Colonial women at the coalface
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