Teaching New Zealand history may involve a fresh look at women's roles in colonial society.
That's the message from historian Dr Catherine Bishop, whose new book Women Mean Business is challenging long-held assumptions that colonial women were wives, mothers or domestic servants whose place was in the home.
Bishop, who was born in Whanganui and studied initially at Victoria University in Wellington, began postgraduate research in Australia intending to look at women's domestic lives but female entrepreneurs and businesswomen kept popping up.
"There were oodles of them and they were everywhere..."
So, she decided to focus instead on the numerous women who ran businesses, shops, hotels and schools and were butchers, bakers, cordial makers, seamstresses and dressmakers, entertainers, teachers, tour guides and publicans able to sort out the drunkest of male patrons.
Bishop first wrote about Sydney's colonial-era businesswomen in Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney which won the AU$30,000 2016 Ashurst Business Literature Prize. The first book about women to win the prize since it started in 2004, Bishop was also the first historian to win it. Accepting the award, she said she was pleased because it underscored the relevance of history to contemporary concerns and the centrality of women in the business world.
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With folders full of stories and anecdotes about NZ women, Bishop turned her attention to this side of the Tasman and says she was able to do so more easily because of the growing number of resources now online – like Papers Past which has digitised versions of 19th and 20th century NZ newspapers.
She also adopted the "don't assume it's a man" mantra when researching and coming across, for example, advertisements for a tinsmith, plumbing and zinc-working business run by A. Spalding (who turned out to be Anna, who took over the business after husband Alfred died). It often meant matching up various records to find businesswomen, something Bishop describes as akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle, but she was able to include 500 in Women Mean Business.
Bishop points out that most of NZ's famed department stores, including Auckland's Smith & Caughey's, grew out of female-run businesses such as hat and dressmaking.
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"And there's no such thing as a typical businesswoman – they were middle and working class, young and old, Māori and Pākeha; single, married, widowed and sometimes bigamists," says Bishop. "There were such good stories and I would often get side-tracked by the stories of some women who had husbands that ran off or who had left him because he was a complete b****** or who collected more than one husband.
"I was also surprised by their mobility and how much some women moved around. I thought that was just the elites or men but ordinary women moved around a lot. I liked the women who were slightly 'naughty' and pushed boundaries."
She believes businesswomen were sidelined because, until recently, that happened to most women in history, that they are harder to find and pin down in written records and that women's work is often not valued. Bishop also notes that businesses started and run by men tended to be passed down.
It means emphasising the story that the domestic and business spheres were separate and women were in the home as "colonial helpmates" became the accepted narrative.
"But historians are fabulous because we always love to find something new; we're constantly retelling and going back to our sources or finding new ones and that's important to make us think again, challenge our assumptions and add new layers to what we know.
"We were always told a woman's place has traditionally been in the home but, hell's bells, it was everywhere else, too."
Women Mean Business: Colonial businesswomen in New Zealand by Catherine Bishop (Otago University Press, $45) is out now. Catherine Bishop speaks about her book at Highwic House in Newmarket on Saturday, November 9 at 11am.