Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Non-stereotypical Occupations of Franco-American Women in 1900

Did you know that there were twelve Franco-American women listed as “clergymen” in the 1900 U.S. census? I discovered this in a 1913 scholarly article that reported the occupations of French-Canadian origin residents of the U.S., per the 1900 federal census. The article gave the exact number of Franco-Americans who had each of some 140 jobs.

I’m thankful to that article for informing me that such detailed information was available, but just eyeballing the author’s data tables I saw obvious arithmetic mistakes. When I looked harder, I found some more. (The editor back in 1913 didn't catch them.) Not able to trust any of this author’s numbers after finding these glaring errors, I girded myself for doing his research all over again.

At last I found the data in a 1904 report of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. My analysis based on this report discovered some occupations of Franco-American women and men that challenge stereotypes. It also revealed a general profile of French-Canadian origin workers across the U.S. at that time.

Top Occupations

The data below represents gainfully employed people in 1900, 10 years of age or older, who had at least one French-Canadian born parent.1 (It excludes the many eight- and nine-year-olds who were so employed at that time.) Of this group, nearly 343,000 workers, 77% were recorded as male and 23% as female. The 1900 data shows that instances of “mixed marriages” – i.e. a French-Canadian origin person marrying anyone else but another French-Canadian origin person – were rare. Almost all of those who had one French-Canadian born parent had two; some who had one French-Canadian born parent had a U.S. born parent of French-Canadian origin.

Table 1 shows the top ten occupations for this group. It includes only those jobs that claimed 3% or more of this population (why the percentages don't sum to 100%). 

These occupations taken together account for 63% of employed Franco-Americans in 1900. The remaining more than one-third of this population had about 130 other jobs. It's not surprising that "cotton mill operative" was the top job, followed not far down the list by "other textile mill operatives."2  Textile work of various kinds employed 28% of all French-Canadian origin people working outside the home, the largest industrial cohort by a mile.

The category of “Laborers (Not specified)” is vague. The 1904 report tried to clarify it: "In agricultural districts agricultural laborers and, similarly, in manufacturing districts unskilled workmen are often reported simply as ‘laborers’." The report qualifies them as "common, general, or day laborers" who toiled, for example, in the construction of "roads, sewers, drains, ditches, canals, water works, etc."3

I have seen in the U.S. censuses of this era many instances where people who are identified only as “laborers” are living in mill-owned housing and appear to be working in mills or in jobs dependent on them. The researchers knew this and tried to reduce the count of unspecified "laborers" by re-categorizing them as the evidence warranted. Despite their efforts, "laborers" constituted the second largest cohort among Franco-Americans in 1900.

After textile workers and unskilled laborers, the next largest category was farmers and farm workers, followed by some trades that claimed less than five percent of Franco-Americans. Surprisingly, lumbermen, a job often associated with that era’s French-Canadians, occupied only one percent of employed Franco-Americans.

Discussions about French-Canadian origin people in the U.S. tend to be regional, but this data encompasses the entire United States. The fact that cotton mill workers led the list of occupations, and by a substantial margin, argues for the importance of the New England cohort among French-Canadian origin people in the U.S. The French-Canadian ascendancy in the New England textile manufacturing labor force was the most significant and visible fact about this immigrant group on a national level at the beginning of the 20th century.

Women’s Occupations

But the numbers in Table 1 are skewed toward men, since the latter represent more than three-quarters of gainfully employed Franco-Americans in 1900. If we take women and men separately, differences become clear. Table 2 shows the analysis for Franco-American women, recording only those occupations that claimed greater than three percent of the total. 
Of the nearly 79,000 gainfully employed women and girls, a whopping 37% were cotton mill operatives. More than one-half worked in the textile industry, in either cotton mills or in some other type of textile factory. One-tenth were servants or waitstaff. Dressmakers and shoe makers account for a little less than another tenth.

Jobs accounting for less than three percent of gainfully employed females included more than 120 occupations from teachers (many more women than men were teachers), to packers and shippers, to bakers, to potters, to physicians and surgeons (42 Franco-American women were doctors). Of some 140 occupations listed in this report, Franco-American women serve in all but 18 of them. But the six occupations listed in Table 2 employ three-quarters of all women and girls working outside the home.

Many women have occupations that confound our expectations about the world of 1900 and engage the imagination. For example, what was the story of the twelve clergywomen among the Franco-Americans? They certainly weren’t Roman Catholic. 
In my research of 19th c. New England I have seen women ministers among the Universalists who later merged with the Unitarians. It’s possible that some enumerator got confused and listed Catholic nuns as "clergymen." But if that were the case, I’d expect to see more than twelve instances of it. The occupation listed for nuns is usually related to their function as teachers, nurses, etc. What path did these twelve Franco-Americans travel to arrive at the status of clergywomen? Researching their stories is a doctoral thesis waiting to happen. 

And what was the experience of the two Franco-American women who were “lumbermen and raftsmen” and the other two listed as “wood choppers” in 1900, living in the world of forests and chantiers? While 
three Franco-American women were “fishermen or oystermen,” no less than 102 were “iron and steel workers,” long before the Rosie the Riveter image appeared. Who were the six Franco-American women who were “officials of banks and companies” in 1900, the 32 who were government officials (before women could vote), the 33 photographers, or the one and only lawyer among them?

Men’s Occupations

Table 3 shows the top occupations for Franco-American men. Again, I have included only those jobs held by at least three percent of the nearly 264,000 employed Franco-American men in 1900. 
“Laborers (Not specified)” was the top job for men, representing 15% of employees, with 16% working in textile mills (cotton or other textile operations), and another 15% in agriculture, as farmers or farm laborers. It’s the preponderance of women working in cotton mills that made this occupation the top job of Franco-Americans. Almost as many Franco-American women as men worked in textile mills.

That the largest cohort of men was unskilled, unspecified laborers is a statement about their status. Despite the Québécois myth of the rich uncle from the States, the largest numbers of French-Canadian origin men in the U.S. were either general laborers, mill workers, or toiling down on the farm – a relatively modest socioeconomic niche by anyone’s standards in 1900. These were much the same roles that men filled in 
Québec in that period.  


However, in any population there are outliers. A
s the 20th century dawned, small numbers of people of French-Canadian origin rose to positions that commanded wealth, honor or authority in the United States. Some of this class would certainly qualify as “rich uncles” on either side of the border. 

In this period, the Franco-American elite would've included the clergy, professionals (especially doctors and lawyers), business owners, and journalists.4  It might also include company officials, bankers and brokers, agents (mostly in insurance or real estate), and government officials, elected or appointed.

People of French-Canadian origin, in all of these vocations combined, made up 9668 individuals (377 women), 3% of employed Franco-Americans. There are more than six times as many Franco-American cotton mill workers. In the U.S. at large, the percentage of people having these elite positions was 6% of all employed people, double the percentage for Franco-Americans. The Franco-American elite, as defined by these occupations, made up a minuscule 0.6% of the U.S. elite.

The 1900 census data on occupations gives a rare snapshot of French-Canadian origin people across the U.S. at the end of a peak period of migration away from the St. Lawrence Valley. Franco-Americans, both men and women, served in more than 100 occupations, in every industry, and at every level of skill and education. However, most people of French-Canadian origin in the U.S. at the time were still concentrated in factory or farm work. In percentage terms, not many rose to positions of affluence or honor. But a few – including a small number of women – did.


1. U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Special Reports Occupations at the Twelfth Census, prepared under the supervision of William C. Hunt, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904. Cf. esp. General Tables, pp 68-75. My Tables 1-3 derive from this report.

2. I have included in my "other textile mill operatives" category those who worked in woolen, silk, hosiery and carpet mills, as well as those who were listed in the report above as unspecified “other textile mill operatives.”

3. Special Reports Occupations at the Twelfth Census, xxvi, 7n1.

4. In my count of medical professionals among these elites, I included those listed as "physicians and surgeons" and "dentists."

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