Author Interview: Marise Bachand

Author Interview: Marise Bachand

Today we share an interview with Marise Bachand, who published an article in our December 2017 special issue, titled “Disunited Daughters of the Confederations: Creoles and Canadians at the Intersection of Nations, States, and Empires.” Marise is an associate professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. An Americanist trained in Canada, she holds an M.A. from Université du Québec à Montréal and a Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario. She is completing a book manuscript on the urban lives of plantation women based on her dissertation and she is researching two projects—one on white Creole women and the Americanization of Louisiana, and one on the Whig intellectual circle of Madame Le Vert from Mobile, Alabama.

Thank you so much, Marise, for talking with us. I’d like to start by hearing a little bit about how you got interested in this topic. What inspired you to undertake this project?

It started with the Creoles. In my dissertation, I included a number of francophone sugar planting women to add nuance to my study. I was puzzled to discover how little historians had written about these white women, although they were fascinated by Creole women of color. This historiographical silence, I realized, was not so much the result of some language barrier, but of the exotic and colonial place Louisiana occupies in the American imagination. I thus decided that my postdoctoral project would be dedicated to document these women’s lives as they Americanized.

Then the Canadians came in. When I was hired at UQTR in 2011, a research university with a strong tradition in Quebec studies, I was asked to develop comparative projects. I was intrigued by the fact that women were almost excluded from the Canadian political narrative of the nineteenth century, while so much work had been done in the United States to integrate them. As a feminist historian, I advocate alternative chronologies, yet I feel that there are many stories to be told within the traditional chronological framework. This project also stems from a personal experience, as is often the case with women’s history. How would my daughter, born of the marriage of a French Canadian and an English Canadian, self-identify as she grew up?

In what ways is women’s history reshaping Civil War studies? As you note, there is still much to be done, especially work of a comparative nature. How can studying these elite French-speaking women shed new light on the hemispheric connections between Creoles and French Canadians? Is there another American city, other than New Orleans, that you think might work for a similar study?

Women’s history has long been reshaping Civil War studies, I believe, by linking the battlefront to the homefront. When I first discovered Mary Elizabeth Massey’s Bonnet Brigades (1966) on a university bookshelf in the late 1990s, I realized that historians like George Rable, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Leslie Schwalm were already revisionists.[1] The number of articles and books has literally exploded since. Although women and gender history remains a niche in a field dominated by military and political history, it is a very dynamic niche.

Still, we don’t know much about the impact of the war on ethnic women, especially women of French America. People of the nineteenth century, starting with Grace King and Lord Durham, believed that Creoles and Canadians were connected in many ways. Yet those connections have been lost because the collective identities of those francophones do not fit well within our current pluralist paradigms. Ethnic nationalism has a bad reputation today, often rightly so since it tends to feed intolerance and racism. And yet, I needed to study how nation and other collective identities shaped gender to understand why so many French-speaking women willingly embraced very conservative political cultures at both end of the continent at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many towns and cities could be compared and connected across the border for similar studies, starting with places that sheltered fugitive slaves. Montreal and Toronto were havens for Confederates during and after the Civil War. They were connected to cities like Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston. Before and after the war, elite Canadians, both English and French, wintered in Savannah and summered in Saratoga, while Americans came to Niagara. Philadelphia, New York and Boston were linked to Quebec City, notably through their Catholic convents, etc.

What questions guided your research into these two regional identities, and what is the main point that you hope to communicate through your research? 

At the outset, I wanted to understand how the political crises of the period (1830s-1870s) impacted women of French America. What roles were they asked to play in politics of belonging as their collectivities were minoritized in Louisiana and Canada? How did it change their everyday life? What did it mean in terms of gender relations to be colonized colonizers? I also wanted to understand why “race” was such an important concept to describe these French-speaking people at the time.

What my article argues, ultimately, is that both Créoles and Canadiennes experienced these political crises and the collective refashionings that followed quite differently from the men of their family. There was a fundamental contradiction between their roles as mothers of a French race in North America and the fact that they were not sovereign.

The Journal of the Civil War Era focuses on the period between about 1820 and 1880, which is the period at the heart of your project. Where do you see connections between the American Civil War and the developments that you discuss in your article? In other words, what role did the American Civil War play in refashioning Creole and French Canadian identities?

Before writing this article, I never realized how crucial the Civil War was to the transformation of these communities. In Louisiana, that’s when Creolism merged with Confederate nationalism, when white Creoles lost the economic means that allowed them to exist as a prosperous minority with some political leverage. In Canada, the Civil War accelerated the creation of Confederation, a new state that recognized in its constitution the existence of French as a political language. It is the turning point. Creoles became Americans. Canadians became French Canadians.

Do you have any advice for scholars who are looking to conduct transnational, comparative studies such as this, particularly ones that relate to Canada?

Follow the people (or whatever you are studying) —not the national or imperial boundaries, nor the historiographical paradigms.

That segues quite nicely into our next question! Transnational and comparative history has really come into its own as a subfield of Civil War history. What do you envision as the future of this field–thinking in terms of methodology, topics, etc.?

What a big question! The Civil War was a transnational crisis that touched all kind of people as this special issue of the JCWE clearly shows: Canadians, Mexicans, British, French, and even Chinese. It created nations and shook empires. Almost any topic can be studied through the transnational lens, which is congenial to the micro and the macro, the qualitative and the quantitative. Comparative history is a little trickier, often criticized on technical grounds. Yet it is a wonderful tool to revise historical narratives, to put things in perspective. We need more courageous historians to practice this challenging form of history.

We are so grateful that Marise was able to chat with us during this busy time of the academic year, and we hope that you have enjoyed her article (and the special issue) as much as we have. As the issue’s guest editor, Bill Blair noted, all of these essays illustrate the myriad ways that scholars of the Civil War era can make connections with other crises of sovereignty in the nineteenth century.



[1] Mary Elizabeth Massey, Bonnet Brigades (New York,: Knopf, 1966); George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

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