Juggling business and family: female entrepreneurs then and now


… by Catherine Bishop

In late September 2015 Kelly O’Dwyer was appointed Minister for Small Business as part of new Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet reshuffle. The appointment of a woman in this position is both significant and appropriate. Recent statistics show that one third of new small businesses are started by women, while a further third are started by men and women together, meaning that women are involved in around 66 per cent of new business start-ups. More generally, women are at least a third of all small business owners. Their significance was recognised by O’Dwyer’s predecessor, Bruce Bilson – the headline of his press release, admittedly on Women’s Day in March 2015, was ‘Women Trailblazing in Small Business’. Bilson’s press release was perhaps not a surprise in 2015 – more surprising is the fact that 150 years ago, in the 1850s and 1860s, women in Australia were also ‘trailblazing in small business’.

businessAs Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney (by Catherine Bishop, publisher, NewSouth books) illustrates, there were numerous women in mid-nineteenth-century Sydney supporting themselves and their families in a variety of small businesses. At this time, between about 1830 and 1870, the dominant rhetoric in society was of female domesticity, with women given responsibility for home and children. They had few political and legal rights, especially once married, and certainly few imagined they should have the vote. Women were of the opinion that marriage and motherhood was their ‘career’ – the prevailing middle-class ideal was of a leisured wife – certainly not one engaged in business.


But financial reality for much of Sydney’s population, most of who were from working-class and trade backgrounds, meant that women’s money-making capacities were as essential to the well-being of families as those of men. And women who did not have a husband or father, or whose husbands were absent, intemperate or insolvent, had no choice but to work to survive, in this age before the dole, pensions or government relief. For women with young children, running a small business, which they could often do from home, was the most realistic solution.

Just like their male counterparts in small business, they were not always successful … or honest. A few small businesses from the nineteenth century survived into the twentieth and some female shopkeepers founded what became some of the great department store empires – although their contribution has generally been forgotten. Just like today small businesses could be shaky and sometimes shonky, and individually they seemed not to be very important. Taken together, however, they contributed considerably to turning Sydney into the city it became. Where would the good citizens of Sydney have been without the boarding house keepers to lodge them, the restaurant owners and publicans and grocers and dairy owners to feed them, the milliners and dressmakers and baby linen makers to clothe them, the schoolmistresses and dancing teachers to educate them, or the entertainers and brothel keepers to amuse them?

Yet the stories of most of these women have been forgotten – few memorials or plaques in Sydney commemorate their existence. A good number of buildings where they plied their various trades survive, but there is almost nothing acknowledging them. Minding Her Own Business gives readers a new way of looking at Sydney’s streets by telling the stories of businesswomen who exploited the burgeoning market of the growing city. As well as dressmakers and schoolteachers and boarding house keepers, there were ironmongers and combmakers and taxidermists; alongside grocers and dealers and publicans, there were butchers and newspaper proprietors and travelling phrenologists. They were some quirky, some courageous, and some tragic types, along with some disreputable and some outright scandalous characters.

We might imagine these nineteenth-century businesswomen have little in common with their tech-savvy twenty-first century counterparts, but it is surprising just how much they share.  One thing in particular sticks out. When the new Minister for Small Business Kelly O’Dwyer posed for the official media photo with Malcolm Turnbull, she held her baby daughter in her arms, underscoring the new wind that has apparently swept through the government. Her dual responsibilities as mother and minister were on display – representing what the previous Minister Bruce Bilson had also noted: that many women ‘juggle family commitments’ while running small businesses. The expectation that women will do the juggling – the apparent acceptance that mothers are ultimately responsible for childcare – was a also feature of mid-nineteenth century life. It seems extraordinary that 150 years later we still do not see fathers as equally responsible for the daily care of their children. When will we ponder how businessmen juggle family responsibilities with business? When will we see male ministers posing with their children?

Introducing Mark Dunn


…the newly elected chair of the PHA NSW & ACT

vcm_s_kf_m160_107x160 What is your current position?

As with so many of our members I am involved in a range of projects. I was privileged to  have been elected Chair of the PHA NSW& ACT at the last annual general meeting and am currently a member of the Heritage Council of NSW, a position I have held for three years. Although the official position of historian was dropped from the Council some years ago, I effectively fill that role by providing a historical voice to the Council.

I have also just completed a PhD in the colonial history of the Hunter Valley at the University of NSW. Having grown up in the Hunter and being descended for convict stock on both sides of the family, it was an interesting project both personally and professionally. It was not a family history but being told as I grew up about our family’s past I thought I had a fair handle on the Hunter. Of course I only knew the basics!

With the PhD behind me I am returning to work as a consulting historian in the heritage industry, while looking for new opportunities to engage with what the PhD has churned up.

What made you pursue a career in history?

I have always had an interest in the past, fostered by my father in particular. Convict ancestors, Dad’s storytelling of growing up in a country town in the 1930s, a stained postcard allegedly recovered from the beach and sent from Gallipoli from a long -dead relative: all these things fascinated me. A couple of great history teachers at school brought it all to the fore. They showed me it wasn’t all just great stories but that history was about analysis and questions that could inform the current state of things.

The career started with a degree and a lucky break. In 1994 as I was really wondering what to do next, The Big Dig started in Cumberland St, The Rocks. It was the largest urban archaeological project in Australia to that time, and remains the most significant. The dig team needed volunteers and so I worked for $10 a day for four months, all the while telling the archaeologists that I could help them with the research for their other projects that needed historical background. Work started to come and eventually I was employed as a full time historian and part-time, back-up archaeologist.

Who is your audience?

The audience for much of my work are archaeologists, architects or planners and eventually the developers or government clients those people are working for. That is the nature of the beast in the heritage industry and does dictate the style of the history they want. The work needs to be succinct, make the point about why something is significant or important and inform the archaeologists or otherwise what they should be thinking about in regard to a building or site. Often the work will end up in the public domain in some form, such as on interpretation panels or more recently, on building site hoardings. It is a challenging form of writing that needs to be engaging in a few short paragraphs, while still conveying the essence of the history of the place.

What is your favourite historical source?

Without doubt my favourite historical source is the Mitchell Library collection. Although I had used it for almost every project I worked on when I was working full time, the opportunity that the PhD afforded me to sink into its endless possibilities was a highlight.

Where would you go if you had a time machine?

Probably The Rocks, circa 1820. I could experience the mix of communities, the convict and emancipist families, the multicultural melting pot that was colonial Sydney and that started me out as a professional historian. I could probably also get a ride on a coastal trader up to Newcastle and check a few details from the thesis while I was there.

Why is history important today?

History becomes more important each year. With significant historical commemorations since Australia’s bicentennial, and particularly now in the middle of the Great War centenary, the past is bandied around by politicians, commentators and commemorators. It is used and abused almost daily and it is our role as historians to provide the analysis and context that transforms the past into history.

[Image: The Rocks from http://www.weekendnotes.com/sydney/the-rocks/walks/]