Are businessmen from Mars and businesswomen from Venus? An analysis of female business success and failure in Victorian and Edwardian England

by Jennifer Aston (Oxford University)  and Paulo di Martino (University of Birmingham)

The full paper was published on the Economic History Review, accessible here

 

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Fashion in Edwardian England

Do women and men trade in different ways? If so, why? And are men more or less successful than women? These are very important questions not just, or not only, for the academic debate, but also for the policy implications that might emerge, especially in countries such as the UK where, rightly or wrongly, we believe in personal entrepreneurship as one of the main antidotes to unemployment and to the crisis of big business.

In economic history, it has traditionally been argued that women and men traded in similar ways up to the industrial revolution but, since then, women have ben progressively relegated to a “separate sphere” allowed, at most, some engagement with naturally “female” occupations such as textiles or food provision. Although more recent literature has strongly undermined this view, a lot of ground has still to be covered, especially about the period post 1850s.

We approach this debate by starting with a simple question about business “success” across gender: did women happen to fail more likely than men? Thanks to the reconstruction of original data on personal bankruptcy derived from contemporary official publications by the Board of Trade, this research suggests that this was not the case. In fact, depending on how prudently data on the number of female entrepreneurs are looked at, women appear more successful in, at least, keeping their businesses alive.

This finding, however, only paved the way for more questions. In particular, had the narrative of women only dealing with traditional and safe industries and operating in semi-informal businesses been true, what we observe via the lens of official statistics would be just a distorted view. This researched focussed on other primary sources: the reports of about 100 women whose businesses failed around the turn of the century. The findings support the initial hypothesis: although smaller than male counterparts (hence, in fact, riskier), female businesses were not hidden away from the public sphere, the official trading places, or the rules of the formal credit market. So, boarding house keeper Eleanor Bosito and the hotelier Esther Brandon were declared bankrupt and subject to formal proceedings despite having very few creditors who all lived within five miles from the businesses of the two women.  with unsecured debts of about £160 faced bankruptcy as a result of the petition filed by Jane Davis, a widow who lived less than half a mile from Agnes’s home and had lent her the sum of £5. This was the same destiny faced by Elizabeth Goodchild a businesswoman who, contrary to the other cases, operated on a large scale with suppliers and clients from all around Britain and Europe. This evidence reveals that, first of all, small scale trade was thus not necessarily the rule for women and, even when it was the case, it did not coincide with informality or sheltering from the “rules of the game”.

Businesswomen then did not come from, nor traded on, a different planet and certainly did not need the patronising protection of a male-dominated institutional environment. Instead the legal system forged ad hoc rules for married woman, via specific provisions in Bankruptcy Laws which lifted them from any responsibility. These level of defence, similar only to the one available to lunatics and children, proved ineffective. Or, in fact, the perfect background for frauds: in 1899 a spinster who was due to be declared bankrupt got married before the actual beginning of the procedure, thus avoiding any legal consequence (and, hopefully, having found love too).

In conclusion, this research indicates that Victorian and Edwardian businesswomen were perfectly able to trade in a fashion similar to the one of their male counterpart and, if anything, they were more successful. This leads to a basic and probably intuitive policy implication: if we want more women to successfully engage in business, all we have to do is to remove the economic, social, and cultural barriers that limit their access to opportunities.

PRE-REFORMATION ROOTS OF THE PROTESTANT ETHIC: Evidence of a nine centuries old belief in the virtues of hard work stimulating economic growth

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Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500). From Wikimedia Commons <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cistercians&gt;

Max Weber’s well-known conception of the ‘Protestant ethic’ was not uniquely Protestant: according to this research published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, Protestant beliefs in the virtues of hard work and thrift have pre-Reformation roots.

The Order of Cistercians – a Catholic order that spread across Europe 900 years ago – did exactly what the Protestant Reformation is supposed to have done four centuries later: the Order stimulated economic growth by instigating an improved work ethic in local populations.

What’s more, the impact of this work ethic survives today: people living in parts of Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

The researchers begin their analysis with an event that has recently been commemorated in several countries across Europe. Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther allegedly nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and thereby established Protestantism.

Whether the emergence of Protestantism had enduring consequences has long been debated by social scientists. One of the most influential sociologists, Max Weber, famously argued that the Protestant Reformation was instrumental in facilitating the rise of capitalism in Western Europe.

In contrast to Catholicism, Weber said, Protestantism commends the virtues of hard work and thrift. These values, which he referred to as the Protestant ethic, laid the foundation for the eventual rise of modern capitalism.

But was Weber right? The new study suggests that Weber was right in stressing the importance of a cultural appreciation of hard work and thrift, but quite likely wrong in tracing the origins of these values to the Protestant Reformation.

The researchers use a theoretical model to demonstrate how a small group of people with a relatively strong work ethic – the Cistercians – could plausibly have improved the average work ethic of an entire population within the span of 500 years.

The researchers then test the theory statistically using historical county data from England, where the Cistercians arrived in the twelfth century. England is of particular interest as it has high quality historical data and because, centuries later, it became the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution.

The researchers document that English counties with more Cistercian monasteries experienced faster population growth – a leading measure of economic growth in pre-modern times. The data reveal that this is not simply because the monks were good at choosing locations that would have prospered regardless.

The researchers even detect an impact on economic growth centuries after the king closed down all the monasteries and seized their wealth on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, the legacy of the monks cannot simply be the wealth that they left behind.

Instead, the monks seem to have left an imprint on the cultural values of the population. To document this, the researchers combine historical data on the location of Cistercian monasteries with a contemporary dataset on the cultural values of individuals across Europe.

They find that people living in regions in Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago reveal different cultural values than those living in other regions. In particular, these individuals tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

This study is not the first to question Max Weber’s influential hypothesis. While the majority of statistical analyses show that Protestant regions are more prosperous than others, the reason for this may not be the Protestant ethic as emphasised by Weber.

For example, a study by the economists Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessman demonstrates that Protestant regions of Prussia prospered more than others because of the improved schooling that followed from the instructions of Martin Luther, who encouraged Christians to learn to read so that they could study the Bible.

 

‘Pre-Reformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic’ by Thomas Barnebeck Andersen, Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard and Paul Sharp is published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Thomas Barnebeck Andersen and Paul Richard Sharp are at the University of Southern Denmark. Jeanet Sinding Bentzen and Carl-Johan Dalgaard are at the University of Copenhagen.

 

From the LSE blogs – Industrial strategy: some lessons from the past

Industrial strategy is back on the government’s agenda, with a promise to produce a ‘match fit’ economy that ‘works for everyone’ and is able to thrive after Brexit. As yet, however, there is little sign of the promised broadly-based and coherent industrial strategy emerging. In crafting it, explains Hugh Pemberton, its architects may profitably look…

via Industrial strategy: some lessons from the past — British Politics and Policy at LSE