This lovely stone house reflects the talents of businesswoman Marie-Anne Barbel, who commissioned it in 1755. She had a shop at Place-Royale during the time of New France, but also owned many other houses, properties, and enterprises in the Québec region. The life of this successful entrepreneur is proof that women have long played a leading role in Québec society.
A widow who means business
Marie-Anne Barbel’s story is one of the many well-documented cases of women in New France succeeding in business and earning their peers’ respect, even though the law still placed women under the legal guardianship of their fathers or husbands.
Marie-Anne Barbel was born into a middle-class family in 1704. At age 19 she married second-generation merchant Louis Fornel. They had 14 children, only five of whom survived to adulthood. When her husband died in 1745, she inherited a retail store at Place-Royale and interests in fishing and fur-trading concerns. Marie-Anne decided to run these businesses herself. As a widow she had all the rights and legal powers usually reserved for men.
Marie-Anne held on to her husband’s interests in the fishing company and stepped up her involvement in the fur trade by securing a six-year lease with two other shareholders to operate the Domaine du roi in Tadoussac, a huge business that included several trading posts in the Saguenay region and on the North Shore. She also opened a pottery factory, but it never turned a profit. Alongside these activities she invested wisely by purchasing houses and farmland in the Québec region.
By the mid-1750s, she was a well-known and respected businesswoman with stature in the community. Furthermore, she had the trust of the colony’s senior administrator—the intendant.
Marie-Anne falls only to rise again
The war that led to the British conquest of New France dealt Marie-Anne Barbel’s businesses a stunning blow. Several of her houses in Québec were shelled (this one included). Fishing and fur trading were severely curtailed. To make matters worse, the general practice of buying on credit during the war penalized merchants, who only saw a small portion of the money owed them reimbursed.
But in spite of everything, Widow Fornel, as she was called at the time, proved resourceful and patient. She gradually withdrew from business after the Conquest and managed to pay off all of her debts. In 1777 she dissolved her marriage contract in order to bequeath tens of thousands of dollars in 18th-century currency to each of her five children.
She died in 1793 at 89, a ripe old age for that era.
Necessity is the mother of emancipation
Marie-Anne Barbel’s story is not unique. In New France, women had an important place within the family and society even though legally they were wards of their fathers or husbands. They were the heads of the household when their husbands left for months at a time for the fur trade, to go to war, or to board ship as sailors or fishermen. Women’s contribution to the household budget was considerable. They even had power of attorney to legally spend several hundred dollars in their husbands’ stead.
Today gender equality is an integral part of Québec society and Québec’s identity. It is a core value. The obstacles on the road to women’s emancipation were many, but it is not an overstatement to say that the roots of this freedom run deep. There are numerous examples of female accomplishments in the history of French Canada.