Date of Award

Winter 1997

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

J William Harris


Between 1890 and 1930, many thousands of women in fields ranging from millinery, corset making and dressmaking trades to medicine, social work, and advertising called themselves "business women." Organizations of business women and publications aimed at them helped create an identity for "business women" that served to acknowledge and inspire such women. Business women saw themselves as serious, ambitious, competitive, economically independent, career-oriented, and successful. They focused on gaining recognition for women's achievements, opening new opportunities for women, and instilling high ethical values into business. These self-defined business women, most of whom were single, looked to like-minded women for economic, social, and professional support. Organizations of business women and publications aimed at them sought to alter public opinion and public policy to favor business women, even as they focused on the business woman's more personal and social needs. These business women dealt with constraints of gender in a variety of ways, ultimately redefining both "womanhood" and "business.".

The sources used to explore the business woman's identity include the 1889-1892 Business Woman's Journal, the 1914-1915 Business Woman's Magazine, career advice literature, novels about business women, and accounts about and records of groups such as the Colored Business Women's Club, the National Council of Business Women's Clubs, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, and the Confederation of Zonta Clubs, along with the Zonta Club of Buffalo, New York, and the Portland, Maine, Business and Professional Women's Club. BPW and Zonta are examined in detail, as are membership data of the two local clubs and the manuscript Fourteenth Census of Population for Portland and Buffalo. The close scrutiny of membership and examination of women's own words about their occupational lives helps uncover the achievements of the business woman, which often have been obscured both by the census and by gendered interpretations of "success." These women faced numerous limits and barriers, but still saw themselves as vital to business and as comparable to business men.