- Gender and Business:Recent Literature on Women and Entrepreneurship
All of the books under review here prove conclusively that in nineteenth-century France, England, and Australia (and in northern Europe more broadly from 1600 to 1920), businesswomen were everywhere. They ran small businesses, including bars, stores, schools, and hotels—in some cases in their own names when the law allowed it. When the law did not allow it (for example, when they married) they worked out of their homes, as seamstresses and boarding-house keepers, in businesses that were not necessarily registered in their own names or documented legally, or they helped run family firms, large and small, in partnerships where they had varying degrees of legal or public acknowledgement. Some women appeared as business owners in their own right, advertising in newspapers as milliners, store owners, and the like. More often, they ran businesses with husbands (who could sometimes be helpful partners who acknowledged their contribution) or for husbands (who could sometimes be unstable, untrustworthy, absent or deceased). Despite their presence, all the authors acknowledge that it took painstaking research to tease the stories of entrepreneurial women out of the records. As Jennifer Aston notes, the lack of official sources available to historians trying to study women's enterprises is problematic across all periods and countries; she argues that a wider range of alternative sources needs to be utilized "to create a patchwork effect and try to fill the gaps left by official source material" (p. 7). These authors report meticulous, detailed combing through court records, tax rolls, trade directories, census data, bank account ledgers, probate and insolvency records, diaries, and family records to find and document women's involvement [End Page 401] in the world of business. The picture that emerges upon reading these studies is not that women were not involved and engaged in the world of business, but that historians forgot to look for them. And the more they were forgotten, the more historians assumed that they had played minimal roles.
Furthermore, the books discussed in the following pages demonstrate that the separate spheres ideology that has dominated our understanding of men's and women's lives in the nineteenth century limits how we have viewed businesswomen. These scholars point out that businesswomen were engaged and active inside and outside the home: their spheres were more segmented than separate, as Moring and Wall discuss (p. 254). Béatrice Craig suggests that in nineteenth-century France, spheres of family, work, and business were joined rather than separate or segmented (p. 9). And Aston points out that nineteenth-century British women were engaged in the public sphere in a variety of businesses, some in feminine trades that cleverly capitalized on separate domestic spheres but others in quite masculine trades in industrial and urban economies (p. 28). Catherine Bishop also finds little value in identifying separate worlds of work and home. She acknowledges that the boundaries between spheres were blurred, particularly when businesses could also be domestic: "[W]omen did not necessarily have to pursue interests outside the home in order to be part of the commercial life of Sydney, but brought their outside interests inside," (p. 11) by running home-based businesses.
Why have we been convinced that women, limited by laws around property ownership and hampered by having supposedly retreated to their homes, did not operate in a public sphere when these historians have compellingly shown they were everywhere? Bishop tells us that she, too, had "accepted the view that women had disappeared from economic public life in the middle of the nineteenth century" but discovered that "the more I looked the more businesswomen kept leaping inconveniently out of the records" (p. 15). She notes that...