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Women in Business, 1700-1850

Author(s):Phillips, Nicola
Reviewer(s):Walsh, Margaret

Published by EH.NET (September 2006)

Nicola Phillips, Women in Business, 1700-1850. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2006. xi + 299 pp. $85/?50 (cloth), ISBN: 1-84383-183-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Margaret Walsh, School of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham.

Women in Business is a book long in the making. Originating in a Master’s thesis and then expanded and developed into a Ph.D. dissertation, it had already been through several revisions before being further extended and refined into a research monograph. During its gestation Nicola Phillips benefited from the expert guidance of her advisors and the history staff at Royal Holloway, University of London, from eighteenth century practitioners in other British universities and from an established network of historians who present at and attend the seminars in “British History in the Long Eighteenth Century” held at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. As might be expected, the end-result of this dedicated labor and constructive advice is a solid, in-depth treatment of predominantly London-based female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, which is thoroughly au fait with its historiographical context.

The main thrust of the volume is its questioning of orthodox views of the long eighteenth century, more usually set within the timeframe of 1688-1815, women’s history and business history. Philips takes issue with several well-known hypotheses and dissects these into a new amalgam, which is best described as “diversity rules.” Diversity has, indeed, been the motif of third wave women’s history, but this nuanced approach suggests a wider socio-economic environment because it is set in a business context in an England which is more concerned with class than with race and whose ethnic dimensions are tied into patriotism and francophobia. The overall outcome is a book that poses questions and asks historians to recognize that there are no linear or clear-cut progressions that can be easily identified or explained. Fluidity and adaptability are the keys to understanding women’s economic activities, which were more extensive than has hitherto been recognized.

So what are the specific arguments embedded in Women in Business? The central contention, which challenges traditional women’s history, but is in line with current thinking, is that the metaphor of separate spheres is an inadequate analytical tool. It is too rigid to explain the varied lives of women in business or to offer explanations for the long-term patterns of female entrepreneurship. The gendered dichotomy of feminine/masculine that is the core of the private/public debate simply does not work because other ingredients such as class, family and co-operation between the sexes within trading networks intervened to create numerous prospects and divergences. The evidence used to substantiate this proposition emerges from an analysis of legal systems, property-holding and insurance records, as well as a close engagement with advertising strategies and with the most feminine of economic occupations, millinery and dressmaking.

Of particular interest is Phillips’ lengthy excursion into women’s relationship with the law. Here she suggests that coverture was neither as disabling nor as restrictive as women’s historians once suggested. This common law doctrine, based on the legal fiction that a husband and wife were one person and that that person was usually understood to be the husband, was frequently sidestepped. By the mid eighteenth century female entrepreneurs could successfully defend their separate business property even in a common law court well before the Married Women’s Property Acts officially ratified such a course of action. So there were legally acceptable spaces within which married women could continue their trade, even though their right to do so was never formally acknowledged during this period. Yet even if this had not been the case, it would still be erroneous to regard coverture as a complete disaster for female entrepreneurs. For many wives doing business according to the borough custom of a feme sole trader, coverture was the best defense against being declared personally bankrupt. Women, married or single, were able to function as economic agents within a pluralistic legal system.

They were also able to hold property and to obtain credit. Businesswomen who held insurance policies with Sun Life owned significant amounts of stock and real property, as well as personal goods. They also sometimes controlled quite considerable amounts of capital, though much of this could not be classified solely as business capital. Indeed Phillips argues that female entrepreneurs running these larger operations were well integrated into the complex and extensive networks that facilitated business and that marriage or remarriage did not necessarily interrupt long-standing credit arrangements. Smaller ventures were not likely to be insured and here women needed partners, a long-standing reputation or family support to trade on their own account.

Cultural expectations of women’s role in society may have been at loggerheads with the reality of female economic agency, but an analysis of contemporary literature and newspaper advertisements suggests that representations of women in business, whether negative or guarded, point to their very existence. Rather than accepting at face value the huge body of didactic literature that prescribed domesticity as the essence of true womanhood, Phillips uses this material to widen the debate about representations of women’s role in business. Certainly there were misgivings about the alleged sexual promiscuity of eighteenth-century milliners and the wage slavery practiced by prosperous nineteenth-century milliners, but these representations were not necessarily intended to remove women from their trade. They were more likely part of the contemporary public debate about luxury goods, particularly if French, excess profits and national superiority.

Women in Business certainly reappraises the business enterprises of women in the long eighteenth century, but it is not an easy read. Though it is good to see arguments supported by abundant evidence, the material is at times empirically dense and the various sections, or the case studies, fit together awkwardly. As a result the text as a whole does not flow smoothly. Part of this fragmentation may stem from the cautious approach that is frequently found in theses and part from a desire to demonstrate plentiful research data. Some of the material might have been more easily digested in table format; while other material plays very heavily on historiography. Nevertheless this volume is a contribution to the field of gender and business in that it moves on the debate about women’s economic agency, as well as fitting in with a growing trend to emphasize the heterogeneity of female entrepreneurs.

Margaret Walsh is the author of The American West: Visions and Revisions (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Making Connections: The Long Distance Bus Industry in the USA (Ashgate, 2000).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century