Petites Bourgeoises and Penny Capitalists: Women in Retail in the Lille Area during the Nineteenth Century

With few exceptions, historians have argued that in the nineteenth century women were excluded from most retail activities. In Europe women became increasingly concentrated in small-scale, undercapitalized, and short-lived stores. The “separate sphere” ideology in its different guises underlay this evolution. In North America, on the other hand, women capitalized on this ideology to carve a niche for themselves in trade and retailing. Women were not marginalized or segregated everywhere in Europe, however. In northern France the expansion of retail trade and overall improvements in standards of living provided women, especially married ones, with opportunities they were not reluctant to grasp. Though the activities of married women remained subordinated to the needs of their families, female retailers were neither particularly impoverished nor segregated in sectors deemed appropriate for persons of their sex.