Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney

a completely new and deeply human story, which will radically reshape our understanding of nineteenth century colonial cities, business history, women and gender.
Grace Karskens, University of New South Wales

Minding Her Own Business

Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney

2016 Ashurst Business Literature Prize Winner

A history that populates the streets of colonial Sydney with entrepreneurial businesswomen earning their living in a variety of small – and sometimes surprising – enterprises.


From milliners and dressmakers to ironmongers and booksellers; from publicans and boarding-house keepers to butchers and taxidermists; from school teachers to ginger-beer manufacturers: these women have been hidden in the historical record but were visible to their contemporaries.


There are few memorials to colonial businesswomen, but if you know where to look, you can find many traces of their presence as you wander the streets of Sydney. This book brings the stories of these entrepreneurial women to life, with fascinating details of their successes and failures, their determination and wilfulness, their achievements, their tragedies and the occasional juicy scandal. Until now we have imagined colonial women indoors – as wives and mothers, domestic servants or sometimes prostitutes. This book sets them firmly out in the open. See Catherine's article about the book on the NewSouth Publishing website.


Published by NewSouth Publishing in October 2015. Launched by Professor the Hon. Kristina Keneally, Director of Gender Inclusion, Macquarie Graduate School of Management on 16 October 2015 at Gleebooks. Order the book or find booksellers here.




Catherine's award-winning PhD thesis looked at women who were running small businesses in colonial New South Wales and New Zealand. This research was ground-breaking because it revealed that rather than being merely 'colonial helpmeets', supporting their settler husbands, many colonial women in both Australia and New Zealand were engaged in earning a living. Often this involved starting a small business - as a dressmaker or publican, grocer or theatrical entrepreneur - or inheriting an enterprise from a dead husband - such as an ironmongery, butcher's shop or jewellery business. 


Catherine has published a number of scholarly articles in Australian as well as journals. These can be accessed below. In October 2015 Catherine published a book, Minding Her Own Business, based on the Sydney portion of her research.

Cath and Kristina Keneally
Cath and Kristina Keneally

Cath signs books at book launch
Cath signs books at book launch

©beth howlett 2015
©beth howlett 2015

Cath and Kristina Keneally
Cath and Kristina Keneally


Catherine talks about her research with Michael Schubert: Old Husbands' Tales: Businesswomen in Sydney 1850-1950 on SOUNDMINDS.


Read about one of Sydney's long-lasting female-owned businesses here 


Information about events can be found here.


Bishop, C. (2018) ‘Women in the Australian Economy: Reconceptualising women’s place in the public sphere’,Gendered Excellence in the Social Sciences, http://genderinstitute.anu.edu.au/gess/women-australian-economy-reconceptualising-women’s-place-in-public-sphere

Bishop, C. (2017) ‘The Serendipity of Connectivity: Piecing Together Women’s Lives in the Digital Archive’ Women’s History Review 26:5, 766-780 

Bishop, C. & A. Woollacott (2016) ‘Business and Politics as Women’s Work: the Australian Colonies and the mid-Nineteenth century Women’s Movement’, Journal of Women’s History 28:1: 84-106

‘When Your Money Is Not Your Own: Coverture and Married Women in Business in Colonial New South Wales’, Law and History Review 33:1 (February 2015): 181-200

‘Women on the Move: Gender, Money-making and Mobility in Mid-Nineteenth Century Australasia’, History Australia 11:2 (August 2014): 38-59

‘A Virtual Walk Down Pitt Street in 1858’ in Labour History and Its People: papers from the Twelfth National Labour History Conference, ed. Melanie Nolan, (Canberra: Australian Society for the Study of Labour History & National Centre of Biography, ANU, 2011): 116-143

‘Women of Pitt Street 1858’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011, www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/women_of_pitt_street_1858 

May 15 2017: Interview on ABC Radio Nightlife
April 20 2017: Talking with Narelle Hooper and Peter Switzer on Sky Business News 
April 12 2017: Late Night Live Interview with Phillip Adams Australia's Earliest Businesswomen
April 7 2017: Interview on ABC Radio Sydney Breakfast Breaking Through the Sandstone Ceiling
wahroonga book signing.jpg