Published by EH.NET (March 2010)

Alison C. Kay, The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship: Enterprise, Home and Household in London, c. 1800-1870. New York: Routledge, 2009. xv + 185 pp. $138 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-43174-3

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

In the tradition of Sanderson (1996) and Philips (2006), Alison Kay argues that women were active in business during the nineteenth century. Women were not confined to a separate sphere, and couverture did not prevent them from operating as entrepreneurs. Strikingly, Kay concludes that the story of women in business is neither a story of a lost golden age, nor one of emancipation, but a story of continuity across history. Whatever the rhetoric, businesswomen were consistently involved in business throughout the Victorian period.

This book provides the best data yet on businesswomen in London. The main source for the book, and its main contribution, are samples of male and female business owners from records of the Sun Fire insurance company. Fire insurance records were less likely to be skewed by social expectations than other records, and include businesses that trade directories do not. Both male and female business owners had the need and the opportunity to insure their business assets. Since the records are contracts, not advertisements, the information should be accurate; women owners would not have hidden behind male relatives because, as Kay notes, ?misrepresentation of proprietorship could be taken as fraud? (p. 50).

The female sample includes all policies covering business assets that were issued to women in 1747, 1761, 1851, and 1861. There are 634 such policies. For comparison Kay also collects a five-percent sample of male policies, using policies taken out in October of the same years. Though she is mainly interested in businesswomen, the male sample is necessary because it allows Kay to compare women to men. The importance of the male sample can be seen by comparison to Lewis?s (2009) study of businesswomen in Albany; Lewis measures the median life of a female-owned business, but with no comparable number for male-owned businesses it is hard to say whether women?s businesses were short-lived or long-lived.

Kay finds that women operated over the whole range of businesses. While women were more likely than men to operate in the textile and clothing trades, and less likely than men to operate in manufacturing, women owned businesses across the range of industries. Women were certainly not confined to a small number of trades. While dressmaking/millinery was by far the most popular trade for women, only 15 percent of the women taking out policies in 1851 were milliners or dressmakers. Kay does not report the average or median insured value by gender, but does show the distribution of insured value across categories. Women were more likely to have capital below ?100 and less likely to have capital over ?2000, but women were present in all categories.

By linking the insurance policies to the 1851 and 1861 censuses, Kay is able to determine the family status of the women in her sample for those years. While the majority of female business owners were widows, there were also significant numbers of single and married women. Many were mothers; one-third of businesswomen were living with children under age 14. Kay shows that it was relatively rare for a businesswoman to live with a sister, or with a son who was a likely heir to the business. Households headed by businesswomen were more likely to employ servants than the average female-headed household.

Chapter Four examines trade cards from the period. Before the tax on newspaper advertisements was abolished in 1853, few businesses advertised in newspapers, and trade cards were a more common form of advertisement. Since trade cards do not survive systematically, they cannot be used quantitatively, but are used to provide a broader picture of businesses owned by women. Fire insurance records reveal a greater number of lodging houses than do the Post Office Directories. The directories tend to include the larger establishments, but not the smaller ones. Lodging houses varied greatly in quality, and in the quality of their clientele. The majority of female lodging-house keepers were spinsters, and most were in their 30s or 40s.

Some businesswomen specialized in renting property. Men and women seem to have been equally likely to invest their assets in property. Kay argues that women who rented property should be seen as active businesswomen rather than as passive rentiers. She points out that men managing properties would be seen as businessmen, and that women should be treated similarly.

Kay has given us valuable information on businesswomen in London, and I hope that she continues her research in order to provide answers to other questions. If she followed these businessmen and businesswomen over time, Kay could determine whether businesses owned by men and women had different failure rates, or different growth rates. These and other questions could potentially be answered by delving further into fire insurance records.


Susan Ingalls Lewis, 2009, Unexceptional Women: Female Proprietors in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany, New York, 1830-1885, Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Nicola Phillips, 2006, Women in Business, 1700-1850, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press.

Elizabeth Sanderson, 1996, Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh, New York: St. Martin?s Press.

Joyce Burnette is Professor of Economics at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Her book, Gender, Work and Wages in Industrial Revolution Britain, discusses the role of market forces in determining the wages and occupations of women workers during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She can be reached at