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The Business of Women- a Book Review Essay

Literature pertaining to entrepreneurial women is very limited. There are numerous books that depict the lives of wage-earning women in Canada; however works on self-employed women are uncommon. The Business of Women- Marriage, Family, and Entrepreneurship in British Columbia, 1901-1951, was written by Melanie Buddle in 2010, under UBC Press. In The Business of Women, Buddle attempts to highlight the key features of entrepreneurial women in the 1900’s in Western Canada, exploring how and why women entered the business world. In this book, Buddle examines case studies and primary documents in order to expose the world of female entrepreneurs. Buddle focuses on issues of gender and class relations that influenced the ability of women to become self-employed.

Although the information presented in this book represent the period of 1901 to 1951, I will attempt to draw connections, through the use of a summary and analysis, between the materials presented in this book to 21st century businesswomen. In the first part of The Business of Women, Buddle addresses reasons why women were more likely to be self-employed in British Columbia. Buddle highlights frontier characteristics that depict why a larger proportion of women in British Columbia were married and were self-employed. In British Columbia, women married in higher proportion, compared to the rest of Canada. Many males arrived in British Columbia in the 1850’s during the gold rush and many men settled in Western Canada in order to work in the logging, fishing, and mining industry. These influxes of male wage-earners lead to an overabundance of men in the province (26). The gender imbalance resulted in women finding it easier to marry, while men found it much more difficult.

Women worked during their marriage when their spouses could not provide sufficient financial support. While women in British Columbia married in higher proportions, there were also a greater number of women who were living without a spouse. Although a woman was living essentially by herself, she would still be listed as married- which contributed to the large number of women who were listed as married. Many of these men left their wives and families to pursue work elsewhere. The absence and even unreliability of a spouse led to some women becoming involved with self-employment.

Many women had to turn to self-employment because wage-earning job opportunities were very limited. In British Columbia, male immigration was high due to the surge in the natural resource sector. In addition, during this period, there were a number of male Asian immigrants who took wage-earning positions. As a result of the scarce number of wage-earning jobs, many women opened their own businesses. The need to support their children was the most important reason why married, widowed, and divorced women ran businesses. Although many women were married, their husbands were either absent, sick, or unable to work. These women were essentially single; they did not have a male breadwinner caring for them and they had the added responsibility of caring for their children.

Family was the key motivation to women’s self-employment. Women who had children to care for had to find a means of supporting themselves that allowed them to stay at home. Many women took up self-employment opportunities such as sewing, doing laundry, boarding, or operating small enterprises from inside their home (55). Working from home was advantageous for many women because they could set their own hours, thus they could be more attentive to their family. The critical difference between women and men entering the workforce, both with families, was that women’s endeavours catered to their family’s interests. Women worked or opened businesses when it was imperative to support their family, but at the same time, their work had to accommodate the tasks they performed at home. Working from home, women had the opportunity to turn their homemaking skills into income-earning jobs or they would turn their homes into their business (46).

Effectively, these women turned their two jobs- one as a mother, the other as an entrepreneur- into one. It is clear that the presence of children affected why and where women worked – which can be seen as an important link between family and entrepreneurship. Age was also an important factor in understanding why women engaged in self-employment. Women who had families and were married were generally more inclined to open businesses. Thus, census data shows that participation of older women in self-employment was much more common, as opposed to young and single women (45). Contrary to expectation, women did not turn to self-employment as a way to break out of gender-socialized roles, rather women worked because they had to. Women, who faced either inadequate or no support from their husbands, had to turn to self-employment in order to support their families. The relationship between marriage, family, age, and entrepreneurship was very distinct in British Columbia during this period.

Buddle also seeks to explore the different careers that female entrepreneurs engaged in. During the period of 1901-1951, an increasing number of women worked in the service, trade and finance, and clerical occupations (55). Most women worked as servants, cooks, waitresses, teachers and nurses, while others turned to self-employment. Even those who were self-employed worked in the service industry (with the exception of dressmaking and related occupations). The relationship between sex segregation and self-employment also played a factor in the kinds of jobs women took. A woman’s femininity could be very advantageous, as she could open a business that played into ideas of femininity and beauty. In this way, sex segregation pushed women to become more successful in their endeavours.

From 1901 to 1951, involvement in six self-employed occupations was consistent among women. These included: farmers, dressmakers and sewers, retail store owners, lodging-house keepers, barbers and hairdressers, and music teachers (55). Although female self-employment in the farming industry was declining during this period, and men usually dominated this area of work, a large number of women were self-employed in this occupation. Women who worked on farms generally did sex-typed jobs, such as cooking, cleaning, overseeing egg and butter production, while men were responsible for the outdoor farm labour (66). Women who farmed alone often grew fruit and cattle. Thus, self-employed females working in this male dominated occupation represented a portion of entrepreneurship that “disproved the notion of a female work culture” (69).

The highest rates of female self-employment in the manufacturing industry belonged to the occupation of dressmakers, seamstresses, and sewers. Dress-making and sewing were sex-typed jobs that were associated with females, however women capitalized on these ideologies. The percentage of women who worked as retail store owners increased over the first half of the twentieth century. Women shopkeepers competed in a male-dominated field – although their stores were sex-typed. Women primarily owned stores such as clothing, dry goods, grocery, and confectionary (71). Lodging-housekeeping was primarily sex-typed as feminine. This was an easy business for a woman to enter because it was run out of the home and required manual labour but little financial investment. In addition, a woman could run a lodging house and look after her children at the same time. As lodging-house keepers, women continued to do the same domestic tasks they had done as unpaid workers, but they were now providing these services to paying lodgers.

Through occupations such as farming and shop-keeping, one is able to deduce that self-employed women and men were not segregated by occupations the same way as wage-earning men and women. When they were self-employed, women had the capability to operate in a male-dominated field and challenge tradition assumptions. In chapter four, Buddle describes the business and professional women’s (BPW) clubs that existed in British Columbia. Buddle focuses primarily on the Victoria and Vancouver BPW clubs and their relationship with the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (CFBPWC) (84). The majority of self-employed women in these clubs were married, widowed, or divorced. The clubs in British Columbia were generally very conservative- they praised conventional roles and societal expectations of women. These clubs were held highly in society and provided members with an opportunity to “assume a public life without too deeply challenging traditional gender roles” (85).

Although on the outside club activities were relatively conservative, on the inside, the club provided members with a facet to release their frustrations towards the inequalities that they dealt with on a daily basis. Away from the public eye, many of the club’s activities displayed parodies of male-dominated business traditions in news articles, mock debates, and mock weddings. The CFBPWC’s main goal was to further the advances that women had made post-war. Not unlike the local clubs, the federation’s primary focus was women and their ethical and behavioural differences from men. The first convention for the CFBPWC was held in Winnipeg in the summer of 1930 and included representatives from clubs in Montreal, Hamilton, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria (93). The formation of the Vancouver BPW Club was in response to the gendered world in which women worked – they sought to create a community in which women could support and encourage one another as they ventured into unknown territories (96).

Between 1920 and 1961, the BPW clubs became much more vocal on employment issues such as wage equity, the rights of married women to work, and the status of domestic workers (96). The rights of married women to work were a constant issue for BPW clubs. In later years, the Victoria club defended its position regarding the rights of married women to work. The club praised women who worked in support of family, while also promoting the interests of women working outside the home for pay. Although the BPW clubs promoted women working, they frequently noted that a woman’s most important role was as a worker within her family. In this light, the BPW clubs seemed unclear about their stance regarding married women’s rights. In one aspect, they stressed that family came first, but in other views, their stance on women’s equality in the workplace was very progressive. BPW club members were aware that gender issues impeded their careers- thus the club’s social activities became a way for the women to vent their frustrations. The club engaged in “mock weddings” in which women would dress up as brides and grooms.

This showed that the women recognized how they were perceived and in a way, embraced it. However, these club activities did not take part in their outside image as a respectable and feminine organization. As a result, while the club had a very serious and focused goal, they were also a recreational club that allowed women to simply have fun. In the final chapter of The Business of Women, Buddle addresses the relationship between gender, class, and business. In the early twentieth century, it was difficult to consider the idea of a self-employed woman because that suggested she was independent, competitive, and aggressive – traits which were not commonly associated with women. However, while entering a masculine world of entrepreneurs, women were able to present themselves as both feminine and businesslike – a characteristic that allowed them to thrive as self-sufficient businesswomen.

To demonstrate that they were respectable, female entrepreneurs emphasized their devotion to fashion and to their families. In this light, women tried to be seen as womanly and feminine, while simultaneously engaging in competitive business. Women took many measures to ensure that they would not be seen as masculine, their appearance seemed to be almost as important as the work they did. For example, Hyman Kessler, a woman who owned a scrap metal dealership, displayed this feature. Kessler would dress very feminine when she was out, always wearing skirts, and she would not smoke in public (although she was a heavy smoker at home). Kessler stated that in her business “you have to think like a man and act like a lady” (134). These comments of acting like a lady are full of class and gender implications. Another example can be seen through Wendy McDonald. Following her husband’s death, McDonald assumed ownership of BC Bearing Engineers (135).

McDonald was generally unknowledgeable regarding this area of business, however she was praised for her ability to juggle a career and raise children. Magazines consistently described her as a progressive woman and noted on multiple occasions that she had modeled in her youth. The media’s focus on her early modelling career, her lack of knowledge, and her children, all reinforce the idea of femininity within businesswomen. Businesswomen during this period sought to represent themselves as different from men, but equally capable. If a woman could prove that she could be as successful as a man, while still behaving in a ladylike manner and while still becoming wives and mothers, “she did not pose a threat to the gender conventions that equated business-like behaviour with masculine behaviour” (136).

The types of business women engaged in were also influenced by gender. It often represented a compromise between societal pressures to remain feminine and the need to make economic decisions. Many women based their career choices on opportunities they thought would be profitable, but they also had to consider society’s expectations of appropriate avenues for entrepreneurial women. Hence, as long as she maintained her femininity and recognized her role as a mother and wife, society would tolerate and even praise a businesswoman. On that note, the following analysis of The Business of Women will highlight key themes, literature excellence, and offer critiques of the book. Through these, the relationship between twentieth century businesswomen and 21st century female entrepreneurs will be demonstrated.

Ultimately, this analysis will elucidate Buddle’s objective in writing The Business of Women and how the concepts apply to the contemporary business world. The primary theme that Buddle addresses in The Business of Women is the relationship between gender roles and entrepreneurship. Throughout the entire book, Buddle seeks to answer the question of why and how women became entrepreneurs. In every explanation and case study, the link between society’s expectations of women and their involvement in business are very prominent. This book highlights the many struggles that women had to face in a male-dominated world. However, it also emphasizes the many successes of businesswomen. In every chapter, Buddle is careful to point out key women who changed the scope of entrepreneurs in British Columbia. From large associations such as BPW clubs to Hyman Kessler, a small shop owner, these stories reflect the determination and achievements of women as entrepreneurs.

Nevertheless, the conclusion that Buddle arrives at, is that although women during this period engaged in relatively successful entrepreneurial endeavours, their participation was limited. Furthermore, Buddle argues that if a woman had the ability to undermine her presence and conform to society’s expectations of a “woman”, she would become successful. This again, goes back to the relationship between gender roles and entrepreneurship. The Business of Women is a very informative book. Buddle effectively utilizes evidence such as photos, quotes, and census data, in order to augment the reader’s understanding. For example, on page thirty, Buddle presents a table depicting the percentages of employed women, with various marital statuses, in British Columbia compared to Canada. Buddle’s research is evidently very thorough; she presents a vast amount of data that supports her idea of female entrepreneurs.

Buddle also does a very good job of presenting the pros and cons in her analysis of the BPW clubs. When Buddle analyzes the BPW clubs that existed, she explains that the club’s basic objective was to promote women’s rights. However, Buddle also argues that the BPW clubs were very conservative and often contradictory when it came to their stance on political and social issues. In this light, Buddle remains objective- which has the effect of further enhancing the reader’s comprehension. Buddle’s main theme throughout the book is the relationship between gender roles and the ability to become self-employed. Buddle is very effective in explaining that although women were given the capacity to become entrepreneurs, their ability to become successful very much relied on their capabilities to conform to society’s expectations. In chapter five, Buddle addresses the link between gender roles and businesswomen. Buddle provides many examples, including Hyman Kessler, Wendy McDonald, and Laurette Grayel (who was the owner of a delivery company).

Buddle mentions that “the womanliness of female entrepreneurs was stressed to such a degree that it seems calculated to negate the very fact of their self-employment” (142). In this way, Buddle effectively analyzes society in the 1900-1950’s and is able to reach a conclusion regarding the capabilities of women to achieve successful self-employment. Another commendable area of this book is Buddle’s choice to maintain an even-tone throughout the book. Buddle avoids utilizing hyperbolized language and does not come across as overassertive in her presentation of the book. It is a fair assumption that Buddle is a feminist. The very fact that she wrote this book signifies that she believes women’s entrepreneurship is an important topic that needs to be further explored. However, at no point in the book does Buddle attack men or society as a whole. Thus, I think she does a good job of not becoming too dogmatic. An area where The Business of Women fails is that it does not make the connection between the data presented in the book, which took place in the twentieth century, to present day society.

Buddle wrote this book in 2010; therefore it seems like a reasonable assumption that the book would contain a chapter or two that would provide the reader with an explanation of the relationship between history and the present. However, the only connection that Buddle offers is in the conclusion, where she talks about today’s “momprenuers”. Buddle states that a connection between history’s self-employed women and today’s mother entrepreneurs can be seen. Buddle also mentions that the difficulties of women of history can be mirrored in the difficulties of women today. However, Buddle fails to further explore this intriguing topic. She chooses to simply leave it to the reader to relate any possible examples or stories from the 21st century. The Business of Women is also very microscopic, with the focus being very narrow. It only offers explanations and conclusions for women in British Columbia.

In the tables and graphs that Buddle presents, she often compares British Columbia statistics to Canada, such as on page twenty-eight and fifty-nine. However, Buddle does not further explore this relationship in her text. Buddle argues that her purpose of having such a specific focus is that it provides the reader with a greater understanding of the specific circumstances of women during this period. While the book is very informative, it represents only a portion of female entrepreneurs in Canada. On one hand, while Buddle is able to present the information regarding women in British Columbia, she does not effectively relate this information to other women in Canada. In this light, Buddle fails, in my opinion, to look at the bigger picture. She focuses extensively on British Columbia, but neglects to offer any in-depth information or connections regarding other women in Canada. Lastly, I found this book to be quite repetitive.

Buddle could have utilized a more concise approach in presenting her information. For instance, in the beginning of chapter two, Buddle states that self-employed women were more likely to be married than wage-earners, and she once again makes the statement later in the chapter. Buddle could have been more succinct in her presentation of the book. Despite the book’s minor flaws, the overall message that Melanie Buddle is trying to achieve is conveyed. Buddle’s main theme throughout the book is the relationship between gender roles and the ability of women to become entrepreneurs. A connection can be made between women of history and of modern day society. Women today are still faced with the pressing issues of how they will financially provide for their families. As a result of limitations and family circumstances, many have had to turn to self-employment. Despite the many progressive advances that women have made, gender roles still exist.

The Business of Women provides a valuable framework for understanding the relationship between gender and entrepreneurs in society today. The characteristics of the twentieth century, which is discussed in this book, such as family needs and sex-typed occupations are still very much in existence today. In fact, common expectations of women and frontier characteristics are still very similar. Therefore, by examining the ways that women recognized their gender roles in the twentieth century through The Business of Women, it provides the reader with significant insight into the 21st century world of entrepreneurs. After reading The Business of Women by Melanie Buddle, I highly recommend that all business students read this book. This book does not present any ground-breaking information; rather, it solidifies what many people already knew. The transition of women into a male-dominated business world was not an easy one, and although the contents of this book occurred over fifty years ago, the same generalizations and assumptions apply to the business world today.

It is proportionately more difficult for a woman to become successful as an entrepreneur, compared to men. Many women are forced to concede to society’s expectations of adequate female self-employment, thus it can be observed that societal changes have not been as dramatic as one would hope. Nevertheless, the prominence of businesswomen has undoubtedly risen. It is now common for a woman to continue to work after she marries, and having a family no longer has to define what a woman does for a living. Women such as Oprah have redefined what it means to be a female entrepreneur. Not unlike the Hyman Kessler’s and Wendy McDonald’s of history, these women have utilized their skills and adaptability in order to build an empire.

In reading The Business of Women, one begins to appreciate the determination and resourcefulness that these women displayed. Thus, it is my recommendation that everyone should read this book, regardless of gender. This book provides an understanding of how the relationship between gender roles and society has shaped entrepreneurs. Surprisingly, I found this book to be quite interesting. Learning of the different careers and clubs that these women participated in definitely inspires me. The women during this period can be looked at with admiration because despite society’s limitations, they were ultimately able to utilize their skills and resourcefulness to become successful.


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