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Feminised skills and invisibility of business women

Women business owners have largely remained invisible in discussion of entrepreneurship during Edwardian England. This is because of two reasons:

  • the location of the businesses, and
  • feminisation of skills

Over 75% of the women entrepreneurs ran their business from home. Hence, the houses they lived in and were enumerated in the 1911 census were also their places of business. This was particularly the case for women running dressmaking business, and running grocery and other shops.

The ideology of domesticity and its relation to female roles extended its reach to what was considered respectable work for a woman in England in 1911. Both waged work and entrepreneurship were seen as masculine. Hence, women who participated in the labour market as workers or business proprietors were already operating out of bounds of the domestic territory. In many ways this was mitigated by certain trades being considered feminine or respectable, either by operating trades that were mainly for women by women such as dressmaking, or by connecting to the feminine domain of the private sphere.

Of the main sectors in which women ran businesses in Edwardian London (as disucssed in the previous post) , laundry and lodginghouse-keeping relied on skills that were used in the household. In a similar fashion, while dressmaking was a skilled job with an apprenticeship, most women were taught basic sewing skills and it was seen as an acceptable pursuit for a woman. Despite the level of skill and craft required, the feminisation of certain skills led to an invisibility of skills of women business owners.

Because of the domesticity assign to the task and skills, and physical location of the business within the the home within the private sphere, women business owners have remained largely invisibile.

This invisibility had made locating female entrepreneurs extremely source dependent, and there are huge variations of how fully what is recorded appropraitely reflects the actual activities of women. The evidence is further complicated by the fact that many women’s business activities took place within the same space as domestic activities, and were often seen as extensions of these household activities. Taking in boarders, for instance, provided additional household income for many women, but not all would have been described as boarding-house keepers. For shop-owners, many shops were in the same building as living spaces, allowing work and domestic functions to interchange depending on whether customers were present or not. Just the reproductive labour undertaken crossed over the confines of domestic territory, but simultaneously the productive labour activities also occupied space within the domestic territory.

The temporality – namely the temporariness of the business is another variable that makes it harder to accurately count women entrepeneures. For instance, some businesses may have been occasional when spouses were unemployed or during slack periods in the male seasonal labour cycle.

Lastly, the invisibility of women in historical records is also a consequence women using less visible channels to advertise their business. Many women advertised their business through trade cards or were listed in trade directories. However, cultural values regarding women and the public sphere forced them to establish and draw on word-of-mouth networks as a way of attracting customers. Unsurprisingly, these informal and undocumented approaches do not survive in the historical record.

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