Businesswomen: Leveraging Domestic Skills for Profit

A remarkable number of 19th century women were entrepreneurs. In the Midwest in 1870, the number of businesswomen was roughly equal to the number of women employed as teachers. Businesswomen were among the most independent of working women: self-employed and self-reliant. However, female entrepreneurs in the 19th century occupied a space outside the prevailing vision of ideal womanhood, removed from the domestic sphere and its associated virtues. As a result, many women entering the business world bridged the gap by pursuing careers that were associated with traditional feminine roles. In addition, some businesswomen catered almost exclusively to a female clientele, participating in a female subculture in which women operated according to their own rules.

Businesswomen found opportunities through an extension of domestic skills, such as cooking and hospitality, and maternal roles, such as healing. It was acceptable for women to manage restaurants, bakeries, and candy shops; they also ran boardinghouses and hotels, sometimes while simultaneously raising children. In medicine, women assumed nurturing roles as nurses, midwives, and doctors. They also found opportunities in emerging fields such as photography, which did not yet have gendered traditions that discouraged their participation.

Sewing was also viewed as a suitable career for women given its ties to the domestic economy and women’s traditional roles. Dressmaking and millinery (designing women’s hats) were by far the most popular business enterprises pursued by women, engaging 75% of businesswomen in the late 19th century. Dressmaking and millinery were creative, skilled, and entrepreneurial work, which commanded relatively high wages. Many women labored in the custom apparel industry; in addition to professional dressmakers who supplied the creative element, an army of sewing girls provided less skilled labor stitching garments. 

Businesswomen in the 19th century faced additional challenges, particularly if they were married. Under coverture law, married women could not own property, control their earnings, or enter into contracts. Despite these restrictions, many still became business owners. Some worked in partnership with their husbands to run businesses, while others sought additional legal rights through the courts and became feme sole. Legislators reformed coverture law as more women entered the public sphere. By the end of the 19th century, most states had granted women more permissive legal rights through the passage of married women’s property acts.