500 years of businesswomen

Royal and aristocratic women often wielded considerable power as mothers and widows. It is curious how other women, formally unable to own or control assets in their own right, did often inherit their late husband’s stake in the wider world, and run it. They had other routes to control as well.

One of my favourite historical women is the mid-15th Century aristocrat, Lady Margaret Beaufort, one of the birth-founders (a “matriarch”) of the Tudor dynasty. She was several charismatic things, and one feature in her CV is both undramatic and telling. In retirement from large state affairs, she took a lively interest in drainage schemes on her Lincolnshire fenland country estates.  It is in keeping with her long-standing and rare status as a “femme sole”: one who was free to run her own affairs and landholdings even though her husband was still alive.

Historical women as practical farmers and land managers is a great theme, and under-represented (at least in my reading, until recently). The fictional biographer Anya Seton in 1954 wrote a very moving account of Margaret Beaufort’s grandmother, Katherine Swynford, the 14th Century mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, and a great shaker and mover. As a boy I fell in love romantically with that book, Katherine.

Seton went on, in 1958, to write The Winthrop Woman. It charted the rebellious life of an early 16th Century lower-gentry girl raised in Suffolk and London. Elizabeth understood business because she was an apothecary’s daughter, and was raised in the trade. As a young women she was steeped in the life of East Anglian estates but also, very dramatically, as a married woman (several times over) she had various false starts as a farmer and landowner in New England. It is clear, I think, that she was capable of being very hands-on in management. She was also independent of mind: Seton makes a strong case that Elizabeth showed considerable courage in standing up to the Puritanism of her family and community throughout her life.  Seton makes clear that the historical record shows other women of similar boldness, which we would now call transgressive.

A little later in the Europeanisation of North America, I have recently met online the fine diaries of Mrs Elizabeth Smith (later Geer), a pioneer wagon-train settler in Oregon in the mid 19th Century. Beyond her tenacity and courage, it is very striking how she conceived of the drive westward as a matter of adventure more than mere necessity. After all, the settlers passed through and eschewed plenty of promising land much nearer their eastern starting points. She writes, by the way, as an informed observer of the whole business of her wagon train, for all that she was mightily occupied with domestic matters. She was probably not unique or even rare in picking up the reins of western farmsteading, and for all I know larger landowning, on her own as a widow.

Women who were colonialists in their own right are a fascinating rarity. That’s sufficient reason to enjoy the life of Karen Blixen, a coffee farmer near Nairobi for several mostly very difficult early 20th Century years. Like Elspeth Huxley, though with more skin in the game and a rather narrower perspective, Blixen was passionately interested in the problem of being a white farmer (not least on her own) in Kenya. Blixen grew coffee partly because her husband couldn’t quite be bothered to. Along the way, she had a great romance with Denys Finch Hatton – but we should not forget the farmer in the midst of the sight of a great heart being broken again and again. Nor should we forget the commercial success she enjoyed as a writer. In this she joins other heroines of the period such as Mary Borden and Edith Wharton (both of whom founded ambulence units in WW1) . 

All in all, it might be a good idea if discussion of historical womanhood spent less time noting how oppressed women were and more time celebrating the achievements of those women who were allowed or made to become independent-minded business people.      

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Publication date

19 May 2019