Contrary to popular stereotype, women could and did run businesses in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. True, it was somewhat easier for single or widowed women to flex their dainty entrepreneurial ambitions than married women. However, marriage was surprisingly, given the novels of the period, not the pathway of all women.
“It is assumed in the face of the most patent facts that all women marry and are provided for by their husbands; whilst nothing is more plainly to be seen by those who will open their eyes, than these three things: – 1. That a very large minority of women do not marry. 2. That of those who do marry, a very considerable proportion are not supported by their husbands. 3. That upon a very large number of widows (more than one-third of the widowes in the country), the burden of self-maintenance and of the maintenance of children is thrown.”
Elizabeth Wolstenholme (1869)
The role of the kept wife may well have been the preferred option, but it was not the experience of a significant proportion of the female population. Nationally at mid-century, some 1.8 million adult women were unmarried or widowed. Women outnumbered men to a siginificant degree, especially in London where between the ages of 20 and 40 there were 119 women to every 100 men of this age. Contemporaries commonly complained that there were simple too many women, especially in the middle and upper classes. These ‘redundant’ women, wrote W.R. Greg (1869), were ‘quite disproportionate and quite abnormal’ in numbers and consequently were forced ‘to earn their own living, instead of spending and husbanding the earnings of men.’ Many women could not rely on the property of men, nor could they put a roof over their own head unless they engaged with the economic marketplace.
The protection of such independent women was a popular cause in the nineteenth century. However many despaired that the bind of what was seen as respectable employment for a woman left her with pitifully few choices. Some concerned contemporaries campaigned for better training and wider choices but emigration was also a popular suggestion! Elizabeth Wolstenholme (1869) warned:
“You who have daughters, wives and sisters, whom you guard tenderly from present evils, take care that you are not preparing for them graver evils when you are no longer able to provide for them…If your affection be anything more than common form of selfishness which considers women as the mere playthings of men, you will look further into the future than you have yet done, and will prepare differently for the days which may come to all, which will come to many of your dear ones.”
The nineteenth century saw the emergence of various reforming agencies, often collections of upper middle class ladies. In particular the establishment of the English Woman’s Journal (EWJ) by Barbara Leigh Smith, Matilda Hays, Jessie Boucherett, Emily Faithfull and others, creating a meeting point, drawing together those working for the reform of female employment. They sought to provide training in trades such as bookkeeping and law copying but more importantly they modelled an entrepreneurial spirit. The EWJ was itself operated as a business: ‘the necessary money having been collected from various good friends to the cause, in the form of shares in a limited liability company.’ This was followed in 1859 by Emily Faithfull’s spin-offf – The Victoria Press, which trained and employed female compositors. The Victoria Press regularly printed the EWJ, its own magazine The Victoria Magazine, along with various other substantial publications.
Slowly and subtly, the combination of womanhood and enterprise was gaining momentum. As a contemporary advice guide waxed lyrical:
“Girls themselves look, I am sure, with respect and even with envy upon those of their companions who are busy, independent, and self-supporting. And they have cause to do so. Next to the pleasure of working to help others, comes the satisfaction of feeling that we work that we may not be a burden to others.”
P. Browne, What Girls Can Do (1880)
The evidence for their businesses is diverse. They appear in trade card collections, trade directories, newspaper advertisements, fire insurance and other property records. Nonetheless, women in business have proved well-camoflaged to historians. Partly this is because so much of their business property was combined with their domestic property and partly because traditionalist vocal contemporaries put forward the idealised role of women, that ‘angel in the house’ of Coventry Patmore’s poem, so powerfully.
A more detailed analysis of these themes can be found in:
A. Kay, The Foundations of Female Entrepreneurship: Enterprise, home and household in London c.1800-1870 (2009)