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Published by H-Business@w3needs.com and EH.Net (April 1999)

Angel Kwolek-Folland. Incorporating Women: A History of Women and Business

in the United States Twayne’s Evolution of Modern Business Series. New

York: Twayne Publishers, Simon &

Schuster Macmillan, 1998. ix + pp. 275.

Bibliography and index. (cloth), ISBN 0-8057-4519-X.

Reviewed for H-Business by Mary A. Yeager, Department of History, University of

California, Los Angeles, California.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: WOMEN AND BUSINESS HISTORY

Angel Kwolek-Folland’s Incorporating Women is the first survey to

synthesize the history of women and business anywhere in the world. Its

pioneering status raises a series of significant questions for the scholarly

and business communities and the public at large. Why have businesswomen in

America been the first women to have their history surveyed and synthesized?

And why now? In view of the fact that there is still a great deal that we do

not know about women in business, is the synthesis premature? What does the

synthesis offer historians of women and business and what is its significance

for future research? And finally, where do we go from here? [1]

ACCOUNTING FOR LEADERS

The practice of business and women’s history

in the United States has reached a historiographical cross-roads just when

demographic and economic changes are interacting to compel a dramatic

restructuring of American business. As we approach the millennium, old

certainties about the superior competitiveness of American business have given

way to the uncertainties of global capitalism run amok. Women, including those

with children, have become fifty-one percent of the labor force. They have

started more new businesses at a faster rate than men. T hey have earned more

baccalaureate and graduate degrees than have men across an increasing number of

professions. More women have climbed into the ranks of middle management,

while the small number of women at the very top has held its own.

For the first time in the history of American business, women who work have

begun to be perceived as a partial solution to the problems of competitiveness

rather than as a major social problem. No longer is the question whether single

or married women should work but

rather, how long women will work at a particular occupation and pay scale?

Will married women and men be able to juggle the kids and career demands to

suit personal and familial lifestyles?

The appearance of a historical synthesis of American women and

business at this time is significant because it has been pieced together from

two radically different historiographical traditions before a great deal of

substantive or systematic research on women in business has been completed.

Until relatively recently

, historians have used gender more often to exclude rather than to include the

opposite sex. American business history was generally written by and about men

in growth-oriented manufacturing firms.

American women’s history was written by and about women

who lived compartmentalized lives in private or public spheres.

More is known about women as workers than as businesspeople. Evidence on

women’s labor force-participation is abundant, quantifiable and relatively

accessible, embedded in government labor and occupational censuses, and

company records. As an activity, business confounds with multiple meanings and

definitions. It sweeps in production and trade, manufacturing,

agriculture and service, as well as producers, entrepreneurs, professionals,

workers and managers. As an occupation, it is notoriously ambiguous, often

swept into other occupational groupings, such as proprietors or administrators.

As a career or profession, it offers numerous choices, from clerks to

middle-level managers and corporate

executives.

Businesswomen have been hard to see and difficult to track. They have been

misfits in the male world of business and a privileged minority among women.

Their names have been erased in law and custom by those of husbands, fathers

and brothers.

Their economic activities have spilled across boundaries demarcating

households, families, firms and markets. Their multifaceted roles as wives and

mothers, daughters and widows have blurred their business identities. Most

female business activities have occurred in smaller corners and invisible

niches of the service sector rather than in growth-oriented manufacturing

industries, in family-oriented businesses and retail shops,

and in educational, philanthropic, and health-care and reform-oriented

institutions. The motives of businesswomen have involved a complex and changing

mixture of economic and non-economic factors. Their stories have tended to be

communal and familial, muffling individual decision-making strategies and the

competitive noises of

firms and industries.

Kwolek-Folland has learned from her subjects how to transform problems into

opportunities. She uses debates about working women as scaffolding for the

synthesis. Chapter titles evoke a succession of images about working women:

“Fem ale Economies,” “Mills and More,” “Difference at Work,” “Personal Work,”

“Crisis Management” and “Difference at Work.” Work offers women a way to gain

greater economic visibility. It expands opportunities to undertake business.

Indeed, women’s movement into white collar work in the late nineteenth and

earlier twentieth centuries marks, for her, one of the most important changes

for women in business in the past 300 years. Data on occupations and women’s

labor force participation are correlated generally with women’s increasing

involvement in business activities. Business activities are based on a gendered

division of labor. Women participate in business like workers participating in

the economy, as part of a proletariat, more often in feminized, sex-segregated

dead-end jobs and slower-growing niches of service-oriented industries.

Women’s status at work serves as a lightning rod for the debate over women’s

roles more generally. Debates about working women grow out of debates about

women’s place.

Businesswomen across the centuries have often adopted a work-oriented view of

business. Business has been a way to make a living and survive. So integral

has business been to women’s lives, that some women have steadfastly refused to

distinguish business from life. “You can never think of me as a business

woman,” one woman cautioned her daughter in 1910.

“That is because I make a business of life and living my business.”

“Business is just life,” American real estate entrepreneur Edith Mae Cummings

wrote in 1929, “and we had life long before we had business.”[2]

KWOLEK-FOLLAND, BRIDGE-BUILDER

Kwolek-Folland knows how to listen to women’s voices. She has designed the

synthesis to disrupt disciplinary boundaries that have kept women in separate

spheres a nd men the only players in a male-dominated business game.

Given that “Women have always been in business in America (p.1),”

Kwolek-Folland has defined her central challenge as one of “incorporation”:

how to bring “others,” particularly women of different

classes, races and ethnicities into American business history and how to bring

business into American women’s history.

Incorporation has the ring of a conservative project of integration. Cynical

feminists well-versed in the history of British legal traditions might well

hesitate. After all, English civil law recognized the man and wife as one,

but came to define the “one” as “male.” Who is incorporated into what? Who are

the “gatekeepers” of the incorporation process? What are the terms of

incorporation? And what are the results of the incorporation process, both

for those incorporated and for the incorporating body as a whole?

Kwolek-Folland does not ally with feminist theorists determined to tear down

business institutions in order to clear the playing field of businessmen.

Nor is she a neo-progressive reformer nipping at the heels of Charles and Mary

Beard. She is an artist in tone, style, and temperament, using conservative

colors to cover radical aims.

Double entendres bedevil the incorporation process. Incorporation is testily

political, both a form and process, interacting to constrain and liberate women

unevenly and unequally over time. Power is interpreted as direct authority and

indirect influence. Both the terms and outcome of the incorporation process

are contingent, dependent in part upon how societies regard and value “others”,

as reflected by women’s changing legal status and business activities.

Incorporation involves struggles over the meaning and significance of business

and its associated concepts of profit, risk,

entrepreneurship, and success. Kwolek-Folland defines business expansively as:

“engaging in economic activity in a market to seek profit and assuming the

financial responsibility for that activity.” (p.5). Profit is

often embedded in non-economic goals; risk is defined as much in personal and

familial as in monetary terms; entrepreneurship is defined broadly as “new”

areas of economic activity; success is linked to women’s emancipation and

autonomy.

To incorporate

women into the history of business Kwolek-Folland uses analytical tools derived

from political and women’s history. Social categories of race, gender,

ethnicity and class order human experiences along a continuum of differences

that reveal the dynamics of

power embedded in business activities and institutions. Kwolek-Folland regards

these social categories as a “force,” and more than occasionally, as an

“irrational force” which shapes “how businesses approach markets, make hiring

choices,

and create organizational forms.” (p.8). Women’s political struggles both

spearhead and reflect changes in business activities and structures,

shifting the meaning and influence of business in women’s lives.

Business is incorporated into women’s history through inequities and

asymmetries of power associated with different business structures and economic

activities and roles. Business organizations reinforce differences between men

and women and other women. Business imparts new meaning and significance to

these categories by serving as fickle emancipator of women’s roles and

conscious conservator of woman’s place. It bridges the divide that has

separated women’s private and public lives.

Underlying Kwolek-Folland’s assumptions about the importance of social

categories to the understanding and meaning of business is a reformer’s vision

of a

more equitable and just business system, one where gender differences are not

unequally valued, where social condition does not constrain business

opportunity, where a male standard is not synonymous with

a universal standard, and where men and women have equal chances to exploit

business opportunities. To liberate business from the shackles of a

male-dominated business history and to emancipate women from a private world of

love and ritual, she crafts a single, all-encompassing narrative to bestow

public and historical legitimacy on businesswomen.

SURVEYING THE SURVEY

The survey situates women within a chronological framework that evolves

primarily out of economic and business history. Except for the middle of the

twentieth century, when government policies take center stage, the

periodization scheme is based upon major changes in the nature and dynamics of

liberal, market-oriented capitalism, beginning with a pre-industrial period

and advancing jerkily with successive industrial revolutions across the

nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women enter economic and business history

indirectly by way of their business activities and relationships with other

women and men in business and the larger society, as members of families, of

social-reform, educational, and political networks. Business enters women’s

history indirectly by way of opportunities and legal status,

through economic roles and activities that women assume as

producers,

entrepreneurs, managers and professionals.

Women jump start the business of colonization in the 1550s as dependent sexual

objects of colonizers’ imaginations. They end their business journeys in 1997,

still unevenly and unequally incorporated

into the business system as legal independents, on unequal terms relative to

men and to each other,

with laws that promise justice without protection. After four and a half

centuries of ever-diversifying business activities and at least three decades

of

debate and litigation about equal pay, businesswomen stand stalled in their

tracks. Women’s revolutionary breakthrough into the top tiers of management has

fizzled.

For Kwolek-Folland, the setbacks are more telling than the advances. As if to

underscore

how much and how little had changed with regard to women and their

relationship to business, she places powerful corporate tycoon Estee Lauder —

named “Outstanding Mother of the Year” in 1984,– atop the shoulders of Ojibwa

fur traders, market women, butter makers bankers, and factory girls. Gender

stereotypes have continued to dog women’s advance in the business world,

constructing their public personas even as women reconstruct the businessworld.

EVALUATING THE RESULTS

Kwolek-Folland’s survey and

synthesis have alerted us to power differentials embedded in difference.

Society’s unequal valuation of “others” nurtured a system of laws regarding

property rights, citizenship, suffrage, marriage and divorce that disadvantaged

women more than men and so me women more than others. Women’s status, as

reflected both in formal laws and informal customs, interacted with economic

conditions to shape women’s business opportunities and the manner of engaging

in business.

The framework enables us to see more clearly different women’s varying

experiences in the business world over time. Some businesswomen mimic the

monotonous and routine male shopkeepers and businessmen the world over, like

Rose Stolowy of Kansas City, Missouri, or Catherine Ferguson, a confectioner

shop-owner. Famous women, such as Rebecca Lukens, Amelia Earhart, and Oprah

Winfrey share brief appearances with their not-so famous contemporary

counterparts, like Phebe Cills, an African-American toy store owner, and the

infamous sisters Aida and

Minna Everleigh. Good businesswomen, like caterer Edith McConnell, coexist with

the less successful, such as Christina Barnes, who “negotiated the business

world with difficulty.” And then there are some who are larger than life, such

as the six-foot,

200 pound Sarah Bowman, who made money from prostitution AND the United States

Army,

only to die ungloriously of a tarantula bite in 1866.

Race opened opportunities for black businesswomen and professionals in

segregated niches of the economy and closed

them in areas dominated by whites. It imposed special social and economic

burdens upon black businesspeople as community builders and as economic

role-models. Black women undertook a variety of business roles even as slaves

and engaged in a range of business activities even though they gained both

property, voting and civil rights later than white women. Their work histories

were longer and more continuous than either white women or black men. Black

women boasted one of the nation’s first and most successful brothel-keepers,

the first female bank president, the first female self-made millionaire in

America, and one of the wealthiest celebrity queens in the entertainment

business.

Ethnicity affected whether women went into business at all. It proved

important to women’s control of property, as in the case of the early female

Dutch

settlers, and formative of entrepreneurial cultures, as in the case of Jewish

women, whom Kwolek-Folland celebrates as the most entrepreneurial of American

businesswomen. Len a Himmelstein Bryant (Lane Bryant Company),

Fanny Goldberg Stahl, Esther Mentzer (Estee Lauder) stand tall in the female

hall of business fame.

Class functioned as a marker of legal and economic status as well as a

gate-keeper of the incorporation process, promoting gender rules that

distinguished women from men and income bars that distanced lower from upper

income groups. It gave wealthier women an easier entree into politics and

educational institutions, which positioned them more strategically as leaders

in social reform and philanthropic institutions.

Business played a mixed role in the lives of women. On the one hand,

business structures operated to reinforce rather than undermine differences.

In the early 1800s textile owners hired young, single

white women because the skills associated with textile production were already

categorized as women’s work. Later, with the coming of managerial capitalism,

the gender coding of managerial and job rules kept women out of the

highest-paying highest status

jobs and paved the way for the feminization of clerical and personnel work. On

the other hand, business expanded women’s opportunities and control, empowering

women as owners and managers even as it reinforced differences between men and

women. Indeed, for some women in social-reform and political networks in the

late nineteenth century, business activities became a proto-feminist political

act.

Successive market-expanding industrial revolutions improved more than they

undermined business women’s economic well-being, generating more income and

greater autonomy and independence for businesswomen than was the case for women

who worked as employees of others. Only when the scope of government’s

involvement in women’s issues broadened across the 20th century

, did business assume a more threatening and ominous role as a major antagonist

in a series of sexual discrimination and affirmative actions cases. With regard

to some issues, such as paid family-leave, big business jumped ahead of the

government, offering its own assistance packages, while small business owners,

many of whom were women, protested on grounds that such legislation would

disadvantage them relative to larger rivals.

For Kwolek-Folland and the women whose experiences she surveys, business

activities generally were growth-enhancing and value-creating activities.

The historical purpose of business, after all, she concludes, has been “to

make people’s lives better or to raise the standard of living for as many as

possible.”(p.216).

Sighs of relief among business historians are likely to be matched by

discomfiting growls from feminists who have always seen more of the meanness

than the magic in the market and in business activities. Inevitably,

scholars in both camps will single out different

aspects of the survey and synthesis for praise and criticism. However, as a

business historian and free-farming feminist, with one eye on men and business

institutions, and the other on businesswomen and the world, I want to focus my

remarks on this unresolved paradox: Why has a study so steeped in the rhetoric

of power and difference not revealed more about how power and difference

actually operate in the business world? About what power means, how it is

expressed and used,

by whom for what ends? Why does a study about women and business so closely

resemble the histories of women at work?

A PARADOX and SOME PUZZLES

Social categories may well hide as much as they reveal about how power really

works in the world of business. Businesswomen have been swept into the history

of business armed with only one set of tools to differentiate them. Race,

ethnicity, class and gender have masked differences arising from women’s

individual capabilities and skills; they have made differences between and

among women of the same social categories difficult to see and to understand;

they have imposed an unnecessary uniformity upon women as a group.

The transformation of categories from inert, disembodied experiences into

causal forces, stalls early on. Business practices are overwhelmed by

cultural forces. Modern business tycoons stand atop the shoulders of Ojibwa

traders, but it is difficult to differentiate one businesswoman and business

from another or to account for differences in the performance and profitability

of business activities over time. Despite the fact that Indians held

dramatically different conceptions of gender roles, of property, autonomy and

responsibility, Indian women emerge as American history’s earliest

businesswomen and consumers.

Women as a group appear to share more similarities than differences but the

business experiences of men and women are allegedly more different than

similar. These hypotheses remain to be tested.

Women are described as having been more continuously and often

circumscribed in their choices and activities by the “family claim” then men

have been.

Yet, histories of businessmen in the pre-industrial period have suggested that

the family claim also structured the economic activity of men. We need to know

whether

women and men interpreted the claim differently and how their interpretations

influenced economic outcomes.

Kwolek-Folland’s definition of business is at war with business realities.

Why has business as “activity” been yoked to the claim of “financial

responsibility” rather than to market-and profit-oriented decisions, as has

been

customary in business history? The choice carries definite ethical and moral

connotations. It broadens the population of businesswomen and businesses but

pinches interpretive

possibilities. The price is operational imprecision and ambiguity.

Activities are different from decisions. Activities indicate little more than

a kind of busyness, industry or work; they are described by their properties.

Decisions are associated with

choices that businesspeople make in the course of doing business, in order to

remain in business. Financial responsibility literally refers to “a charge, a

trust, or duty for which one is responsible.” [3] If a reasonable understanding

of responsible

is that it has to be within the power of the one who is responsible, then how

is that determination to be made? What is meant by the assumption of financial

responsibility, and how is “responsibility” to be determined?

Kwolek-Folland does not consistently

or systematically apply the definition.

Instead, she offers an expansive interpretation whose meanings have to be

squeezed from an ever changing business context.

Kwolek-Folland regards “independence” to be the core of the legal definition of

business.

The ability to negotiate contracts and to acquire, use and dispose of

property is severely impaired without legal recognition and protection of those

rights. Without legal status as “independents,” women could do business as

dependents of others, but they could not profit from their own business

activities. Only as women gained legal recognition and protection as

“independents” and autonomous individuals with the right to their own bodies,

earnings and profits in the late nineteenth century, could they

exploit the same opportunities available to men who had those privileges and

rights.

The definition seems to deny that men and women have long strategized about the

ways in which they could shift, avoid or elide financial responsibility.

They have devised marriages and designed partnerships and firms with precisely

these goals in mind. The definition may be appropriately applied to women who

act as business proprietors, but how is it to be operationalized in a dynamic

world full of business activities undertaken by many individuals and groups

engaged in cooperative ventures, as members of family businesses,

partnerships or teams associated with single firms or corporate enterprise?

What if businesswomen assume financial responsibility but are not held

accountable?

By identifying women in business by their activities and roles as producers,

entrepreneurs, professional and managers, Kwolek-Folland constrains women’s

choices and robs them of the opportunity to exercise control or to assume

financial responsibility. Without interrogating activities or roles, it is

difficult to distinguish one businesswoman or type of business activity from

another, except insofar as production differs from trade and sales and service.

Managerial roles are gender coded but we need to know why and when the codes

took the form they did with respect to different businesses over time. To what

extent did individual women construct and re-construct managerial roles to suit

their own talents and capabilities?

In the 1950s entrepreneurial historians tried but generally failed in their

efforts to use role theory to link men in business to society. Roles represent

problematic psychological categories. Individuals and groups fulfill, perform

and create roles. Activities do not necessarily conform to prescribed roles.

Roles straight-jacket behavior but people also deviate from socially prescribed

roles. How is the historian to determine when women are performing roles

prescribed by society or crafting them as they proceed?

How have women conceived of their roles in business and how have they actually

behaved?

Racial and ethnic differences have also mattered to people’s conceptions of

business roles, activities and results. The survey builds upon studies of black

businesspeople to

suggest that their business strategies often were community-building strategies

as well. But not all of these interrelated strategies worked from the

standpoint of business longevity and profitability. What happened, for

example, when and if black businesswomen deviated from social expectations of

them as community builders?

Social categories need to be more systematically related to women’s

decision-making and organizational capabilities in particular businesses.

Kwolek-Folland surveys how some women

used skills developed in household and family or reform contexts to transform

socially-oriented businesses or non-profit institutions into profitable

businesses. However, we also need to know what kinds of decisions they made,

and which family or household decisions informed their business decisions.

Businesses differ according to operating rules and the short and long run goals

with respect to other institutions and society. Decisions and risks which

women undertake as owners or managers of hospitals

are likely to be different than the kinds of decisions made by women as family

partners, heads of families, or by businesswomen involved in the intensely

competitive cosmetic and restaurant businesses. Why were some women able to

transform household skills into effective business practices, when others

could not? Household production and consumption decisions of nineteenth century

middle-class women and twentieth century farm women gather social significance

primarily as gender dividing strategies. But

we also need to know how these decisions structured economic behavior and

outcomes.

The study suppresses the competitive forces that are at the heart of the

American business system. Although it argues from difference, it homogenizes

women as a group who seldom compete on the same playing field, either with men

or with other women in the same industry. Except in rare instances,

outcomes are seldom revealed nor evaluated. Individual female rodeo riders

compete with men, but we do not know whether they competed effectively or not.

We learn of Ellen Demorest’s pattern business but not of the competition she

experienced from Ebenezer Butterick, who eventually dominated the industry.

“Status” is another concept that creates problems for the survey and synthesis.

Kwolek-Folland employs status as a legal concept, as signifier of

reputation, of income and class, of women’s visibility and relative

equality/inequality in regard to men and other women. Yet indicators of status

do not always mesh with economic

realities. Given that social attitudes about women’s place have remained

stubbornly resistant to change,

Kwolek-Folland’s assertion that by the end of the nineteenth century, women had

achieved a legal status equal to that of men in business, is problematic.

Women could now do business and profit from their own endeavors but to what

extent did they? Data on female labor force participation and occupations pose

interpretive difficulties here. What are the causal lines of influence between

changes in legal

status and business activities?

The survey recognizes the difficulty of positioning irrational and rational

forces on the same economic stage. The problem is not simply a disagreement

about matters of meaning and definition. It also relates to the interpretive

tools that are used to analyze the evidence. To demonstrate how irrational

notions about race undermined the “myth of rationality” in business,

Kwolek-Folland offers a singular notable example, drawn from the history of

financial industries.

White providers of life insurance in the late nineteenth century refused to

sell insurance policies to black customers on the basis of actuarial

information which suggested that blacks had higher mortality rates than whites.

Citing evidence which linked higher mortality rates to environmental

conditions rather than to stereotypical notions about blacks as a group, she

concludes that white managers acted irrationally.

However, by allowing culture to subsume gender and race, and economic

rationalism to

define business practice, Kwolek-Folland misses an opportunity to examine how

and why notions of rationality, with respect to culture and economics,

sometimes complement rather than clash. If managers did not know what evidence

demonstrated, they are more

likely to make unilateral decisions on the basis of cultural predisposition

and habit. As long as other white competitors refused to market to blacks and

social attitudes condoned discrimination, then these actions may well have

produced economically efficient outcomes. Managers would have behaved

irrationally,

from an economic standpoint, only if they refused to sell to blacks when other

rivals were busily cashing in.

Determining why businesspeople do what they do has never been easy. But

economic tools of principal-agent theory are available to determine more

precisely when and why some individuals, rather than behaving act more like the

utility-maximizing automatons of neo-classical economics, act opportunistically

and with guile.

Kwolek-Folland’s

discourse about power is more tantalizing than effective.

Instead of directly confronting issues of power in the market, as business

historians have done when they analyze why some firms or businessmen wield

greater market power than others, she assumes that power adheres primarily in

social categories and institutional structures. Power floats ambiguously on the

surface of business life, seeping from institutional structures and emanating

from unequal relationships between people and things. What kind of

power is at issue is unclear. Kwolek-Folland defines power as direct authority

and indirect influence, yet it is unclear how power and influence operate with

regard to women in business. Is it the power and control that derives from

ownership status, from position, from skill, from unique talents in a

competitive market? Is it the power that comes from having more money and using

it to buy more capital to invest? Is it the competitive power that comes from

being in a technologically cutting-edge industry

at the right time? Is it he power that is embedded in women’s networks and

political activities, in the battle for suffrage and property rights? Is it the

power that derives from impotence and image, from gender and race, as the case

of government policies suggest?

Some businesswomen, like Oprah Winfrey, clearly have power. The survey suggests

that Oprah’s power derives from ownership of Harpo Entertainment Group.

“Winfrey’s control over this conglomerate,” reports Kwolek-Folland,

“gave her the ability

– rare in the business world – to shape the concern according to her personal

vision.”(p.196).

Mere ownership does not necessarily give control nor does it create an ability

to control. Businesspeople who own assets must also be skilled enough and

willing and able to use power to exert the kind of control that is necessary in

order to make money in an a high-stakes, intensely competitive game. Business

historians will want to know more about how Oprah acquired control and secured

the assets necessary to build and grow Harpo Productions. Why and when did

she choose the conglomerate form? Was this organizational form particularly

suited to the entertainment business and Oprah’s managerial style? The ability

to shape business according to one’s own vision may well be important to some

women and men in business, but some visions are likely to be more effective

than others in generating and sustaining returns.

The survey suggests several reasons why power is important in business.

Power seems to be important because women don’t have enough of it relative to

men, or because men have more of it than women and use it to keep women from

getting it and because more businessmen seem ready to wield it than

businesswomen. Power is also important with respect to

the ability to control business and influence government policy and legal

outcomes.

Yet, power is notable by its absence from legislative debates over economic

rights, suffrage, property and citizenship, from debates about regulatory

policies regarding

small and big businesses. The survey suggests that more women battled for

economic rights than for suffrage, but given that the nineteenth century

suffrage campaign proved more effective than the campaigns for economic rights,

we need to know why. Feminists and other leaders of women’s organizations put

in only brief appearances in the book,

and when they do, the survey reduces the infighting among feminist leaders

regarding different strategies to common goals. Business historians will want

to know more

about business’ roles in coalition building strategies. Which businesses and

businesspeople allied with female protagonists or antagonists in these

struggles?

In the twentieth century women’s leaders appear to have garnered more

legislative victories de spite the persistence of traditional attitudes

regarding women’s roles. Why? Kwolek-Folland attributes the results to a

massive social revolution. Other scholars have suggested that business may well

have had a hand in the “conquest of cool” that fueled

a cultural counter-revolution.[4] What was business’ role in these 20th century

revolutions compared to its role in nineteenth century women’s rights

campaigns?

The problem and the opportunity with the survey and synthesis at this stage is

that historians of women and business have focused upon a different set of

differences. Whereas business historians have studied the differences that

emanate from the structure, behavior, conduct and performance of businesspeople

and firms, historians of women have stressed the agency of individuals and

groups and the politics of liberation. Business historians have investigated a

different power dynamic, one associated with price and product competition,

with cost-saving technologies, and with decision-making strategies instead of

that associated with meaning and understanding.

Business historians have concerned themselves primarily with market power,

with the ability of firms to dominate industries and throw their weight around

without being held publicly accountable. They have studied regulatory

patterns to determine the extent to which government policies,

such as anti-trust, have clipped or augmented the market power of particular

firms in particular industries.

Kwolek-Folland expects other approaches and perspectives to increase the

scholarly returns from efforts to understand women and business. She

underscores how the American business system came to be built upon the notion

of difference while simultaneously revealing the dangers of arguments based on

difference. Beliefs about women’s differences from men in the late-nineteenth

century opened some doors for some women but closed others and barred women’s

continuous advance in the business world. Arguments on the basis of gender

differences kept women outsiders in the business world even as women made a

place for themselves in the businessworld.

Just as a business system built on gender difference is likely to crumble when

difference is no longer valued, so too is a synthesis built upon difference

likely

to unravel as women and men occupy the same historical stage. Kwolek-Folland’s

survey necessarily homogenizes women in order to emphasize the differences

between their experiences and those of men, in terms of business opportunities,

ownership and managerial rights, and access to credit, among other things.

Just how different those experiences were in fact remains to be determined by

more systematic comparison of their roles and activities with respect to a

variety of sectors and industries. Business historians are likely to see more

of the differences between iron-manufacturer Rebecca Lukens and prostitute

Sarah Bowman and more similarities between Rebecca Lukens and her male

competitor in Delaware.

Nevertheless,

only by constructing numerous bridges with a variety of tools are we likely to

understand precisely what difference men and women and business institutions

have made to the growth and development of various economic sectors over time.

If we are to turn problems of difference into exciting new

research opportunities, I caution against traveling alone down a separate but

equal road. Women and men in business have interacted throughout history inside

and outside of markets and firms, as family members, as marriage and business

partners, and as competitors, in different industries over time.

They have suffered asymmetries of power and inequities of income. Their

occupations as businesspeople have been jointly shaped by a structure of sexual

inequality. But they have both been engaged in a joint

enterprise that has as its ultimate objective, the generation of a higher

standard of living for everyone. Regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or

class,

business is still business and only survives in the long run if it generates

some income above its

costs. As a market-oriented activity and institution,

the study of business forces a focus on the interaction between men and women,

on the interconnections between families and firms, on the transgressing of

private and public boundaries. Bringing women into business raises new

questions about how business institutions deal with ideas of “masculinity” and

“femininity” and about how women deal with and view the business world. [5]

Kwolek-Folland has done more than grasp the possibilities. She has constructed

one bridge over troubled waters. It is up to others to undertake the

painstaking empirical research needed to build additional bridges. Only then

are women likely to undergo the transformation from workers in business to

businesspeople with different personalities, skills, competitive and

organizational abilities, business experiences, and institutional means of

support.

Mary Yeager Associate Professor of History Bunche Hall UCLA 405 Hilgard Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90095-1473 310-273-6328 (h)

310

-825-3489 (0)

END NOTES

[1] For an illuminating discussion of the pros and cons of synthesis, see Eric

Monkonnen, “The Dangers of Synthesis,” in Notes and Comment, American

Historical Review, vol. 91, no.5 (December, 1986), 1146-1157.

[2] Zora Putn am Wilkins, Letters of a Business Woman to Her Daughter and

Letters of a Business Girl to Her Mother (Boston: Marshall Jones Company,

1923), p.4, and Edith Mae Cummings, Pots, Pans and Millions: A Study of

Woman’s Right to Be in Business, Her Proclivities and Capacity for Success

(National School of Business Science for Women: Washington, D.C.,

1929), p.100.

[3] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary(New York:

Oxford University Press, 1971), r.v. “responsibility,” p. 2514.

[4] Thom as Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture,

And the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago

Press, 1997).

[5] See Mary A. Yeager, “General Introduction,” Vol. I, Women in

Business, 3 vols., The International Library of Critical Writings in

Business History (Aldershot, UK and Brookfield, US: Elgar Reference

Collection, forthcoming March 1999).