Exploring Economic History

with Palgrave Macmillan

Studying Women in History: Why do we need to rethink their economic activity?

Jennifer Aston, author of Female Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century England: Engagement in the Urban Economy, writes about the importance of documenting women's economic history.

On Monday 13 March 2017 the Institute of Historical Research hosted ‘London’s Women Historians: A Celebration and a Conversation’, an event organised by Laura Carter and Alana Harris from Kings College London, UK. During the half day conference academics of all career stages and ages from professors to postgraduate students discussed the role that gender has played, not just in shaping the development of the profession, but the way that it continues to define expectations and opportunities, particularly for women. Dr Anne Murphy has written a powerful blog post on the ways that we as historians can move forwards and ensure that history is created by men and women working from an equal platform of opportunity and worth. This conference and the subsequent conversations via social media have led me to think carefully about how we think, research and write about women in the past, and what this will mean for women in the future.

My academic research interests are predominately focused on women and their relationship with the economy and legal system as business owners, and the implications and consequences that these relationships had on their social status and the dynamics of family life. When I began researching female business owners in nineteenth-century England as a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham it was a largely unexamined field, with the majority of historians tending to agree that by the mid-1800s, societal pressure was such that women were unable to own and operate firms in the same way. Subsequently, those women who did remain in business would either do so in a semi-private way among family and friends (much like modern day at home selling ‘parties’ organised within friendship groups), or they would accept that business ownership was a stamp of financial hardship that would limit their ability to fulfil the social activities and behaviours denoting middle class status.

Thankfully this position has now been thoroughly challenged and historians including myself, Professor Hannah Barker, Dr Alison C. Kay and Dr Nicola Phillips have all demonstrated that not only did female business owners exist in nineteenth-century Britain, but they did so in significant numbers and often with considerable economic and social success. However, the fact remains that without the research carried out into female business ownership in nineteenth-century Britain, the economic activity of thousands of female business owners would have not only been forgotten, but never included as part of our collective urban history. The female contribution would have been literally wiped from memory.

The UN Women’s campaign for economic empowerment argues that there are huge financial and social benefits associated with encouraging women into the commercial and business world, ensuring that they have access to formal financial institutions and savings mechanisms and increasing the number of years that they spend in education. These benefits are felt at all levels of society from increased national economic growth to the increased spending power of mothers for their children. Studying the historical economic activity of women shows that although there is a long way to go before gender equality will be achieved, the fight takes place against a context of female economic activity going back thousands of years, and most importantly the economic history of the commercial past was not a woman-free domain.


Jennifer Aston’s book Female Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century England: Engagement in the Urban Economy is out now.

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