Recognising forgotten British business women

New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage office c.1914, Wikimedia Commons

On 10th June Royal Holloway’s History Department is hosting another ‘Women in History: Wikipedia editing workshop’ for staff and students from 10am to 1pm lead by Prof Kate Cooper and Dr Victoria Leonard, with support from Wikimedia UK. So the Bedford Centre is particularly pleased to welcome this month’s guest blog author. Lizzie Broadbent is a business professional who consults on inclusivity and organizational change, but she also aims to raise the public profile of C19th and C20th women in business through her blog and a project to collect and share their stories. So do read Lizzie’s post below and visit her website for more ideas about women to add to Wikipedia!

‘We continue to see women increasingly well-represented in many spheres of British life but leadership of FTSE-100 companies remains a male bastion. Although a third of FTSE-350 companies are now chaired by women, only 17 of them have women as CEOs. Globally, women still made up only 38% of the applicants to full-time MBA courses in 2018. 1

Historic stories of women succeeding in business remain difficult to find. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes only 89 business women compared to 1,665 men.  Sixteen of the seventeen individuals in London with blue plaques classified under ‘commerce and business’ are men.   Through the project Women Who Meant Business, I am challenging a pervasive public narrative: that in the past women may have worked as domestic servants, mill-workers, secretaries and governesses but they were rarely managers, employers or entrepreneurs in their own right.  Although there is much more historical scholarship which demonstrates the role that women played in business, the general visibility of early business women remains relatively low.

The FT-She 100 is a two-year project to recognise women born in the reign of Queen Victoria who spent at least some of their life running a business in the United Kingdom. While some women are celebrated in their industry or in a local museum, only a handful could be described as household names. When a woman is well-known it is usually not for her business acumen: how many people know that the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll ran a commercial nursery or that or that Emma Cons made the money to acquire the Old Vic Theatre from setting up a chain of coffee shops? It is a two-year project and nearly 90 women have been identified with over 20 women’s stories published so far.

Business records and reports of shareholder meetings give valuable insight into the alliances that were forged around the agenda of women’s economic empowerment. Most of the women can be placed in at least one group with other like-minded women, a club, society or personal network, which often cuts across class and gender lines. Working women actively supported one another, giving each other work or forging useful introductions.

The project covers a wide range of sectors and a time-span encompassing huge shifts in legal rights and social norms for women as well as wider economic and technological progress. So although there are common themes, the individual circumstances and experiences of the women highlighted in this project are all very different as these three short examples show.

If Emma Paterson (1846-1886) is known now it is for founding the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1874 to support the development of women’s unions in skilled professions. However, she also set up and ran the Women’s Printing Society, a business which operated until 1955. Founded in 1876, the directors included: the Christian Socialist vicar, Stewart Headlam, who twenty years later stood bail for Oscar Wilde; Annie Leigh Browne, who co-founded College Hall in 1882, providing women pursuing their academic studies in London with accommodation, and was active in the campaign to get women onto local councils; and Mary Louisa Bruce, niece and biographer of early suffragist Anna Swanwick.

Helen Lenoir (1852-1913) was one of the University of London’s early women graduates, but changed her name from Susan Black in 1876 and took to the stage.  She quickly decided she preferred life behind the scenes and became assistant to D’Oyly Carte, who soon recognised her sharp commercial brain.  She was making international business trips as early as the 1880s and had overall responsibility for all the D’Oyly Carte business interests, including the Savoy Hotel, for over ten years between Richard’s death in 1901 and her own death in 1913.

Laura Annie Willson, The Vote (1926), British Newspaper Archive.

Laura Annie Willson (1875-1942) left school at 13 to work in the Halifax mills.  A militant suffragette, her husband’s factory was converted to make munitions during the First World War and as a result of her expert management of the women’s division, she was asked to advise on operations in other parts of the country.  She and her husband were the last hold-outs against the 1918 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, which sought to reverse employment inroads women made during the war.  She was a founding member of both the Women’s Engineering Society and the Electrical Association for Women and aged 50 embarked on a new career in construction. She built over 500 houses in Yorkshire and Surrey and was the first woman to be accepted as a member of the National Federation of Housebuilders.  

How we think about our history informs the present. The celebrations for the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society in 2019 shone a much-needed light on the achievements of women engineers including Laura Annie. I hope over time the FT-She 100 will do the same for the women across all sectors, as well as giving women working today new role models and fresh inspiration, recognising what has changed and challenging what has not.

If you want to see how this project develops over the next eighteen months, you can sign up for the monthly newsletter via the project homepage and if your research touches on a woman already featured or you think there is someone who should be on the list, please get in touch.’


  1. Women and the Full-Time MBA: Continuing the Push for Progress’ (March 2019) by the Graduate Management Admission Council; accessible at http://www.gmac.com

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