Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Camille Lessard Bissonnette, 1883-1970
By Rhea Cote Robbins, Executive Director of the Franco-American Women's Institute
Camille Lessard Bissonnette was born in 1883 in Sainte-Julie-de-Mégantic, province de Québec. She finished her schooling at age sixteen and she became the teacher in her district, "institutrice dans une école de rang." In 1904, her teaching career was interrupted when her entire family emigrated to Lewiston, Maine. Camille found herself working again, but not in the classroom. She began work in the mill, dans les filatures Continental, where she worked for four years. She offered her services to the local French language newspaper, Le Messager, and began work as a columnist in 1908. She founded les pages féminines and soon enough she was in correspondence with her readership. Les pages féminines had already bien établie in the Québécois newspapers.
Camille Lessard Bissonnette wrote a column for the French language newspaper, Le Messager, in Lewiston, Maine in favor of the vote for women as well as many other subjects. She was in a cross-border conversation about the vote with women in Quebec, Canada, who were not in agreement with her.
This article that speaks to the issue that Camille faced in arguing the vote in Maine, bilingually, biculturally and crossing borders as Megan Cécile Radford writes in her column:
Women's page editors would often use their columns to debate men's arguments against suffrage, or to argue with other women who were less sympathetic towards the cause. Most suffrage supporters were not shy of public speaking, but expressing their views in print allowed them to reach a wider audience. This was especially true of Camille Lessard Bissonnette, a columnist for Le Messager of Maine. Lessard Bissonnette is often overlooked as a suffrage supporter in the annals of both suffrage and women of the press, perhaps because she spent part of her life writing for the Quebec diaspora in the United States. But in those days the debate across borders was fluid, and Lessard Bissonnette engaged with other French-Canadians as well as with Franco-Americans of Maine (Shideler 74).
On February 4th, 1910 Camille wrote in the Le Messager:
“You say, sirs, that it is the woman who lights up your home. You compare her to a ray of sunshine. You exclaim that women must not be dragged into the mud of politics. But sirs, when a ray of sunshine falls on the mud does it dirty itself, or does it dry up and purify the mud?”
Despite being a founding member of the Canadian Women's Press Club, Anne-Marie Gleason-Huguenin (pen name Madeleine) of La Patrie—who engaged in dialogue with Camille-- did not support the women's vote. While Bissonnette was less harsh in disagreeing with Madeleine than with men, she stood firm in her conviction that women must support their suffragette “sisters,” even if they did not agree with them (Shideler, 74). She bitterly rebuked women who, as Janet Shideler notes, “maliciously characterize, generalize, and verbally assault their sisters engaged in the fight on behalf of all women” (Shideler, 75). Her frustration was warranted: Quebec chose not to give women the vote until April, 1940, decades after most other provinces in Canada and the United States had granted women suffrage.
Lessard Bissonnette addressed an audience at the Insitut Jacques-Cartier in Lewiston on January 30. 1910, on the subject of women's suffrage which drew the ire of some men of the Franco-American culture. The lecture was reproduced in Le Messager on February 4, 1910. Lessard Bissonnette was public and vocal about her support of the vote in the very Catholic, highly conservative Franco-American culture in the U.S. and she spoke and wrote in the French language of her readership so that they could completely understand and have access to the issues of the day. Her work highlights the diversity that existed in the state of Maine at the time of the women's suffrage movement.
Lessard-Bissonnette. Le Messager. 4 February 1910: 2.
Radford, Megan Cécile. “How Canadian Newspaperwomen Won the Vote.” Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, 2011 Dalton Camp Award FINALIST, 2011, www.friends.ca/DCA/2011/MeganCecileRadford.
Shideler, Janet. "Les femmes dans l'oeuvre de Camille Lessard-Bissonnette." La Femme Franco-Américaine The Franco-American Woman, ed. Claire Quintal. Worcester: Institut français, Assumption College, 1994.
Shideler, Janet L. Camille Lessard-Bissonnette: The Quiet Evolution of French-Canadian Immigrants in New England. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 1998.