Colo­nial women at the coal­face

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

At a re­cent con­fer­ence to mark the 40th an­niver­sary of Anne Sum­mers’ sem­i­nal work of fem­i­nist history Damned Whores and God’s Po­lice, ACTU pres­i­dent Ged Kear­ney lamented that work­ing-class women are still writ­ten out of Aus­tralia’s na­tional story. Ac­cord­ing to Kear­ney, women pull far more of their weight in the work­force than pol­i­cy­mak­ers are pre­pared to ad­mit.

An­other key­note speaker, Mar­ian Baird, pro­fes­sor of em­ploy­ment re­la­tions and di­rec­tor of the Women and Work Re­search Group at the Univer­sity of Sydney Busi­ness School, spoke of the ris­ing trend to­wards ‘‘bread­women’’: wives who are the main, if not sole, in­come earner in the fam­ily. Forty per cent of Amer­i­can house­holds and al­most 25 per cent of Aus­tralian house­holds are now sus­tained by a bread­woman.

Fur­ther­more, ac­cord­ing to Baird, ‘‘mumpreneurs’’ are the fastest-grow­ing group of self-em­ployed work­ers, up 25 per cent in the past decade. Mumpreneurs are choos­ing to man­age their seem­ingly ir­rec­on­cil­able pro­duc­tive and re­pro­duc­tive lives by be­ing their own bosses, reg­u­lat­ing their own work­ing hours and tak­ing con­trol of their own goods and ser­vices.

All of which would come as no sur­prise to his­to­rian Cather­ine Bishop, whose doc­toral the­sis on the com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties of women in 19th­cen­tury Sydney has been pub­lished in a hand­some vol­ume as Mind­ing Her Own Busi­ness: Colo­nial Busi­ness­women in Sydney. Bishop’s in­valu­able re­search demon­strates that the dilem­mas and so­lu­tions of to­day’s work­ing women have a long lin­eage. Bal­anc­ing work and fam­ily, earn­ing a crust, bat­tling struc­tural in­equal­ity and com­bat­ing sex­ual dis­crim­i­na­tion are all chal­lenges that Aus­tralian women have faced be­fore.

As Bishop’s im­pres­sive work shows, that the sto­ries of women who have oc­cu­pied valu­able space in our eco­nomic pub­lic life have been ei­ther for­got­ten or elided is not only un­fair, it also ren­ders our history the poorer. Some of th­ese 19-cen­tury bread­women/mumpreneurs were awesome.

Take Es­ther Bigge, who in 1833 opened the first ladies’ bathing house in Sydney, “hav­ing spot­ted a gap in the mar­ket”. Swim­ming in pub­lic dur­ing daylight hours was out­lawed from 1833 to 1902, but there was no le­gal ob­sta­cle to pri­vate bathing, and no moral im­ped­i­ment so long as the sexes were seg­re­gated. En­ter Es­ther, 57-year-old widow and mother of 16, who went to con­sid­er­able ex­pense to build her fa­cil­i­ties in the Do­main on Wool­loomooloo Bay. Es­ther was proud of the fact she “‘main­tained her­self and a nu­mer­ous fam­ily by her own In­dus­try’”. De­spite her con­vict and Jewish ori­gins, Es­ther’s bathing en­ter­prise was a huge suc­cess and con­tin­ued un­der her man­age­ment for 20 years.

The An­drew ‘‘Boy’’ Charl­ton Pool now oc­cu­pies the site, its nomen­cla­ture ev­i­dence of Bishop’s con­tention that the ac­com­plish­ments of Sydney’s early busi­ness­women have not only been erased by the de­mo­li­tion of phys­i­cal sites but also the wreck­ing ball of ide­ol­ogy.

Male busi­ness­men such as Ebenezer Way of the fa­mous Way & Co in Pitt Street are “memo­ri­alised as founders of re­tail em­pires” while Emily Way, who really ran the busi­ness, “are iden­ti­fied as wives, even when … the hus­band was nei­ther par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant nor longlived”. Women’s obit­u­ar­ies are more likely to eu­lo­gise them as ‘‘widow of …’’ or ‘‘mother of …’’ with­out ref­er­ence to their pub­lic stand­ing and eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties. Bishop cites sev­eral ex­am­ples of con­tem­po­rary mu­se­ums and com­pany his­to­ries that sim­i­larly make no men­tion of the women who in fact built busi­nesses from scratch or stepped in to take the reins when hus­bands ei­ther died or earned a triple-I rat­ing; many of Sydney’s hus­bands, it seems, were “in­com­pe­tent, in­tem­per­ate or in­sol­vent”.

In­di­vid­ual vic­tims of our for­get­ful­ness (or wil­ful blind­ness?) such as Es­ther Bigge and Emily Way stand in for a macro prob­lem with history-writ­ing. Bishop is at pains to doc­u­ment — in metic­u­lous de­tail, de­rived from street and trade di­rec­to­ries, news­pa­pers, and in­sol­vency and pro­bate records — the ex­tra­or­di­nary fact that while we may be sur­prised to learn of women’s pri­macy in the com­mer­cial world, “all of th­ese sources make it abun­dantly clear that there was noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary, let alone shock­ing, about a woman run­ning a busi­ness”.

In­deed women hung out their shin­gle as butch­ers, fruiter­ers, gro­cers, con­fec­tion­ers, publi­cans, mid­wives, phre­nol­o­gists, clair­voy­ants, news­pa­per pro­pri­etors, iron­mon­gers, taxi­der­mists, jew­ellers, plumbers, un­der­tak­ers, to­bac­conists, tripe dressers, sad­dlers, chim­neysweeps, hair­dressers (which in the 19th cen­tury was a male-dom­i­nated trade), and makers of pipes, hats, shoes, combs, tents and mat­tresses. They owned drays, wax­works, mar­ble works, pri­vate schools (ac­tual pri­vate schools, not pub­licly funded ‘‘pri­vate schools’’), the­atres, pubs (more so in Vic­to­ria than NSW, where mar­ried women were pro­hib­ited from get­ting a liquor li­cence) and, in a few in­stances, sig­nif­i­cant property hold­ings.

Mary Ann Bur­dekin, who took over her hus­band’s real es­tate in­ter­ests when he died in 1844, leav­ing her with five chil­dren, was re­mem­bered af­ter her death in 1889 as an “acute woman of busi­ness, and of great acu­men in the man­age­ment of the ex­ten­sive prop­er­ties she con­trolled”. She left an es­tate of more than £300,000, a Gina Rine­hart-sized for­tune.

Bur­dekin is an ex­cep­tion: Bishop re­minds us that al­though sin­gle, mar­ried and wid­owed women ran “an ex­tremely di­verse range of busi­nesses”, their en­ter­prises were not al­ways prof­itable or long-lived. But com­mer­cial suc­cess is not the is­sue. Bishop wants to shift the goal­posts of his­tor­i­cal reck­on­ing. Forget about bust­ing the old ‘‘Aus­tralian leg­end’’ myth: the de­bate about whether Aus­tralians owe more of their val­ues and char­ac­ter­is­tics to the city or the bush. With close at­ten­tion to de­tail that at times bor­ders on the my­opic, Bishop pulls the fo­cus to the gen­dered na­ture of those cre­ation sto­ries.

By im­pli­ca­tion, rather than de­sign, she also shifts the fo­cus from the work­ing-class man as the true Aussie icon to the petty cap­i­tal­ists, the small busi­ness­men (and women), as the real driv­ers of na­tional growth and de­vel­op­ment. Aus­tralia might have rid­den on the sheep’s back, but it was the artists, ar­ti­sans, shop­keep­ers and other ur­ban en­trepreneurs who clothed, housed, fed and en­ter­tained the bur­geon­ing cities. Bishop wants us to be left in no doubt that small busi­ness was the en­gine house of 19th-cen­tury Sydney, and that women were not sim­ply bask­ing in the warm glow of met­ro­pol­i­tan pros­per­ity but stand­ing at the fur­nace, stok­ing the coals.

Bishop’s fo­cus on Sydney might be

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