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Response to Review no. 578

I would like to thank Kathryn Gleadle for her comprehensive and stimulating review; I am especially appreciative of her many positive comments about the importance of my findings, particularly those in the chapters relating to women’s legal position and to their business insurance strategies. By way of response to some of the issues she raises, I have divided Gleadle’s remarks broadly into two categories: those concerning the methodological approach I adopted and those that consider my interpretation of the sources.

As Gleadle quite rightly points out, this book was never intended as a comprehensive introductory study to the broad field of women in business, and in this respect I think the title (not the author’s choice) could be construed as slightly misleading. The aim, as stated in the introduction, was to challenge the ways that the use of long-term linear narratives and the analytical of model separate spheres had (re)constructed women’s experience of economic enterprise in largely negative terms. The methodology therefore focused on a series of case studies that addressed three key factors that are commonly cited as severely limiting women’s business activities. These factors, namely: their legal position; control of property/capital; and domestic ideology, determined the tri-partite structure of the book and were discussed under the headings ‘Law’, ‘Business’, and ‘Representation’. While this resulted in a comprehensive analysis of these fields it did mean that some women’s economic endeavours were covered in less detail than others, particularly if their business activities were not measurable in the insurance policies that formed the quantitative core of the section on business, or represented as part of a significant public debate covered in the final section.

Milliners were accorded greater prominence in the book because their business practices were so publicly debated in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they also formed one of the largest occupational groups and, unlike their employees, became some of the wealthiest employers. The second most potentially profitable type of business for women was ‘inn-keeping’ and this was discussed on several occasions (for example at pp. 132–3, 152–3, 254–5); I was slightly surprised to see it described as ‘barely mentioned’. Inn-keepers may appear less visible because of the different occupational labelling applied—the terms inn-holder, victualler, hotel-keeper, and coach-proprietor could all relate to women who owned property in which they served food and drink, plus possibly offering rooms and transport services on top. Furthermore, their activities did not provoke the storm of controversy that broke over milliners. I do, however, concede that some of those in the ‘interstices of the domestic and formal economy’ such as landladies, child-minders, and brothel-keepers are not discussed. I suspect that the absence of brothel-keepers as policyholders was due to a refusal to admit to such an occupation, the others caused methodological problems of ascertaining what constituted ‘business capital’ for insurance purposes. Schoolmistresses posed similar problems but were discussed briefly because it was possible to identify items such as books, musical instruments, and property (where it was owned and insured) to differentiate them from those who were merely employed as teachers. They were, however, also the subject of detailed research by another scholar whose work I did not wish to encroach on.

The data entry for the database of insurance policy records which forms the basis of the quantitative core of the book was undertaken 1998–2000. At that time I chose not to study trade directories and census data precisely because, apart from the many well known drawbacks to using these sources for women’s occupations, their use lay behind much of the research which argued that women’s economic opportunities had either declined or remained unchanged over long periods of time. In addition, census records would not have been able to provide source material for the eighteenth century. But I would now happily concede that Hannah Barker’s The Business of Women: Female Enterprise and Urban Development in Northern England, 1760–1830 has forced a reassessment of the use of trade directories. Linking insurance policies to one or other of these sources may well prove a very profitable exercise. Yet the problems of nominal record linkage in databases, particularly in the case of insurance records where each policyholder might have variant name spellings, take out multiple policies, change address or have more than one dwelling/work place, list multiple occupations or cite different occupations for different policies, make this a difficult task. It was therefore an option that, on good technical advice, I chose not to pursue at the time. I believe the broad range of information gleaned from entering all the data on each policy (instead of just studying lists of names and occupations) is what provided the bulk of the ‘fascinating material with which to question pessimistic accounts of female economic agency’.

Leaving aside methodological issues, Gleadle raises some very interesting points based on the material in the section on representation. The question about why the activities of women in business were suppressed in some contexts and not in others is a fascinating and complex one. In the book I have suggested that this is largely determined by what other social and economic issues (besides gender) were the subject of contemporary concerns. Taking milliners as an example, it was most often anxieties about profit, luxury, sex and social mobility, and French commercial competition that impacted upon their representation and brought them to public attention in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century some of these themes reappeared in a different context but it was concerns about the impact of capitalism, urbanisation, exploitation of waged labourers, and protective legislation that provoked most public discussion. The gender of the millinery proprietors was ‘supressed’ in these debates because it was believed that public opinion and legislative change could best be mobilized by highlighting the helpless femininity of the distressed employees. Inn-keeping, by contrast, had not undergone the same sort of organizational changes as millinery and dressmaking. Furthermore, insurance data suggests that most inn-keepers had substantial capital tied up in their property and they did not indulge in anything like the displays of conspicuous dress and decoration that milliners (who rarely owned their business properties) did. Both could be classified as ‘feminine’ trades, however; thus future research could focus on other aspects of difference such as whether inn-keepers were perceived as more ‘British’ than the fashionably ‘French’ milliners? The economically-active women who formed an ‘accepted component of the contemporary imaginary’ in Dickens’ novels do suggest, as I argue in the book, that women were commonly active in the economic sphere but they were largely backstage characters who took centre stage only in those publications (including novels) that highlighted other problems. Hence the fictional figure of the outrageous milliner Madame Mantalini (Nicholas Nickleby, 1838) is produced as evidence to support the call for protective legislation by The Times in 1853. Ann Nelson and Sarah Ann Mountain, however, were both real proprietors of inns used as settings in Dickens’ novels, although neither was mentioned by name. Both had property insured to the same level as the wealthiest milliners yet only found fame in nostalgic early-twentieth-century histories of a bygone era of coaching.

One of the main problems in discussing any kind of literary or graphic representation of women in business is the thorny question of subjective interpretation. In some cases, such as that of the erstwhile silk producer Mrs Crofts, Gleadle’s raising of regional difference/identity, as against national interests, is a point that definitely merits further research, although in Crofts’ case it was undoubtedly anger against (male and female) competitors for the awards that sparked her outburst. I would also question the extent to which we need to think of regional identities as only existing in stark opposition to national ones: Crofts may have objected to southern women gaining more awards but her aim was to have her work recognized by the Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce because it would benefit the national economy. In other cases, such as my use of the term Christian ‘maternalism’, I suspect I can only beg to differ and maintain that my interpretation is entirely valid.

Gleadle points out that the paternalistic duty of care expected from nineteenth-century employers speaks ‘more broadly of Christian imperatives’ rather than a specifically gendered concept of duty when directed at, or articulated by, female employers. As I stated, paternalism ‘could be reformulated as a moral obligation within religious discourses’ (p. 250) and for milliners this obligation weighed particularly heavily because of the perceived vanity of the trade they were engaged in, the risk of prostitution, the youth of the girls employed as live-in apprentices, and the necessity of working on Sundays. I would argue that while the care of apprentices and labourers by male heads of households was common in the early modern period, the impact of evangelicalism and the powerful formulation of domestic ideology constructed the care of the moral welfare of the ‘household’ as almost exclusively feminine in the nineteenth century. The female millinery proprietors were constantly compared to male factory owners—not to male heads of small, home-based businesses; hence the contrast with industrial paternalism seemed to me to be greater. In addition, the milliners’ employees were frequently represented as peculiarly helpless and infantile in order to put them in the same category as children who had been covered by earlier protective legislation. Since the female proprietors were effectively cast as moral guardians of childlike apprentices in a home-like setting—some even told the commissioners they treated their workers as ‘family’—the articulation of the obligations expected of them seemed to me to be more ‘maternal’ than paternal, and, therefore, worthy of distinction. Perhaps even more importantly, this distinction was noticeably absent from the earlier eighteenth-century debates about milliners, whose morals were considered equally suspect.

Finally, one of the central contentions of the book was to show that the metaphor of separate spheres does not have sufficient analytical purchase to describe the lives of women in business, nor to provide an explanatory framework for long-term developments in female participation in economic enterprise. The language of public/private, however, was in common usage. I therefore aimed to show how and when what was inscribed within either of these categories changed. It was certainly not my intention ‘to re-inscribe the language of spheres’ nor to suggest that the term ‘gentlewomen’ implied particularly ‘feminine’ qualities unique to the domestic sphere. Indeed, I would agree with Gleadle that the term was used to connote social status, but I also think that in the eighteenth century gentlewomen (a slippery term of self-description, but one that was used to suggest women of quality or breeding) viewed both their class and their gender as placing them above the concerns of business or trade. The fact that many of them found themselves in situations where they had to support themselves financially—despite gendered expectations—meant that they had to seek ways of engaging in the world of business. In the chapter on advertisements I argue that public/private had many connotations, certainly not all of which were gendered and that the newspaper could function as an almost ‘gender-neutral’ trading forum. Gentlewomen would advertize for business partners by stressing that they had particularly useful acquaintances but minimize the necessity for any practical or financial involvement beyond an initial injection of capital. Those of lower status who were ‘regularly bred’ to trade but seeking finance would minimize the amount of ‘business’ a prospective partner would be expected to conduct while stressing both their own and the business’s genteel nature. Hence, along with any notion of public commerce and private gentility, the terms could become virtually interchangeable. In the same way, distressed gentlewomen applying for financial awards from the Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce avoided using the word ‘business’ to describe their enterprises—‘useful and elegant’ was one euphemism—but at the same time emphasized that their endeavours would help to establish an ‘invaluable Branch of … Commerce … of the greatest utility and Consequence to the nation’. It is precisely these slippages, and the complex interplay of different ideas of public and private, that I have sought to highlight throughout the book rather than any simplistic notion of a feminine domestic or masculine public sphere.