Abstract: Beyond "Enterprising Women": The Importance of Networks for Female Microentrepreneurs in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany, New York

Susan Ingalls Lewis


This paper will offer evidence on interpersonal networks that supported female microentrepreneurs in Albany, New York, between 1840 and 1885. Based on credit reports for more than 750 businesswomen identified in the R.G. Dun & Co. ledgers for the city of Albany (linked with data from the census and city directories), my discussion will examine patterns of interdependence that dominated the careers—and lives—of mid-nineteenth-century businesswomen. The vast majority of these female proprietors were members of multiple intersecting, interactive, and interdependent networks—networks made up of family, friends, neighbors, suppliers, customers, and creditors, both male and female. Such networks provided labor, managerial expertise, capital investment, commercial space, credit and loans, personal endorsements, goods, and services, ultimately translating into profits. Yet familial, community, and business networks also operated in ways that limited businesswomens's options and success, as when women were tainted by the notoriety of "tricky" relatives, or when credit examiners recommended that female proprietors receive no credit "away from home." After exploring the importance of local networks to female microentrepreneurs, the paper will also consider the contributions of small businesswomen to the multiple networks within which they were ensconced.