When Heather invited me to be guest blogger, I didn’t hesitate. It’s so nice to see there are other people like me who are interested in the place lesbians took in history and in the strength and perseverance they had to maintain just to love another woman.
My first historical romance, Water’s Edge, begins in 1888. It’s not about a political figure or a famous woman of any kind. It’s about two young French Canadians, Emilie and Angeline, who meet in Fall River, Massachusetts. My characters are fictitious, but the context in which they evolve is historic. It’s that context I want to talk about here. I think understanding the historical context in which Emilie and Angeline grew up is the only way to fully realize how determined they had to be to love each other.
Canadians have migrated to the United States, temporarily or permanently, for as long as both countries have existed. I moved to Missouri back in 1998 and spent thirteen years in the country—most of these years were spent in Albany, New York—before I moved back to Canada. My father spent almost two years in New Jersey with my mother and my two older brothers while he worked as an ironworker on the World Trade Center construction site. His father moved to Massachusetts as a young man to work in cotton mills before he went back to Canada and married my grandmother. And that’s just my own family history. There’s nothing special about Canadians spending a few years in the United States, and I’m not even talking about snowbirds, who migrate down to Florida every winter.
What’s extraordinary about the period I describe in Water’s Edge, however, is the number of people who moved to New England in a relatively short extent of time. Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French Canadians made the move to work in textile mills in New England. That’s a massive migration, right? Why did they do it, you might ask? In most cases, it was simply to run from poverty. They couldn’t survive on their farms, or had accumulated too much debt trying to modernise their farms, and they were forced to move to New England cities where jobs in textile mills were easy to find.
It certainly wasn’t an easy decision to make. Not only did they have to leave their home and everything they knew behind, but they also had to face a certain stigma. They were often seen as lazy, as if the reason they couldn’t survive on their farms was because they didn’t work hard enough. They were also described as traitors for leaving their country, their duty, their true purpose. In other words, people didn’t move because it was a cool thing to do. They did it because they had to find a way to feed their family.
In Water’s Edge, Emilie’s father takes his family to Fall River, Massachusetts, but that was only one of several options such as New Bedford, MA, Woonsocket, RI, or Waterville, ME to name a few. Like Emilie’s father, most thought they’d work in the United States until they had enough money to come back and pay their debt, or until things got better back home somehow. Some, like my grandfather, did come back to Canada. Thousands of families, however, settled in New England for good and became the first generations of Franco-Americans.
So once they made the difficult decision to move and escaped poverty in Canada, life in the States must have been a piece of cake for these French Canadian families, right? Well, not exactly. Let’s say they weren’t the most popular people in New England. Americans didn’t like them because they didn’t try to adapt to the American culture. Instead, “little Canada’s” popped up all over New England. They had their own churches, their own schools, and they kept speaking French as much as they could. Remember that they didn’t think they’d stay, so they didn’t make an effort to blend in. Other groups such as Irish, Italians, or Polish, who worked with them in textile mills, didn’t like them much either, but for other reasons. Every time these groups tried to fight for better working conditions, with strikes for example, French Canadians were there to do the work. You can imagine how frustrating that could have been for their coworkers. On the other hand, you can probably also imagine that no matter how bad the working conditions in the cotton mills were, they were still better than starving on the farm back in Canada.
That doesn’t mean other groups were not right to complain about working conditions in the mills. They were absolutely terrible. Men, women, and children all worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. The mills were noisy, hot, and humid. It’s a wonder anyone could breathe. Several millworkers suffered from lung diseases, and sometimes died from them. It was hard work, and it didn’t pay much.
So there you have it: the context in which Emilie and Angeline grow up and realize that what they feel for each other might be more than friendship. As if they didn’t have it hard enough already, they’re faced with feelings they’ve never heard of. Girls like them grow up to work at the mill and marry boys who work at the mill so they can have children who will, as soon as they’re old enough, work at the mill. There simply isn’t any other model to follow. How will they make it work? All I can say is that it won’t be smooth sailing to happily ever after. The way will be long and sinuous. The waves will be strong, but so are Emilie and Angeline.
Genevieve Fortin was born in Rimouski, a small town in the French Canadian province of Quebec, Canada. After getting her Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, she moved to the United States for her graduate studies in French literature. She stayed to work and spent a total of thirteen years in the United States, from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Albany, New York. During that time she started and abandoned several novels until she started reading lesbian fiction. She found more than inspiration in the work of women like Gerri Hill and Karin Kallmaker; she found direction.
She is on twitter as @kenefief