Breaking Barriers, Thinking Bigger

(Individual abstract for proposed roundtable) My contribution will consider the value of collaboration and embracing a global viewpoint for the analysis of nineteenth-century women’s business history. Despite significant support from the business history community, the study of female entrepreneurs in the United States remains a relatively small field. Research on women in business around the globe has been even more limited, and often dependent on U.S., British, or European models. The collaboration of scholars in an edited volume and associated workshop broke barriers and encouraged unexpected connections. A very wide range of nineteenth-century women’s business activities – from piracy in China, to management in Japan, to philanthropic endeavors in Turkey, to laundering in Mexico, to cookbook authorship in Australia, complicated our definition of business. At the same time, patterns of female proprietorship (particularly shop-keeping) were clearly evident when comparing Europe, North America, and the British Empire. Comparisons across continents and cultures were intriguing, though we realized that we were only taking the first halting steps in what must be a long-term process. Our common experience of being located “on the margins” of business history, as well as the women’s history of our own regions, inspires us to think about broader issues, larger networks, and ways to shape both business and women’s history in the future. I will speculate that the most valuable aspect of this collaboration is less in finding answers than in formulating new, bigger questions. In particular, we must ask: what was the contribution of women owned-and-managed businesses to the economy of the long nineteenth century, and what was the impact of the major economic changes of this period on female proprietors.