feminists remained quite distinct. In other words, whereas Anglophones tended to concentrate their demands solely on women's suffrage and equal rights, Francophones focused their main concern on a broader range of issues, such as urban reform, infant mortality, health care, prostitution, and alcoholism. They believed that a program of legislative reform that would address these general issues would have the correlative effect of improving the specific conditions of all women in society.

Gérin-Lajoie recognized the strengths of both these positions. Her legal studies had convinced her that women deserved the same legal rights as males, including the right to vote. At the same time, however, she consistently rejected the militant tactics of Anglophone feminists and argued instead that change should come about through the existing order of institutions. She particularly emphasized the necessity of retaining the traditional family structure as this was the best guarantee of maintaining a woman's role in society.

It was this essentially conservative vision which led her, in 1907, to co-found (with Caroline Béique ) the Fédération Nationale St-Jean-Baptiste (FNSJB). The impetus for this new organization arose because it was increasingly felt that neither the NCW nor the MCCW were suitable vehicles for Francophones to express either their patriotic or religious ideas. The latter was particularly important in the predominantly Catholic environment of Quebec. For many years, the Catholic Church had consistently denounced any Francophone who had sympathized or collaborated with the secular and chiefly Protestant NCW and MCCW. In contrast, the new society was viewed by the church as a vehicle that would maintain Catholic doctrine regarding the proper place of women in society while, at the same time, advocating certain mild proposals of social improvement and reform.

Under Marie's leadership, the FNSJB acted as an umbrella organization coordinating the activities of 22 affiliated associations. These associations grouped together several thousand members into three broad areas, charity, education, and working women. The federation held annual conventions, organized a wide variety of study sessions and, under Gérin-Lajoie's editorial guidance from 1913, published La Bonne Parole, a magazine which had a circulation of over 2,000 copies per month. Members of the FNSJB were instrumental in founding the Sainte-Justine Hospital for children in Montreal which had a woman as its first president. They also supported the Gouttes de Lait which, at that time, did much to address the problem of infant mortality. In addition, they organized lectures on hygiene, agitated against alcoholism and prostitution, demanded special courts for children, insisted on the need for policewomen to be stationed in every police station, and worked for other charitable causes such as the Red Cross and the Fonds Patriotique (a nationalist organization committed to the protection of Francophone culture in Quebec).

Although the aim of the FNSJB was to fight for reforms in the status of women, its focus was centered on the home and family which its members considered a woman's natural and rightful place. Their struggles thus conformed to what Mgr. Bruchési, the Catholic archbishop of Montreal, called "the zealous pursuit by women of all the noble causes in the sphere that Providence has assigned to her." In short, the principal activities of the FNSJB were in harmony with the dominant clerical-nationalist ideology that prevailed within the Francophone community in Quebec during this era.

Gérin-Lajoie's public role in these activities eventually caused her to become known as the "mother" of the federation. Although this word was employed affectionately, it tended to mask a certain centralizing, authoritarian disposition inherent in her style of leadership. Moreover, a certain ambiguity slowly arose in her public pronouncements. Thus, while continuing to profess a belief in full equality between men and women, Marie gradually came to suggest that the latter enjoyed some special and unique role in formulating social improvements.

In 1913, Gérin-Lajoie extended her work by founding the Ligue des Droits de la Femme (League of Women's Rights). At that time, married women in Quebec had virtually no independent judicial standing. For instance, they could not own property independent of their husbands nor could they initiate any legal action by themselves. The aim of the League was to agitate for reforms to those parts of the Quebec Civil Code that affected the standing of women (although in this endeavor it had little direct success).

In 1918, the Federal Canadian government passed legislation granting the right to vote to all adult women. This measure was bitterly resisted by many leading French-Canadian members of parliament as well as journalists and clerics. In their view, this development represented a fundamental threat to the social order, because women did not have the necessary abilities to properly participate in the political process. Their protests, however, could not prevent women exercising their franchise in the 1921 federal election. A year later, women's suffrage was extended to the provincial level as well. The only exception was Quebec where the local legislative assembly refused to implement a similar measure.

In these circumstances, Gérin-Lajoie took it upon herself to convince the conference of Quebec bishops that there was nothing in Catholic doctrine that could be interpreted as forbidding women's suffrage. Along with a number of Anglophone colleagues, she helped found the Provincial Franchise Committee which sought to mobilize women to put pressure on members of the legislative assembly to change their decision. This committee was publicly opposed by Monsignor Eugène Roy of Quebec City who organized a petition, eventually signed by tens of thousands of women, in support of the assembly's stand.

In order to counter this opposition, Gérin-Lajoie appealed directly to the Vatican. She traveled to Rome where the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations was holding its regular convention. Her appeal had the desired effect, and the convention prepared to pass a strongly worded resolution in support of women's suffrage. At the last moment, however, the pope's personal representative, Cardinal Merry del Val, insisted on an amendment to the resolution which stated that although the church was agreeable to the principle of women's suffrage, it would be left to the discretion of the bishops in each country whether or not to endorse this proposal.

Marie had no more success when she appealed to the leader of the Quebec government, Premier Elzéar Taschereau. The latter was adamantly opposed to any suggestion of bringing Quebec's policy into line with that of the other provinces. Moreover, he flatly declared that women would never receive the right to vote in a provincial election so long as he and his party were in office. These failures, combined with intense pressure from the Catholic hierarchy that she obey the position of the church, led to Marie's resignation from the franchise committee. With her departure, the impetus behind the struggle for the provincial vote was lost. It was not until 1927 that another French-Canadian feminist, Idola Saint-Jean , managed to persuade a sympathetic member of the provincial assembly to introduce a bill giving women the right to vote. This bill was defeated, as were similar measures every year until the franchise was eventually granted to Quebec women in 1940.

Gérin-Lajoie's last major intervention on behalf of Quebec women came in 1929. In that year, a commission of women's civil rights was set up, with Judge Dorion as chair. Its purpose was to study proposed changes to the Civil Code affecting marriage law. Although no women were permitted to sit on the commission, they were permitted to make submissions and give evidence. In this regard, Marie's testimony was influential in the commission's recommendation that a married woman should have the right to dispose of the income of her own labor without the permission or authorization of her husband.

During her last years, Marie Gérin-Lajoie was appointed as a part-time teacher at the University of Montreal where her lectures on law were enthusiastically received by a new generation of Francophone feminists. After her husband's death, however, her own health began to decline, and she suffered from frequent bouts of ill-health. Shortly before her own death, Marie Gérin-Lajoie was awarded a medal by Pope Pius XI in recognition of her work for the welfare of women as well as the prestigious Palmes Académiques by the government of France for her contribution to improving the legal status of women. Gérin-Lajoie died of a heart attack at her home in Montreal in November 1945.


Hulet, Michelle. Mére Marie Gérin-Lajoie. Quebec City: Édition Canadiennes, 1979.

Linteau, Paul-André. Quebec: A History, 1867–1929. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1983.

suggested reading:

Cleverdon, C.L. The Women Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1974.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada