'The secret of my success': women and self-employment in Britain (1970-2000)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


The Secret of My Success will explore the history of women's self-employment between 1970 and 2000. This period aligns with the emergence of 'post feminism' and neoliberalism in Britain, and thus enables us to explore the emergence of an 'entrepreneurial' business culture that shaped wider social and political norms. Through case studies of small-scale franchising, direct sales, and freelancing the project will explore the extent to which developments in women's self-employment at the end of the twentieth century were fundamental to the rise of a precarious, low-paid, and highly gendered gig-economy in the twenty-first century.

The project asks:
1. How did prevailing gender and class hierarchies shape ideas about self-employment and business success?
2. How did entrepreneurial 'success stories' shape women's understanding of their own lives?
3. Why did women choose to 'go it alone' by setting up business ventures, and what was life like when they did?
4. What can social and cultural methodologies add to our understanding of business and self-employment in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain?

The project will address these questions via two research strands. Taken together they represent an interdisciplinary approach to business history that draws on gender studies, business management literature, and cultural history. The first will entail the study of textual and visual archival materials drawn from institutional and company archives. Specifically, the project will focus on two key case studies of business opportunities targeted at women: The Body Shop and Avon. This aspect of the research will be used to identify the messages that women received about the opportunities of self-employment, and how gendered discourses of business ownership changed at the turn of the twenty-first century. The second research strand will consist of an oral history project, which will compare the 'sales pitch' of self-employment found in archival sources with the lived experiences of 15 working-class women who were self-employed in the period 1970-2000. Participants will be recruited nationally, based on their involvement with freelance work, franchising, and direct sales. This work will be completed during the first 12 months of the project and will focus on data collection and analysis.

Months 12-24 of the project will be dedicated to transforming research findings into a series of academic and policy-facing outputs. This will include the creation of an international network of scholars from across the economic humanities interested in aspects of 'life under contemporary capitalism'; a series of PI-coordinated panels at international conferences; and two journal articles that tackle the gendered nature of self-employment and neoliberal reform in twentieth century Britain.

The project's impact work will be completed with the support of an Impact Coordinator, Policy Bristol, and project partners, Feminist Archive South and Black Bark Films (the latter being a women-led company that works with vulnerable groups to bring marginalized voice to the screen). Policy briefings that identify the needs of self-employed and freelance women will be targeted at local policy-makers Bristol City Council and local advocacy groups with a keen interest in generating an inclusive economy as Bristol seeks to rebuild capacity in the aftermath of a global pandemic that has 'exposed and exacerbated...pre-existing inequalities' (Bristol Women's Commission, 2020). Briefings will be accompanied by a documentary film that showcases the diversity of women who have 'gone it alone' over the past 50 years. Their lives will counter the still-pervasive narrative that economic security for women means becoming something akin to an entrepreneurial superwoman. Instead, the project will build alternative visions of self-made success that offer more than an unachievable fairy tale, and which give a voice to women usually excluded from policy debates.


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