Redefining Women's Work: Female Entrepreneurs on the South Side of Indianapolis, 1880-1920
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Research on the roles of women in the past commonly focuses on either the
demure or the radical. This study of female entrepreneurs shows an area in which women
occupied a more central position in their communities. Female entrepreneurs were able to
possess a certain degree of independence without being viewed, or viewing themselves,
as rebellious. This thesis focuses exclusively on the women who owned businesses on a
two-block length of one street, South Meridian, in Indianapolis, over a forty-year period.
Even with this limited focus, there is substantial variation in the motivations of the
women. Some entered in to business with the support of their wealthy families, while
others were obligated to work to support their families.
The stories of these women can be revealed through their presence in official documents, city directories, and newspapers of the time. In addition to the individual stories of female entrepreneurs, these sources provide information about who the businesswomen of the time were as a group. The majority were born in the United States and among that group most were born in the state of Indiana. The most common businesses owned by women were millinery shops, dress shops, and boarding houses. Other demographic characteristics, such as age, marital status, and time in business, do not form a pattern across the group. These sources also show how women compared to men who were in business in the same location over the same period.
Most of the female entrepreneurs of the South Side of Indianapolis around the turn of the century worked in fields that could fit under the heading of “women’s work,” but this categorization ignores the intricacies of their positions as business people. These women were not solely providing a service or producing a good, similar to what they would be expected to do in the home as wives, mothers, or daughters. They were also responsible for the other aspects of business ownership, including finding and maintaining premises, purchasing products and materials, and managing finances. It is these details that, for example, set apart the owner of a dress shop from a woman making clothes for her family.