Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2006, ISBN: 9781843831839; 312pp.; Price: £50.00
University College, Oxford
Date accessed: 2 December, 2023
In Women in Business, 1700–1850, Nicola Phillips has produced a dense and absorbing study of (British) women in business. In line with contemporary usage she employs a capacious definition of ‘business’ to consider the range, nature, and discursive representations of women’s economic activities. The first section of the book considers the legal implications of women’s business activity. There follows a case study of female business networks in mid-eighteenth-century Durham, using the archive of gentlewoman Judith Baker. This is succeeded by a consideration of the insurance policies of the Sun Fire Insurance Company between 1735 and 1845. A final section on ‘Representation’ contains a chapter on gender, trade, and nationalism, and an examination of the advertising strategies of women in the London Daily Advertiser between 1731 and 1775. The section concludes with a discussion of early-Victorian perceptions of female millinery and the plight of needlewomen.
As this synopsis suggests, the book is not designed to be a comprehensive study of female business activity. As such there is comparatively little attention paid to some of the more traditional sources for such a study. Trade directories are occasionally cited, but there is no substantive discussion as to their utility, and census data is barely mentioned. Whilst the book thus touches lightly on broader macro-structures, an alternative narrative framework is provided in the book’s first section, which considers a range of legal texts and judgements drawn from across the period. Indeed, one of the great strengths of this work is that it brings legal history into fruitful dialogue with the social and cultural perspectives of women’s history. The law, as Phillips reminds us, is not a monolithic entity, invariably dictating the contours of property relations. In practice the law could be variously interpreted and enacted, resulting in a more complicated (and often less oppressive) set of social relations. Chapter two, for example, provides careful readings of a number of legal treatises, enabling the author to reconstruct the ways in which legal principles might be modified by practitioners to allow for more socially responsive judicial decisions. Her close and scrupulous reading of such texts reveals that contemporary legal scholars could prove keenly sensitive to the implications of ‘coverture’ for married women. Indeed Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice 1756–88, upheld women’s rights to separate property under equity in common law courts.
Phillips is careful not to construct a trajectory of whiggish progress regarding the treatment of married women’s legal position. She notes the ways in which legal decisions were constantly reinterpreted and demonstrates the impact of Mansfield’s more conservative successors, such as Lords Kenyon and Eldon. Nonetheless, she concludes that the creation of ‘numerous exceptions’ in the practice and interpretation of legal doctrine provided married women with far greater possibilities for business trading than has often been recognized (p. 47). Furthermore, through particularizing the intricacies of various cases that came before the Court of Chancery in the early-eighteenth century, Phillips reveals further subtleties in women’s legal position. As her dense case studies indicate, the ability of women to act as independent traders depended less upon their marital status than upon the degree to which their local communities felt they could be regarded as trustworthy economic agents. Thus, women’s economic agency was enmeshed within elaborate local relations and family networks. Such factors might be jeopardized both by remarriage, which had the potential to unsettle kinship loyalties, as well as local assumptions of status or credit worthiness. Phillips is lead to the conclusion that ‘in equity, the existence of separate property seems to have rested on even the most informal of agreements’. Thus, feme covert and feme sole were ‘highly contingent categories rather than concrete determinants of women’s trading status’ (p. 91). Such insights make a valuable contribution to the ongoing reassessment of women’s legal position. As Margot Finn argued in 1996, ‘the law of coverture is best described as existing in a state of suspended animation….wives’ legal inability to contract and litigate debts was often ignored or attenuated in practice’ (1).
Phillips’s painstaking account involves the minute recounting of exemplary cases. This is a strategy which rightly restores the experiences of marginalized historical agents to the record. Such tireless attention to detail will be welcomed by scholars, but may prove at times just a little indigestible for some undergraduate audiences. Equally, whilst Phillips provides a meticulous consideration of the role of businesswomen and networks in the life of Judith Baker of Durham (see chapter five), the non-specialist may find Helen Berry’s recent analysis of the same material a more approachable text, providing, as it does, such an instructive engagement with a wide range of historiographical themes (2). On the other hand a comprehensive survey of the data gleaned from the Sun Fire Insurance office provides Phillips with a range of fascinating material with which to question pessimistic accounts of female economic agency in this period. This includes a discussion of the activities of female insurance agents, as well as a broader consideration of contemporary women’s sophisticated business approaches. Her sample indicated widespread practices of risk diversification, with women often supplementing business activities with property investment. Although women remained clustered in small enterprises, Phillips notes that the range of individual trades in which they engaged actually increased over the period. These are important findings. It is possible that their impact might occasionally have been yet greater had Phillips juxtaposed this material with a broader range of sources. For example, in a comparable analysis based upon the same archive, Alison Kay has traced individual female policy holders back to census data to construct a richer picture of these women’s circumstances (3). Yet these caveats aside, Phillips’s handling of this data is compelling.
Phillips appears to be most at home when helping the reader to make sense of the dense and technical material relating to business or legal history. Nonetheless, her section on ‘Representation’, whilst slightly uneven in execution, raises intriguing issues. One of the most interesting chapters investigates the intricate connections between gender, trade, and nationalism. Here Phillips has identified a ‘language of praise available for women in business within patriotic discourses’ (pp. 176–7). Phillips’s illuminating discussion of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, founded in 1754, illustrates how female business initiatives might be rewarded as part of a patriotic project of national progress. The material hints at themes for further investigation. Whilst Phillips emphasizes how that society might champion the national good, some of the women cited actually expressed a counter-discourse of regional identity. A Mrs Croft, for example, claimed that the committee discriminated against Yorkshire women, such as herself, in favour of southerners (pp. 199–200).
In chapter ten the book’s tone and focus shift to consider early-Victorian attitudes towards female milliners and dressmakers. Phillips concentrates largely upon the figure of the emaciated needlewomen. Greater attention to businesswomen per se might have helped to cohere the various themes of the book at this point. Nonetheless, the material raises important questions concerning the processes whereby businesswomen were obscured within contemporary discourses, as public concern came to crystallize around either ‘exploitation or domesticity’ (p. 233). Of course, gender is differently constructed across discrete discursive sites. If the existence of businesswomen was rarely mentioned in government publications and prescriptive works on woman’s position then the same cannot be said of fiction. As any reader of Charles Dickens will know, economically active women were an accepted component of the contemporary imaginary. His novels are bustling with female innkeepers, proprietors of dressmaking establishments (as Phillips does note on p. 168), school-keepers, toymakers, landladies, professional artists, and midwives. Phillips’s arguments therefore prompt further questions as to the uneven nature of representations of female businesswomen. Why were their activities ‘suppressed’ (p. 253) in some contexts, yet acknowledged in others?
In a similar vein Phillips’s discussion of ‘Christian maternalism’ (pp. 250–3)—in which she argues that the responsibilities of female employers were cast within a discourse of maternal care—will also provoke debate. None of the sources cited by her explicitly evoke women’s maternal responsibilities, but rather speak more broadly of Christian imperatives. But would not many men also articulate a Christian duty to care and protect employees and apprentices? Phillips argues for a distinction between ‘the paternalism expected from male factory owners’ and that exhorted of employers in the millinery sector. I would question whether this is simply a matter of gender. Would not the paternalism of a man who owned a factory be differently conceived and articulated to that of a man who owned a small-scale, home-based enterprise assisted by apprentices? Whilst Phillips categorizes the care of employees’ morals as a distinctly feminine construct here, such assumptions had, of course, been a feature of male paternalism for centuries. Early-modern definitions of the family might include the extended household of apprentices and labourers, for whom the male head of the household was expected to assume responsibility. Further elaboration, then, as to the qualitative distinctions between maternalism and paternalism would be helpful. Unless such terms are very precisely employed there is a danger of ascribing to contemporaries more static gender codes than were, in fact, salient. The same might be said at times of Phillips’s handling of the vexed issue of separate spheres. In an insightful discussion of commercial women’s use of advertising, the author concludes that ‘in the language of advertisements the gentlewoman, more commonly associated with the private sphere, was often interchangeable with the businesswoman of the public sphere’ (p. 229). However, ‘gentlewoman’ was a term which could be used to connote social status rather than necessarily implying particularly feminine qualities or behaviours, whilst the location and nature of businesswomen’s activities (which in this study includes such pursuits as midwifery, for example) might often blur any simple dichotomy between public and private. I would venture that there is no need to re-inscribe the language of spheres in this way. The wealth of Phillips’s empirical data speaks for itself and more than adequately problematizes any simple concept of gendered spheres.
Phillips’s case studies provide rich insights into the range and nature of female business enterprise. It is possible that readers new to the field might appreciate a more general overview of the range and nature of female business practice in the book’s introduction. For example, whilst we hear much of needlewomen in the volume there are but few references to school teachers. The establishment of educational enterprises was such a common avenue of income generation for those of the middling sorts that its omission here seems surprising. Equally, Phillips barely mentions the ubiquitous practice of female inn-keeping, nor does she dwell upon those activities whose business activities thrived in the interstices of the domestic and the formal economy—such as landladies, child-minders, and brothel keepers. However, Phillips’s work forms part of a broader historiographical trend. It may well be that she designedly focused upon particular issues, rather than attempting a more comprehensive survey, so as to distinguish her work more clearly from other recent publications in the field—most notably Hannah Barker’s The Business of Women: Female Enterprise and Urban Development in Northern England, 1760–1830 (Oxford, 2006). Overall the eclectic format of Phillips’s work—with its consideration of such a wide range of sources and contexts—makes for a stimulating contribution to this burgeoning literature.
- M. C. Finn, ‘Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760–1860’, Historical Journal, 39 (1996), 707. Back to (1)
- H. Berry, ‘Prudent Luxury: the Metropolitan Tastes of Judith Baker, Durham Gentlewoman’, in Women and Urban Life in Eighteenth-Century England: ‘On the Town’, ed. R. Sweet and P. Lane (Aldershot, 2003), pp. 131–55. Back to (2)
- A. C. Kay, ‘Small Business, Self-Employment and Women’s Work-Life Choices in Nineteenth Century London’, in Origins of the Modern Career, ed. D. Mitch, J. Brown, M. H. D. Van Leeuwen (Aldershot, 2004) pp. 191–206, here at p. 201.Back to (3)
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.