The Business of Women: Marriage, Family, and Entrepreneurship in British Columbia, 1901-1951
November 4, 2013
Review By Tina Block
Despite the rich historiography of women and work in Canada, we know very little about the history of female self-employment in this country. Historians have tended to focus on women who worked for wages, overlooking those who ran their own businesses. The historiography of women and work also varies by region: we know far less about women’s working lives in British Columbia than in most other provinces. In her analysis of self-employed women in twentieth-century British Columbia, Melanie Buddle thus offers a welcome addition to the existing historiography of gender, labour, and business in Canada.
The Business of Women is divided into two main sections, the first of which is based primarily on census data. In this section, Buddle traces the intersections between gender, age, class, family status, and self-employment among BC women in the first half of the twentieth century. Using figures from both the published census and a 5 percent sample return prepared by the Canadian Families Project, Buddle challenges many common assumptions about women and business during this era. Self-employed women should be studied on their own terms, Buddle argues, as their characteristics and concerns were distinct from other groups of working women. For instance, census figures reveal that self-employed women were more likely to be older, married, and mothers than were wage-earning women. The significance of regional context is highlighted as women in British Columbia were more likely to choose self-employment, and to remain in the labour force after marriage, than were their counterparts in other provinces. According to Buddle, such distinctions reflect the frontier characteristics of British Columbia, most notably its gender imbalance and masculine character. Buddle bases the second half of her study mainly on the records of the first two business and professional women’s (BPW) clubs formed in British Columbia. Despite their respectable public image, BPW clubs functioned as spaces for women to negotiate, and occasionally contest, the gender inequities of the male-defined business world. Self-employed women challenged gender norms by their very presence in the masculine world of business. Nonetheless, they, along with the wider cultural media, sought to assuage public fears about women in business by highlighting the womanliness of female entrepreneurs.
The Business of Women fills a major gap in BC history, and, through comparative analyses, demonstrates that place matters to Canadian history. It provides a much needed corrective to business history, which has tended to overlook gender, and to women’s history, which has tended to overlook the specific experiences of self-employment. Gender shaped the lives of all working women, but, as Buddle convincingly argues, it worked in distinct ways for those who were self-employed. While acknowledging that family was central to women’s decisions around self-employment, Buddle very firmly situates women’s entrepreneurial work within the business world. In so doing, she challenges the ingrained view of women’s self-employment as primarily an extension of homemaking. Buddle’s work makes a significant contribution to the historiography of gender, labour, and business in Canada. The second half of her study is, however, somewhat limited in its focus on the relatively privileged BPW club members. Her work would be enriched by greater attention to how working-class and marginalized women encountered and negotiated the masculine world of business. It would also be enhanced by further analysis of how race, and particularly race privilege, determined the options and experiences of self-employed women. Despite such limitations, Buddle offers rich insights into the characteristics of female self-employment during this period and lays the groundwork for future explorations of gender and business in Canada.
Buddle demonstrates that self-employed women were part of the business world and that their history was distinct from that of wage-earning women. She reveals that female entrepreneurs at once challenged, and conformed to, prevailing gender norms. She also shows that businesswomen in British Columbia were in some ways unique and that region matters to our understanding of Canadian history. This important book is thus recommended reading for those interested in the history of gender, labour, business, and British Columbia.
By Melanie Buddle
Vancouver: UBC Press 2010. 224 pp. $32.95 paper