|Reviewer(s):||Yeager, Mary A.|
Published by H-Business@eh.net 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? 
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
debate and litigation about equal pay, businesswomen stand stalled in their
tracks. Women’s revolutionary breakthrough into the top tiers of management has
For Kwolek-Folland, the setbacks are more telling than the advances. As if to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
customary in business history? The choice carries definite ethical and moral
connotations. It broadens the population of businesswomen and businesses but
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.”  If a reasonable understanding
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
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
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
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
Racial and ethnic differences have also mattered to people’s conceptions of
business roles, activities and results. The survey builds upon studies of black
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Yet, power is notable by its absence from legislative debates over economic
rights, suffrage, property and citizenship, from debates about regulatory
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
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. What was business’ role in these 20th century
revolutions compared to its role in nineteenth century women’s rights
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
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.
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
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. 
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
Mary Yeager Associate Professor of History Bunche Hall UCLA 405 Hilgard Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1473 310-273-6328 (h)
 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.
 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.,
 The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary(New York:
Oxford University Press, 1971), r.v. “responsibility,” p. 2514.
 Thom as Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture,
And the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago
 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).
|Subject(s):||Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: WWII and post-WWII|